Internal strife threatens work of low-income housing group

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In April, Family & Children Services (FCS), a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis, lost an important member of the their Jobs and Affordable Housing Coalition program (JAHC) when Ana Lavold, a Latina community worker, stopped working for the program. However, the circumstances behind the situation have raised many questions both for Lavold and the Latino community which she served.

Starting in early 2004, Ana Lavold began to volunteer at FCS, and began to gain a good reputation with the community. She initiated a project to improve housing conditions for several Latino families who lived in unhealthy conditions in several South Minneapolis buildings. The project was mainly directed against Spiros Zorbalas, an apartment building owner, and resulted in the revocation of several of his licenses as well as in the public recognition of the project, of Lavold herself, and of Family and Children Services.

Lavold’s work received a positive evaluation from the director of the JAHC program, Jennifer Blevins. Blevins wrote in the 2005 evaluation, “Ana is an exceptional Community Organizer. She began assisting staff as a volunteer and then was hired due to her high skill level. She is very good at conducting outreach, building relationships, being disciplined in the use of 1-1 interviews and surfacing community concerns. She [is] highly accountable and committed to her work.”

However, in an unexpected turn, on April 28, renters and members of the UPi project – the name Lavold’s project was given – received bad news. Ana Lavold no longer worked for FCS.

The circumstances under which this occurred, are confusing, at best. According to Lavold, the organization fired her. Lavod says that day, she found that access to her computer had been blocked. However, FCS says hat she resigned voluntarily.

According to Lavold, there was no interpreter present during the meeting. “I can understand some English, but I can’t express myself,” she says. In most cases, the letters and e-mails she received and sent had to be translated by others in the office.

After her departure, Lavold openly accused Blevins and the organization of racism. As a result, FCS initiated an investigation that began in May. (Lavold says they only interviewed her and some other employees when investigating the case. The other parties involved, Blevins and Lavold’s supervisor, Jeff Bartleson, were out of the office; Blevins at a conference and Bartleson on vacation.)

That same month, Lavold received a letter communicating the terms of the conclusion of her contract. Soon after, she also received a letter in which FCS determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to support her accusation. In subsequent meetings with Blevins and members of the management of the organization, Lavold says that she could not get a straight answer. “Whenever I ask them, whether I am still an FCS employee, they are evasive.”

One such example was a meeting held on May 1 between Blevins, John Till, vice-president of FCS, and a group of renters at FCS main offices in Minneapolis. The renters requested an explanation as to Lavold’s situation through an interpreter provided by FCS. One of them, a community leader who had worked on the project with Lavold, said that the FCS representatives contradicted themselves continuously.

“We asked if Ana [Lavold] no longer worked there and Jennifer [Blevins] answered that Ana continued working there, that she had not resigned. John Till said that they were not firing Ana.”

Gregoria Soriano, another community leader present at the meeting, agrees, “They contradicted each other, saying that she was no longer working, but saying she hadn’t been fired. They didn’t want to give us a specific answer.”

According to Soriano, Blevins assured them that they were dealing with the situation and that conversations would continue.

The neighbors, in front of Blevins and Till, asked Lavold if she had resigned. According to Soriano, amid tears, Lavold said clearly that she had not resigned. Lavold says that she asked them, “why they had taken my cell phone and keys away and why access to my computer was blocked. They didn’t respond.” Lavold says that at one point, both Blevins and Till got up and walked out of the meeting and did not want to speak with them anymore.

Family and Children Services as well as their employees mentioned in this article declined to comment on the case. Annae Lewis, director of communications for FCS, argued that according to law, they cannot speak regarding an internal personnel case and must maintain confidentiality in labor disputes.

However, in an official FCS letter dated May 8 signed by manager of Human Resources, Marit Gladem, who investigated the case, wrote to Lavold: “You tendered your voluntary resignation verbally to your supervisor Jennifer Blevins in a meeting with her on April 28, 2006, which was accepted at that time.”

For Guy Gumbill, member of the Continuum-of-Care organization (CoC) of Hennepin County and a community activist who is familiar with the case, there is one key piece of information to consider, “Ana Lavold does not speak English and Blevins does not speak Spanish. The question is, how could Ana tell Blevins she wanted to resign if there was no interpreter present at the meeting?”

