County Manager Takes Temporary Leave Of Absence 3 Days After Presenting Proposal
By Eliot Duke
Dunn Daily Record
Harnett County’s proposed diversity, equity and inclusion training for its employees drew mixed reviews Monday night.
County Manager Paula Stewart, last week, announced a mandatory training lecture scheduled for June 16 she described as “an introduction to race and racial reconciliation.” Over the past several months, Stewart said she started working with Kittrane Sanders, an extension agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Lillington, to develop an action plan based on public concerns regarding racial inequities in the county.
“We all got together and felt like the first step would be training our own workforce in diversity, equity and inclusion,” Stewart said. “It will be mandatory for all county employees.”
Dr. Kari-Claudia Allen is scheduled to present the initial lecture, set to be followed by an employee survey. Stewart said Allen will analyze the results and share them with county leadership. Stewart scheduled another lecture for later in the summer called “Bias, Racial Justice and Communities.” An ensuing immersion session plans to include information related to cultural experiences of Black Americans, LatinX and Asian American peoples, Stewart said.
Sanders told commissioners she planned to get the information out to the public through face-to-face dialog circles dealing with racism, why inequities exist, and “our unequal nation.”
“Racism affects every community and every person’s quality of life,” said Sanders. “It shows up in inequities between groups and in tensions among people from different ethnic backgrounds. In order to have a healthy community and strong country, we have to face racism head on.”
A handful of county residents showed up to oppose what they referred to as a form of “critical race theory.” Many compared the training to Marxism and said such initiatives do more to divide people than unite them.
Fuquay-Varina resident Margaret Mueller said most people support inclusion and diversity, but the core principles of critical race theory revolve around taking from one group and giving to another.
“So now an enemy has to be created in order to take from them,” Mueller said. “Enter systemic racism, meaning White people were and are the source of all problems within our county and country. If we expose our county employees to this ideology, then division, destruction and hatred enter their collective consciousness and the taking from becomes very easy. I strongly urge the board to investigate and stop the diversity, equity and inclusion training for county employees.”
Gina Damaris echoed similar concerns, saying the implementation of critical race theory training is “initiating a Marxist transformation of our country.”
“The CRT ideology is self-destructive to our community,” said Damaris. “It divides people into groups based on their skin color, gender and sexuality, and then places blame on certain groups based solely on these traits. This ideology is not only wrong but dangerous. Telling any person they are intrinsically oppressor or oppressed because of their immutable traits is itself what CRT claims to oppose: racist and sexist.”
Rose Teniente, a frequent speaker at commissioner meetings, applauded the efforts taken by the county to address such issues.
“I heard a lot just now,” Teniente said after listening to several speakers in front of her who opposed the training. “I had a lot of time to hear some input from some individuals who are afraid and concerned. If we can improve equity, everyone benefits. Racism is killing people. It is a public health crisis. Myself and others in the community are 100% behind any and all efforts you are taking to dismantle inequities in the county including trainings you are able to come up with.”
Commissioner Barbara McKoy welcomed the training and said its implementation is not indicative of the county or its people.
“I want to say that these seminars are happening in every county in North Carolina and all over the country,” said McKoy. “Let me say to the audience as well as to the commissioners, this does not mean in any way that Harnett County is not meeting up to the standards we should meet up to.”
Stewart took a temporary leave of absence three days after submitting her proposal to commissioners, leaving her job unexpectedly more than six weeks before her scheduled retirement at the end of June. She was not present at Monday night’s meeting and at least one supporter noticed.
“Where is Paula Stewart?” Bunnlevel resident Elizabeth Crudup asked. “The citizens of this county deserve that because she has dedicated her life to this county. Paula was there and was pulling us out of the stone ages and now she’s not. You have to do the racial equity commission. At this point, it’s to the point of no choice. We have to take to the streets, we have to have a war, a fight what? The citizens are telling you we are confused about our racial issues. Your next item should be how to form a racial equity commission.”
Commissioners took no definitive action on the training and did not hold a vote on the initiative Monday night.