Former Equitas Health staff condemn 'disrespectful, degrading and dehumanizing treatment' of Black employees

Exclusive interviews detail the way Black employees have been mistreated at one of Columbus' largest nonprofits

Former Equitas Health employees, from left, Lisa McLymont, Tia Carrington and Liz Rose-Cohen said they experienced or witnessed a culture of discrimination at the organization.
Erica Thompson
The Columbus Dispatch
  • Microaggressions, discriminatory staffing decisions and lack of action has led to staff departures
  • Equitas Health leadership says it has taken steps to advance anti-racism and address worker complaints
  • A group of employees is calling for an audit of Black employees' conditions and an apology

Current and former staff members of Equitas Health, a Columbus-based health-care provider for the LGBTQ community, say the organization is plagued by a revolving-door culture in which employees of color don’t last long amid an environment of racial discrimination.

The Columbus Dispatch spoke with 15 former Equitas employees who say they experienced or witnessed mistreatment of Black employees and discrimination in hiring, promotion and discipline.

According to multiple accounts, white staff members moved their desks away from one Black employee because they felt uncomfortable with discussions about race. On another occasion, an employee of color was placed in a closet as punishment by a white supervisor.

Complaints about racism have not been taken seriously by leadership, the former employees said, though Equitas has a fairly diverse leadership team with 29% of senior executives being people of color, the organization said. Still, the tone from the top has offended staff members. In one example, CEO Bill Hardy questioned whether microaggressions existed, a former staffer said.

Hardy declined The Columbus Dispatch’s request for an interview.

Equitas takes employee concerns seriously, and the senior leadership team has taken steps to advance anti-racism within the company, where 36% of staff are people of color, according to Daphne Kackloudis, chief public policy and administrative officer.

Equitas serves people with HIV/AIDS throughout Ohio and in Texas.

“Equitas Health and its predecessor organizations have always aimed to provide care and services for all," Kackloudis said in a statement. "We are committed to ongoing diversity and inclusion and recognize that fully realizing our mission to be the gateway to good health for those impacted by HIV, the LGBTQ+ community, and all others who seek a welcoming health care home, is predicated on our journey toward becoming an anti-racist organization.”

Equitas said it created a diversity and inclusion strategic plan and a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) committee on its 17-member board of trustees.

The company also said it distributed a staff culture survey and instituted mandatory diversity and inclusion training. 

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Employees question whether those steps are enough. A May 28 email to leadership from Equitas' employee group on racial equity raised concerns about “patterns of discriminatory practices ... disrespectful, degrading and dehumanizing treatment of BIPOC staff," and fear of retaliation.

“We recognize that over the last 12 months, Equitas Health has taken some steps toward becoming an anti-racist and anti-oppressive organization,” the email stated. “(But) we must speak out against the white supremacist power structure that continues to govern the Equitas Health work environment. It is time for Equitas Health’s senior leadership to reach beyond performativity and initiate actual deep and lasting change at all levels of the organization.”

The group is asking for an audit of the conditions for employees of color and termination policies for marginalized staff. It also is requesting an apology to the staff and community that acknowledges harm done.

Equitas disputes claims made by an employee that senior leadership failed to respond to the group’s concerns.

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Last year, Equitas hired a director of diversity and inclusion. Employees have praised her efforts, but they are calling for a chief diversity officer to be hired to advance change from the C-suite.  

“There is no one in senior leadership who understands the diversity, equity and inclusion field enough to really advocate for it,” said Liz Rose-Cohen, 47, of Berwick, who left her position as content manager in August. “They don't believe that there's systemic change that needs to happen.”

Former Equitas Health content manager Liz Rose-Cohen says the organization's leadership doesn't "believe that there's systemic change that needs to happen.”

Concerns about path for advancement

Previously known as AIDS Resource Center Ohio, Equitas Health was founded in 1984  to assist in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Today, it encompasses medical centers, pharmacies, mental health services and neighborhood initiatives. The organization, one of Columbus' largest nonprofits, has about 500 employees and generated $56 million in revenue for the year ended June 30, 2020.

Former Equitas graphic designer Lisa McLymont played a key role in helping the company rebrand as Equitas in 2016.

“It was so awesome,” said McLymont, 52, of the South Side, who is Black and who worked her way up from a part-time staffer to senior graphic designer. “It was the best job for me. And then, everything changed.”

McLymont said a change in her department's leadership stifled her ability to advance. Feeling as if she had demonstrated her value to the company over the years, McLymont asked Director of Marketing Carol Zimmer Clark for a raise and a promotion.

Former Equitas Health senior graphic designer Lisa McLymont left the company after being told there was no place for her in management.

“She said, ‘There’s no room for you in management,’” McLymont recalled. After that, her duties gradually were taken away, and her once-stellar reviews “plummeted.” McLymont left in 2019.

Equitas said it does not comment on personnel matters. 