Undeserved merit
According to Lavold, when the UPi project began to receive recognition, there was a shift at FCS which she did not see as being right. “I did all the ground work. I was the one that was up until 11 at night many days knocking on the doors and speaking with the families.” But rather than receiving recognition for her work, credit was given to her co-worker and supervisor, Jeff Bartleson.

“Jeff [Bartleson] took all the credit and made all the public appearances, he took credit for things that he had not even done. Whenever Jeff came, he had his eye on the clock, when 5 o’clock came, he was out the door,” says Lavold. (La Prensa de Minnesota attempted to contact Bartleson, but he declined to make any comments)

“Jeff does not know any of the leaders in the [apartment] buildings,” says one of the UPi leaders. “I asked them all and practically no one knew who Jeff Batleson was. But they all knew Ana [Lavold].”

Oscar Dominguez, another one of the renters, and president of a nonprofit called Inquilinos in Action (Renters in Action) – an organization that was created from the UPi project that looks to improve housing conditions for Latinos – says that “80 percent of the ground work was done by Ana.”

Renters in Action was formed by Lavold and Bartleson, but after a time, “we hardly saw Jeff anymore, “ says Dominguez, “he always gave excuses and that affected the group, because whatever he promised to do would go undone.”

In a FCS press release sent to the media on May 2, 2005, Ana Lavold Santamaría’s name is not mentioned, however, Jeff Bartleson is listed as the person who was working with representatives and renters. Five months later, in November 2005, Corcoran Neighborhood News, a monthly publication in English that covers the Corcoran neighborhood, published an article that made reference to the UPi project. This article also does not mention Lavold. Bartleson, however, is mentioned as the person who organized a meeting to organize renters against Zorbalas, and is quoted in the article.

Behind all this, says Lavold, is racism. She and the renters who she helped accuse FCS of taking advantage of Lavold and taking credit for work she did.

Pressure at work
Apparently, this has not been the only occasion in which something like this has happened at FCS. A source close to the case spoke with us on condition of anonymity; we’ll call him “Good Boy.”

Good Boy claims that several previous employees have left in the past because they could not handle working conditions in the organization. Leo Espinoza is one example. He is a community worker originally from Ecuador who says he encountered difficulties while working for FCS as a community organizer.

During his time at the organization, he says he felt frustrated. “There were times when I asked for money for community projects, and was denied by Blevins who told me there was no money. Yet I remember a … fancy farewell party given for an FCS director at a country club. A party like that doesn’t cost $100, I can tell you. That party certainly didn’t serve the community.”

And there are other cases. Among them are the cases of a Somali man, an African-American and a Native American. All claim they experienced racism.

“Jeff Bartleson received all credit for the work we did. It was unbelievable. If they [FCS] receive merits and medals it is because of the Latinos who worked for our community,” says Espinoza, “Anglos were given more opportunity to speak, at every occasion, and this wasn’t just with Latinos, but everyone who worked with immigrant communities.”

Good Boy says that this attitude came not just from Bartleson but from higher up. “Individually, Jennifer [Blevins] praised everyone’s work”, he says, “But in front of the whole JAHC, she attacked them publicly to devalue them. Jennifer even became bad-mannered. In several meetings, they did not let Ana finish speaking, because she did not know English, and it happened to another person as well.”

A former FCS employee who is familiar with Lavold’s case and who wishes to maintain his anonymity supports the affirmation; we’ll call him Roger. “When we had team meetings, I could see that the community workers were displeased, they wouldn’t pay attention,” he says, “Jeff took credit for many things he didn’t do. Often, they were out, knocking on doors while Jeff stayed in the car. Or he was supposedly going to knock on doors himself but could never prove – didn’t have any surveys or telephone numbers – that he had done it.”

Positive experience
Not everyone agrees, however. Aldo Castellanos worked for FCS for three and a half years. He says he knows the Ana Lavold case and the complaints of other workers. Nevertheless, for him, the experience was “very positive”. Castellanos says that he “always had all the support that I needed. My relationship with John Till and Jennifer Blevins was very good professionally.”

Castellanos worked for the JAHC, but in a different section. He says that each section had their own meeting, but occasionally there would be general JAHC meetings. Castellanos says he did not witness the problems the others report.

But for Lavold and the others, the situation at FCS does not sit right. “I feel used”, says Lavold. “They contract you, they use you and they thrown you out if you behave some way that they don’t like. When I began to speak out and demand that my work be recognized is when all the problems with FCS started.

