Andy Mannix, Zoe Jackson
Tribune of the Stars
MINNEAPOLIS — Two weeks after issuing a public letter renewing its pledge to be “intentional in addressing systemic racism,” the leadership of Hennepin Healthcare, the Twin Cities’ largest safety-net hospital system, is facing internal unrest over photographs showing two employees dressed in blackface reconcile.
The photos show two white paramedics, including an EMS deputy chief, wearing brown makeup. One shows three people dressed as the 1960s vocal trio, the Supremes. Another shows two people dressed as R&B duo Milli Vanilli, with dreadlock-style wigs and dark makeup.
The photos, obtained by the Star Tribune, are undated but resurfaced two weeks ago when a member of the public passed them on to Hennepin Healthcare management.
In interviews with the Star Tribune, employees described the moment as a test of whether leaders will follow through on their pledge to respond to what some have described as the latest in a series of racially insensitive events for a hospital system whose mission is to serve Minnesota’s most diverse people. and vulnerable communities. Others lamented that the lack of action after two weeks is proof of the immobility of the status quo.
“The feeling is there’s a lot of talk without action about wanting to change,” said a Hennepin Healthcare employee, one of many who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing professional retaliation. “When the test comes to prove that they’re going to change, or they’re going in that direction, they don’t do anything. It falls flat. It’s a bummer. … It’s just awful. But it’s not not a shock either.”
A colleague echoed the sentiment: “I feel like at Hennepin it’s been going on for so long, it’s a damn part of the training.”
Last weekend, a group of 11 doctors from hospital departments released a letter asking leaders to keep their promises to put in place an “anti-racism framework” and usher in a new era.
“We are concerned that photos have recently surfaced of white leaders in [Hennepin Healthcare System] attending an event in blackface,” the letter read. “While all employees are rightfully entitled to due process, we sign this letter affirming that racist cartoons must not be tolerated by our institution.”
The management of Hennepin Healthcare declined a request for an interview. “Due to an ongoing investigation, we are unable to comment on specifics, but let us be clear that we take this very seriously and our next steps will be determined by the results of the investigation,” the doorman said. -says Thomas Hayes in an email.
The union that represents Hennepin Healthcare EMS also condemned the photos this week, calling on hospital and EMS leaders to create new anti-racism and trauma training, diversify a predominantly white, male paramedic system, and post a ” acknowledgment and unreserved apologies for this”. incident.”
“These types of racist displays are completely unacceptable,” reads the letter, signed by the Board of Directors of the Hennepin County Paramedics and EMTs Association. “It doesn’t matter if it happened 10 days ago or 10 years ago, it’s wrong.”
Last incident in a model
The photos, featuring EMS deputy chief Amber Brown and a current and former paramedic, arrived in the inboxes of Hennepin Healthcare executives on February 15.
The email said one of the images was taken at a Hennepin EMS event. “These are the kind of people on your payroll,” the email said. “Now imagine the conversations happening around the clock.”
The email said EMS management was aware of the photos, noting that another EMS Deputy Chief, Mike LeVake, had “liked” one of the images on Facebook. And Brown is in a leadership role “for God’s sake,” the post says.
The photos “wouldn’t help Hennepin’s already stained image,” the sender concluded.
Brown, LeVake and the paramedic did not respond to requests for comment.
The hospital system was already managing a crisis. The morning they received the email, members of Hennepin’s management appeared in a Star Tribune article apologizing for another employee and promising to fight internal racism.
Days earlier, the Star Tribune reported that a Hennepin doctor was training Minneapolis police on a severe form of agitation known as “excited delirium.” The controversy stemmed from Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who said he ordered his staff to stop training on the syndrome in 2021, after the nation’s largest medical professional association condemned the diagnosis as a Overly broad “manifestation of systemic racism”, often misused to justify police brutality against black men.
The Star Tribune found that Dr. Paul Nystrom of Hennepin Healthcare, who is also a part-time police officer, was still teaching excited delirium as part of Minneapolis police training, in defiance of the new directive. Frey said he was “furious” to learn of the actions of a “rogue doctor”.
“Systemic racism runs deep in law enforcement and healthcare systems, including our own,” read a letter signed by Hennepin Healthcare CEO Jennifer DeCubellis, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Daniel Hoody, and Director of Health Equity, Dr. Nneka Sederstrom, on February 14. “We failed to talk about it here when we had the chance and in doing so we caused more pain and distrust.”
Located on the east side of downtown, Hennepin Healthcare and its flagship hospital, HCMC, primarily serve people of color. In 2018, 34% of patients were black, 19% were Hispanic/Latino and 38% were white, according to the hospital’s 2020-2022 Community Health Needs Assessment study.
Hospital workers say it’s just the latest in a string of incidents in recent years that have heightened racial tensions among staff.
Last summer, an employee brought in a box of items destined for Goodwill that included statues of bears in Civil War-era military uniforms, one holding a Confederate flag. Someone displayed the Confederate bear prominently in a hospital rest room window, despite complaints from black staff.
“They thought it was cute and funny,” said an employee who witnessed the incident of their colleague who displayed the statues.
Staff members posted a photo of the Confederate bear on social media as evidence of a cropping issue, and at least one black employee was discharged from hospital following the incident.
“Hennepin County is a mess right now,” the hospital worker said.
In another incident, a white employee tore up a “Justice for Daunte Wright” poster that hung in an office space shared by black employees, according to multiple sources familiar with the incident.
Farji Shaheer, co-founder of Next Step, a Hennepin Healthcare program that works with young victims of violence, said a member of the community gave him the poster shortly after the Brooklyn police officer Center, Kimberly Potter, shot the 19-year-old black man during a traffic stop in 2021.
“One day I came to work and the poster was gone,” Shaheer said.
“I never knew why,” he said. “I wasn’t interested. To me, it was a clear case. You’re not allowed to enter other people’s spaces and take something.”
Shaheer said the employee who destroyed the poster still works at the hospital and is not aware of any penalties.
If a black employee had destroyed a white worker’s property, “he would have been fired instantly,” said a colleague with knowledge of the incident.
“To date, there has been no public apology,” the colleague said.
A deep culture
The hospital has taken steps to address these issues.
A year ago, he hired Sederstrom, the first-ever chief equity officer, to help close the gap on racial disparities in health care.
Hennepin’s letter released detailed plans two weeks ago for revised training that demonstrates a commitment to anti-racism, to modify or terminate their medical leadership contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, an advanced internal training on systemic racism and to communicate these plans to the community.
Still, some say the racial calculus of police and race in Minneapolis has only exacerbated these problems in the hospital system.
In an interview this week, a black employee said she had endured listening to her white colleagues make jokes at the expense of George Floyd for the past two years.
After Floyd’s murder, employees of Hennepin Healthcare accessed the man’s private medical records on several dates without permission. Lawyers for the family called the violation further victimization.
“Even after his death, he was abused and mistreated by the system. It’s shameful,” read a September 2020 statement from the lawyers.
In the months after Floyd was reported dead to HCMC, an employee complained that a colleague was wearing a Black Lives Matter logo, said a worker of color who witnessed the incident.
Employees would like to see hospital management be more proactive against racism, the person said. “I would like to see that when there are situations or circumstances that challenge racism or a lack of racial equity, the organization loudly prioritizes it and acts on it in a way that advances the cause. racial equity in our institution.”