Changes in Rec Department Bring Cry of Racism

Changes in Rec Department Bring Cry of Racism

The Alexandria City Public School system is composed of nearly 70 percent ethnic minority students. The recreation department staff is 57-percent minority. Why then are there charges of racism within the department?

Hiring trends for the past several years show that the department has remained a majority minority employer. Promotions and lateral transfers have also been consistently even. And yet, a recent “job swap” between two employees has caused an outcry in some circles.

The supervisor of the city’s youth sports programs was transferred to the Cora Kelly Recreation Center to be that facility’s director, and the director of the Cora Kelly Recreation Center was transferred into the youth sports position. The former youth sports supervisor is African-American, and the former director of the Cora Kelly Recreation Center is American Indian/white. While the job titles are different, the job classifications are the same, as is the salary.

“It is good for the department and for staff to move them into different positions from time to time,” said Sandra Whitmore, the director of the department of parks recreation and cultural activities. “This gives staff an opportunity to learn different jobs throughout the department and will improve the opportunities for upward mobility.”

The youth sports supervisor is responsible for overseeing one full-time employee and one part-time employee and for giving general guidance to volunteer coaches in several sports. The Alexandria Soccer Association manages soccer; football is now managed separately, and lacrosse is managed similarly outside the scope of youth sports. The youth sports supervisor is responsible for recruiting coaches for basketball and for softball. Baseball is also a separate organization.

THE DIRECTOR of the Cora Kelly Recreation Center is responsible for supervising five full-time employees and many part-time and seasonal employees. In addition, the director has a great deal of autonomy in designing programs to meet the needs of the population that the recreation center serves. The budget the center director oversees is also significantly larger than that overseen by the youth sports supervisor.

“I think that the real issue here is the history,” said A. Melvin Miller, the chairman of the T.C. Williams Athletic Advisory Committee. “There are many people in the community who still remember when there were two sets of recreation centers in Alexandria – one for African-Americans and one for whites. When the two merged, there were promises that everyone would be treated equally – the kids and the staff. And yet there are no minority staff members in key decision-making roles in the department.”

How do members of City Council feel about the allegations of racism? “First of all, I attended one of the community meetings at which this issue was discussed but was unable to attend the second meeting,” said Councilman William D. Euille. “I do not believe that it is appropriate to discuss personnel issues in a public forum. There are laws that prohibit such discussions. The community has a right to question general issues of discrimination, certainly, but not specific personnel actions. There seem to have been some communication problems in the way that these two individuals were transferred, and that needs to be addressed, but beyond that, the discussion needs to remain general, and everyone needs to look at the department as a whole.”

MILLER AGREED about the personnel issue. “We really shouldn’t be discussing individual personnel issues,” he said. “But we should be looking at programming and determining whether that programming is meeting the needs of kids in specific neighborhoods. The community is also going to be looking at who’s making those decisions, and that person or those people are going to have to earn the community’s trust.”

Dana Lawhorne, a volunteer coach, doesn’t see racism in this particular staffing decision or generally within the department. “As far as I can tell, this particular decision was supported by people across socioeconomic and racial groups,” he said. “I think it will be good for Cora Kelly and for youth sports.”

The director, the two deputy directors, and the division chief who is responsible for administration are white. The special assistant to the director and the division chief who is responsible for overseeing all of the recreation centers and youth sports are African-American. Nearly all of the center directors are African-American, the notable exception being the director at Chinquapin, who is white.

Nonetheless, Miller sees a “steel ceiling” for minorities. “A lot of it really is perception,” he said. “You could be doing exactly the right thing, but until people in the community trust that their particular needs are being represented, there is going to be a problem. We need to find a way to make sure that the staff at all levels is representative of the children we serve.”

ONE WAY TO do that, Whitmore believes, is through training. “We are moving forward with getting the department accredited, and part of that accreditation process is getting the staff certified,” she said. “Certification should not be any kind of a threatening process but should be seen as an opportunity to learn, improve skills and make the department better. For most of the staff, certification is not mandatory, but it is something that we are encouraging.”

Whitmore said that the department is offering some training but plans to offer more. “Certainly we have the mandatory first-aid and CPR trainings and require that playground supervisors be certified,” she said. “Beyond that, we have offered training in crisis prevention this year and have sent a number of staff to national and regional conferences.” Approximately 30 of the staff will attend a statewide conference on recreation issues later this fall.

“We are always looking for training for the staff and certainly hope to offer more opportunities,” Whitmore said.

As for accreditation, that is proceeding. The department will be evaluated on 155 different criteria. “We have been working on this for quite some time and hope to have a team of evaluators in next spring,” Whitmore said. “Accreditation is good for the department, good for the children we serve and good for the city. We spend a great deal of money each year to provide services to the community. Accreditation will give the community and the city leaders a sense that the department is accountable and that the money is being spent as it was intended.”