McLymont said her experience was not singular. “I'm watching all the other staff members of color leaving because of frustration, like hitting the same types of ceilings,” she said.

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Turnover across the organization from January 2020 to September 2021 includes 62% white staff and 38% staff members of color, according to data Equitas shared with The Dispatch. 

Over the past two years, 54.4% of new hires and 50% of those promoted into leadership in 2020 were people of color, it said.

Eleven of the former employees who spoke with The Dispatch said they resigned due to the culture, with six having left in the last three months.

Former community engagement coordinator De’Juan Stevens, 28, of Franklinton, said he left in September because of “retaliation, not feeling like there was opportunity to grow or succeed in the organization, and Equitas’ ineffectiveness in how they handle situations and complaints.”

"I've seen bullying," said a former employee of color who left in August. "I've seen a lack of accountability when it comes to not training people correctly. I've seen a gross negligence in being able to work with the Black community." 

Tia Carrington, a former nurse practitioner at Equitas, said she felt “heavily recruited” to join Equitas by a staff member.

“But once issues start coming up and I reached out to her, it was kinda quiet,” said Carrington, 43, of Pataskala, who is Black. "She didn't really have much to say to me and I'm like, OK, so she wanted me there just so I could be a Black face because there really weren’t many, as far as providers anyway.”

At Equitas, about 22% of physicians, 15% of nurse practitioners, 75% of dentists and 26% of mental health therapists are people of color, the organization reports. And about a quarter of medical center employees are people of color. 

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Carrington said she was immediately troubled when she joined the organization.

Former Equitas Health nurse practitioner Tia Carrington said she was troubled by the culture, including the rate of turnover for employees of color.

“I kept being greeted by so many people that looked like me that were happy to see me, but also just like, ‘Yeah, it's a mess here. I'm surprised you're here.’”

After less than a year and scant training, Carrington left in April following a dispute about her contract.

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Lack of culturally competent care

According to a 2018 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people, particularly Black gay and bisexual men, account for the highest proportion of new HIV diagnoses. With this in mind, Equitas has taken steps to better serve communities of color.

The agency has two medical centers in Black neighborhoods, including a pharmacy in King-Lincoln/Bronzeville in Columbus. It has Mozaic, an initiative for transgender and gender non-conforming people of color, ages 13-29.

But some former employees criticize the organization’s commitment to the demographic.

One former staffer said that when the centers opened, staff members were not prepared.

“There were no meetings with the community to say, ‘How can we meet your needs?’” the staffer said. “There was no training to ensure that we were providing culturally competent health care.”

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Former employees said Equitas does not employ enough medical case workers of color. According to the company, 16% of medical case workers are people of color. And there are no Black men in that role.

“It is admittedly challenging to find BIPOC medical case managers because in Ohio, they are required to have a bachelor’s degree and be a licensed social worker,” Equitas said in a statement.

Dominic Ali started at Equitas in 2012 as the program coordinator for the Greater Columbus MPowerment Center for young Black men.

“They kind of just stuck the program in the middle of the hood and said, ‘Go and flourish,’” said Ali, 37, of North Columbus, who is Black.

Ali ran the program for three years before leaving for another opportunity. He returned to Equitas in 2018 as a community engagement manager to serve communities of color across Ohio. But he ran into the same lack of support.

Ali needed staff and resources to meet the specific needs of the community. 

But he said his white supervisor did not understand the needs of the people he was serving and did not fully trust his expertise.

“A part of it was consistently proving myself (to her),” he said.

Ali said he asked Equitas for money for his programs, but he was denied.

“When I'm looking at a boardroom full of white people, it's intimidating,” he said. “They are a million-dollar corporation. When it comes to other programs that are needed, that don't benefit communities of color, I see dollars (coming in). And I also see billboards now with people of color on them that say ‘Equitas’ and ‘come to us.’ But you're not really providing (equitable resources). That was my experience. And it's why I left.”

Former employees also expressed concern about the Mozaic initiative, which serves trans people of color in the University District.

“The staff work very hard and they're wonderful people,” Rose-Cohen said. “(But) they're trying to run a program in the OSU sorority fraternity/neighborhood, and it doesn't make any sense.”

Another former employee said the staff of color running Mozaic initially were not supported by their white supervisor.

“They were just constantly doubted and not trusted for their own lived experience,” the former employee said.

Employee moved into closet by supervisor

Equitas employees say they’ve experienced microaggressions, which are subtle, offensive remarks or actions directed toward minorities.

Rose-Cohen said some staff members didn’t understand how their behavior could be offensive, thinking that calling an employee of color “articulate” was acceptable. She also said white employees often mistook one Black employee for another.

“From the moment I walked in there, I felt othered,” said a former Black employee. “I didn't feel like anyone really had any interest in getting to know my personal story. I would have to defend my credentials and experience to people.”

And if she was working late, her colleagues would turn off the lights and not bother to say goodbye.

