How could she know that the liberal agency would use every racist and sexist trick in their playbook in retaliation? The EPA endangered her family and sacrificed more lives in the vanadium mines of South Africa—but her fight against this injustice also brought about an upwelling of support from others in the federal bureaucracy who were fed up with its crushing repression.
Upon prevailing in court, Coleman-Adebayo organized a grassroots struggle to bring protection to all federal employees facing discrimination and retribution from the government. The No FEAR Coalition that she organized waged a two-year-long battle with Congress over the need to protect whistleblowers—culminating in the passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century. This book is her harrowing and inspiring story.
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About the Author
Noam Chomsky is a world-renowned linguist and social critic considered by many to be the world’s foremost intellectual. He is the author of 120 books.
Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy is a former liaison to Congress and three former presidents for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He organized the “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in 1963, was a cofounder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and was the District of Columbia's sole congressman in the House of Representatives for 20 years.
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A Whistleblower's Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA
By Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2011 Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
All rights reserved.
Welcome to EPA: Consider Yourself an Honorary White Man
I burst into the women's room. An older black woman was sitting in a chair inside, smoking. I waved at the cloud of smoke.
"I wish you'd do that outside." I had seen her around the office. She was an executive secretary. I closed the stall door.
"You working on air quality or something?"
"If you don't care about your own health, you could at least be considerate of others. Secondhand smoke kills. You should know that, working here."
"Oh, I know what kills."
I emerged from the stall and went to the sink, the woman assessing me.
"How's Inga working out for you?" she asked.
"She's very capable, thank you."
"I trained her. I trained all the good secretaries."
"And you are ...?" I looked at her in the mirror.
"Marsha Coleman-Adebayo." I turned back to my image. I looked like hell.
"When are you due?"
"You told them yet?"
I shut the faucet off, walked toward the paper towels, dried my hands, and patted perspiration from my face with the damp towel. "I haven't told anyone yet, except my family. Why?"
Lillian shrugged. She struggled to her feet and stubbed out her cigarette. She turned her face toward me, smiling as she leaned on the door. "I'll smoke outside from now on."
Checking my profile in the mirror, I smoothed down my dress.
* * *
The hope and optimism of the sixties had been instilled in us as a people. And for those of us who came of age when hope summoned our intelligence and our sense of duty, it still remained. Long after the assassinations, still believing, as the song had told us, that we would overcome, we entered the workplace skeptical but optimistic. If there were any meaning that could begin to temper the loss, it was the example of the nascent power of the common people when they organize. This was the torch passed to my generation. I was determined to carry that torch forward and hand it, improved, to the next.
But in my earliest days at the EPA in 1990, I was struck by the stark disparities that ran — over twenty-five years after the civil rights movement — along clear fault lines. The pay disparities in the system ranged from, in government vernacular, GS-1 to GS-15 (at the high end). Above this was the Senior Executive Service — the elite of all federal workers — few in number but heavily dominated by white men. The makeup of the lower grades became more populated by African Americans and women in a descending scale of pay and rank.
Right at the outset there were alarming signals that the culture within the Office of International Activities was a far cry from enlightened. The most jarring of these came the day of my first weekly staff meeting after returning from maternity leave. Another African American employee, Franklin Moore, joined me at the meeting.
I arrived at the conference room ahead of Franklin where the other members of our section, who were all white, were already seated around a table. On seeing me in the doorway, my supervisor, Alan Sielen, called out to me.
"Come on in, Marsha. We'll make you an honorary white man so you can join us."
Those around the table burst into laughter. I was stupefied. I felt humiliated. I felt belittled. I felt attacked and not a little angry. Having never been in a similar situation, I was at a complete loss as to an appropriate response to the rush of emotions washing over me — but I also knew that a strong response could be catastrophic to my career. This was the first time I had felt the powerful forces that rise up inside a person subjected to prejudicial ridicule. There were opposing urges to hide and to fight, and a tremendous desire to yell that I knew everyone who was laughing was well aware of how difficult it was for me. Worst of all, I was keenly aware of the fact that I had blinked in this first encounter with racism at EPA. They had no dogs. They had no hoses or guns. But with only a single chorus of laughter, I had caved. Then Franklin Moore walked in and was welcomed with the same greeting. Only this time, I was seated among them.
I wanted to crawl under the floorboards and hide. Franklin's face went from open and kind to blank as he stood in the barrage of laughter. I wanted to run to him and hold him, but his face now bore the expression of a warrior. Franklin moved forward slowly and calmly, placing his briefcase on the table before addressing Sielen directly.
"Do you have any idea what you just said to me?" Franklin's face was stone. "Before you answer that, let me tell you something. I have traveled to South Africa extensively. I travel as a United States citizen. I carry a United States passport. Everywhere else that means something. But when I went to South Africa, a US passport wasn't good enough. I had to stand and watch some white fool stamp Honorary White on my passport before I could enter their country." He paused to collect himself. "I'll be damned if I'm going to let you do that to me here."
"Now calm down, cowboy. Let's not overreact here." Sielen's back was up.
"That's right, overreact. I know a thing or two about racism. I went to the same school as Jackie Robinson, for Chrissake."
Had I not witnessed it with my own eyes and ears, I would not have believed it if someone had told me that Alan Sielen had extolled the virtues of having gone to the same school as Jackie Robinson — or how impervious the man had been while everyone else in the room had been aghast by his going on and on about it. Franklin didn't even feign listening. He sat shaking his head in disbelief.
About a week later I went to Alan Sielen's office for my annual performance review. During my maternity leave, Paul Cough had been given a noncompetitive promotion, making him my supervisor, although Paul had neither my experience nor my educational background. When I mentioned this to Sielen, he was incredulous.