John thinks that the problems begin when workers begin to demand recognition for their work. “Whenever they come across a strong person of color that doesn’t keep quiet, they close the doors on that person. The problem is that … this is affecting many people. The emotional stress for the people in this situation is great, and in some cases it brings very disagreeable consequences.”

Espinoza claims that once he spoke with his superiors about his problems, he began to suffer, “a subtle but constant aversion” that he felt daily.

Roger gave the example of another ex-employee, an African American man who he says suffered discrimination to the point that, after leaving work, had depression problems for months. He lost his family and his house because of it”. (La Prensa de Minnesota called the man numerous times but received no response.)

Espinoza says, “Even though I am now working four jobs, I am still happier than when I was working there.” He also says that he wants to, “denounce nonprofit organizations like FCS that receive money from the community; they have a responsibility not to squander those funds in celebrations.”

Roger says that “they are using the faces of the community to obtain money and subsidies. Lavold goes one step further, asking, “Before this project who in the Latino community knew about FCS? They have received considerable income because of this project.”

Lavold says that FCS received more than $180,000 in foundation grants, thanks to the UPi project. (FCS declined any comment regarding the matter and La Prensa de Minnesota was not able to verify Lavold’s specific claims. However, in a FCS financial report detailing foundation grants received for the JAHC during the last two years, the total for 2005, when the UPi project received the most money, exceeds the funds received in 2004 by $59,000 and exceeds those received in 2003 by $52,000. The Family Housing Fund Foundation, whose mission is to provide low-income housing to families in Minneapolis-St. Paul, doubled their contributions in 2005 compared to the two years prior.

Lavold also says that of the money, the project she was working on has not seen a single cent.

Espinoza says, indignantly, that it seems, ”offensive that this type of organization receives money for the community that does not go to the community. But mainly it bothers me that they use my name to obtain merit and money.”

“They thinks that they can use the community workers of color however they want and that when they complain, they will do away with them,” says Roger. “But they did not know what they were getting into with Ana [Lavold].”

For Gambill, this case has greater overall repercussions, “The Latino community is extremely under-represented on the issues of affordable housing and homelessness within the state of Minnesota. This systemic exclusion of diverse populations is something that truly needs to change. In the case of Ana Lavold, we see a Latina who has worked very hard within her community and – as happens all too often—such people re left out of the broader decision-making processes.”

According to Roger, in 2005, FCS served more than 26,000 people, 40 percent of whom were Anglo and 60 percent were people of color. “Sixty percent of the people they help are people of color, however, the board of directors is all Anglo, white,” he says, “They hardly have supervisors who are people of color, how can they help the community if they don’t allow people of color to hold important positions of power within the organization?, concludes Roger. (According to Lewis, 14 percent of the personnel in management or supervisory positions are people of color.)

Unfinished projects
“The problem now is, who is going to be in charge of the project?” says one of the leaders. “We supported them and now they do not support us. We were a bridge that helped a lot of people obtain a lot of things.”

Lewis says that FCS has been following the renters’ situation, and says they have received no new information that the renters have any other needs or need further help, but that that if they do, “they are more than welcome to contact us and we will gladly help them.”

Espinoza says that “while I was there, I made over 200 contacts. [Jennifer] Blevins took all of them and it did not allow me to remove anything from my personal information.”

“The worse thing is than my projects weren’t continued, nobody finished them,” he continues.

“As a person who has worked very hard toward a higher level of inclusion, I find it troubling that Ana either [has] been terminated or has quit under duress from her employment – the exact circumstances are very unclear. I have listened to the testimony of many of the tenants with whom she has worked and it is very clear that they placed great faith in her abilities as an advocate for her community.”

For Gambill, at the very least, “I should hope that Ana’s employer would be forthcoming with an explanation. This sort of thing is divisive and it makes it all that much more difficult to work towards an integrated level of community service representing everyone.

Espinoza is more direct. “In FCS there are two or three individuals that are damaging the organization. John Till, Jennifer Blevins and Jeff Bartleson did not treat me equally.”

Gambill concludes that “whenever something like this happens, it makes it very difficult to convince other members of minority populations to participate and it undoubtedly fosters mistrust.”

Ana, for her part, says, “I know that the best therapy for me, the best way to move forward is to continue doing the work that I was doing, with dedication, respect for human dignity and, above all, social justice.”