Taking it into straight-up aggressions, the woman's colleagues drew up a petition to get her fired for being “angry and aggressive.”

She also witnessed an incident in which two employees had been discussing the experiences of Black people in the suburbs, and the white employee reportedly felt they were being called racist. The employee of color was accused of being a bully.

As a result, three white employees had their desks moved away, leaving the employee of color isolated.

The incident was substantiated by a second person who was employed at Equitas during that time.

“The culture there is to center white voices and to hush Black voices over and over again,” said the former employee, who is Black. “You can't foster a community where white fragility is celebrated.”

In one of the most egregious incidents shared by employees during reporting for this article, two former employees confirmed that an employee of color's desk was moved into a closet by a white supervisor after the worker had a disagreement with a white coworker.

“It was quickly addressed, (but) I think a lot of these instances that are happening. ... I'm not sure that they’re being tracked or recorded in any way that could be shared with the board," said a former employee.

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Response to discrimination lacking

In a written response, Equitas said some of these incidents were reported and investigated, while others were not and they were hearing about them for the first time.

“We take these issues very seriously and dealt with those unfortunate incidents swiftly," Equitas said.

Former employees said Equitas needs to do a better job of holding white employees accountable.

“I make mistakes,” Rose-Cohen said. “There are deadlines I missed. But I have advanced in the agency as have other white staff. I'm not held back for my missteps. The tape measure has some bend in it for me, where it doesn't for colleagues of color who are just as worthy, but need to be perfect.”

Multiple former employees said complaints about discrimination were not taken seriously.

“When I specifically was talking about the experiences that I was having as a person of color, it just never really went anywhere,” said one former employee. “It was really frustrating because HR did not seem to take our side or to take our perspective.”

Harassment on the job

Black male employees at Equitas have felt fetishized by older, white gay men in leadership, Ali said.

On one occasion, a white senior staff member offered to assist Ali’s young, Black male intern in organizing a storage closet.

The intern declined the help. “He came to me very uncomfortable about it,” Ali said.

Ali also assigned the intern to do HIV testing for Equitas in gay bars and nightclubs. Ali said he asked Equitas to put some safety procedures in place to protect the intern, but leadership never followed through.

And then, one night, the intern was sexually harassed at a nightclub by a patron.

“A guy walked up to him, pushed him up against the wall and kissed him, telling him he was sexy,” Ali said. “He ran out and he called me at 1 a.m.”

“We encourage allegations of harassment or any violation of policy, procedure, or law to be submitted to HR, legal, compliance, or the employee’s immediate supervisor," Equitas said in a statement. "Such allegations are thoroughly investigated and any appropriate action taken.”

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Black Pride 4 and Wigwam incidents

On June 17, 2017, a group of protesters blocked the Stonewall Columbus Pride parade to raise awareness “about the violence against and erasure of Black and brown queer and trans people.” Four individuals, who would become known as the Black Pride 4, were arrested by Columbus police.

Equitas Health issued a statement in response to the protest, acknowledging that “LGBTQ people of color have not always had the opportunity to have a voice in our community,” and supporting Stonewall “as they work to evaluate this incident.”

Some employees felt the statement failed to fully support the Black Pride 4 or condemn police violence. Another former employee said Bill Hardy initially insisted that Equitas not get involved.

Also in 2017, Equitas planned to have an all-staff meeting at the Wigwam Event Center in Pickerington.

Some Equitas employees found the center’s Native American decor offensive, and asked that the meeting be moved.

“There was a complete disregard for how people were going to feel in this space, and what it was going to do to morale,” said a former employee.

The meeting was rescheduled once senior leadership discovered staff members planned to protest and inform the media.

After the fallout, senior leadership held approximately a dozen sessions to hear staff concerns. According to multiple former employees, Hardy attended only a couple.

Equitas did not comment directly on the Black Pride 4 and Wigwam Center incidents.

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A path forward

Former employees said they believe a change in leadership is necessary to improve the culture at Equitas.

“At the director level, there are a lot of good folks there who just keep their head down and just try to do the work because they are so mission-driven,” a former employee said. “If the C-level and the board changed, that would give some room for the director-level folks to really make the organization what it should be.”

But Equitas has lost many passionate employees who once described the organization as a dream job.

“It was a struggle for me to leave because it was a decision between my passion and my morals,” Dominic Ali said. “I was like, ‘They're stressing me out, but I love the work.’”

Bob Vitale, who worked as editor of Equitas’ now-folded Prizm magazine, said it’s disappointing when LGBTQ workers can’t find a safe space — even among their own community.

“We’ve worked in places where we felt stifled, or we felt that we couldn't advance because of who we were,” said Vitale, 56, of the Northeast Side, who is white and was let go in April 2019. (Vitale also is a former Dispatch reporter.)

“We felt we couldn't break through different power structures. And then you work (at Equitas), and it's the same thing, but it's imposed by other LGBTQ people, and that's what hurts the most.”