"There you go again," Sielen said, "complaining. Look, you're an intelligent woman. You know how to prevent pregnancy. How can you let yourself get pregnant and still expect to compete with a man?" He wasn't done. "No wonder people think you're hard to get along with. People around here are starting to think you're uppity."
"Uppity, Alan? Do you know what that means?"
"Yes, I know what it means."
"Who have you heard say that they think I'm uppity?"
"The other day Alan Hecht told me he thinks you're uppity."
Alan Hecht was Sielen's boss. He hardly even knew me.
I didn't think it could get worse, but it did.
"Marsha!" Hecht said furiously later that month when I walked into his office in the executive suite that he shared with Bill Nitze, a Clinton appointee and the assistant administrator of EPA Office of International Activities (OIA). "Why don't you just go down to the office of civil rights and file a complaint?" I wasn't sure if I was interrupting the rantings of a lunatic or if I was an invisible visitor in a conversation Hecht was having with himself. Hecht was yelling at the top of his lungs and banging his fist on the table he sat behind.
"Alan, what are you talking about?" I repeatedly asked. I felt ambushed, paralyzed, trapped. I couldn't get enough air in my nostrils, and I felt like I had taken a punch to my solar plexus. He was so absorbed in his own conversation that I don't think he heard me ask what was he talking about. I cautiously sat down, looking around the room for a window or any alternative route of escape, hoping that one of the secretaries would open the door to investigate the shouting and banging in Hecht's office.
"We didn't have these kinds of problems until you people came here," he said.
"What are you talking about? I have no idea —" I tried to interject, but his yelling intensified, his face getting closer and closer to mine. I could feel the heat radiating from his skin, and I could smell and feel particles of recently injested tuna. His eyes were bulging, and his face had turned a bright red. He had worked himself into a state of self-induced frenzy. Pounding the table, he yelled again, "Just file a complaint! I'm sick of this!"
"Stop shouting at me!" I demanded with equal force, using every nerve in my body to steady my voice. I stared him down. "Get out of my face," I said slowly but firmly.
He moved back, and I could finally breathe for the first time since entering his office.
"Marsha, one of your colleagues told me that you made an inappropriate comment at the last Africa team meeting. This kind of behavior will not be tolerated; do you understand?" His voice had started to rise again.
"Alan, you've got the wrong black person. Franklin attended that meeting, not me." I quickly picked up my notepad and headed for the door. "The next time you decide to call someone in and yell at them, I suggest you get the right person, because we don't all look alike!" Franklin was over six foot two, and a man.
I reached my office reeling from a cocktail of disbelief and anger. I contemplated calling the police but worried that my colleagues would consider this akin to treason. I would be seen as weak, bitching, and unprofessional — definitely a career ender. But what I knew without any hesitation was that I would never allow myself to be alone in a room with that man again.
I called Segun. It was difficult to tell him what had just happened between my sobs and hyperventilation. There was a pause, deep breathing, and then silence.
"Just come home, Marsh, come home."
* * *
In 1993, backed by President Clinton, who was on record as a champion of women's rights and justice, Vice President Al Gore's former legislative director, Carol M. Browner, confidently strode into this environment as the new EPA administrator.
With Carol Browner's selection, an excitement came that I had not felt in the agency before. Early on we paid close attention to her every move for signs indicating what kind of manager she would be, what mattered to her, and how she would implement policy. A telling rumor circulated at the time: The new administrator had called a meeting of senior staff. Upon walking into the conference room, she was greeted by the clatter of men rising on her arrival. Browner strode to her place at the conference table, looked around the room, and seeing no other women present snapped, "There are no women department heads at this table. This is unacceptable."
So it was panache that swirled into the agency when Browner addressed the staff in the customary welcoming ceremony. Gone was the staid, Eddie Bauer, wing-tips-with-pinstripes style of her predecessor, Bill Riley. Carol had style, color, vigor. And where Riley was of the old school, blue-blooded Bostonian mold, Browner's pedigree — though not her airs — was far more modest. Her posture, the bored disdain she leveled at subordinates, gave the impression of stature. This was a woman who had been through the trenches, throwing elbows with the best of them. She thrived there. She was above all else confident, holding forth on her duty, first and foremost, to protect and serve the interests of the people.
There was a different atmosphere around her that left me unsettled — something bordering on contempt. Was it for the staff? Or was it some deep disdain for the process itself, which required cheerleading when she preferred bare knuckles?
Two quick appointments sent a stir through the agency. Both were department heads. Both were women. Carol Browner was signaling her support for women's place at the table. Yet I was not the only one to note another signal. Both women were white. By 1993 it was inconceivable that the vetting process for EPA department heads would proceed without considering racial minority representation for senior management positions.
Still, I found myself with a certain empathy for how lonely a place at the head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency might be for someone who had not cut her teeth on caviar. I could understand the toughness one might have to exude and imagined Administrator Browner's aloofness to be a sort of personal triage. Don't show them you hurt there — that's too vulnerable. Don't let them get too close — they'll discover your modest lineage. While everything about Carol Browner dripped with arrogance, I consoled myself with believing that sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
By this time I had already felt many early rumblings of a house destined to fall. It gave itself away with shivers and groans under the weight of social issues I thought had long since been put to bed — women's rights, civil rights, human rights, environmental conservation. All of these topics sent shudders through the agency like waves down a length of rope. Having come to EPA from the United Nations, I found this to be quite a departure from the progressive environment of the UN, where new approaches were not only welcomed but encouraged.
Yet even within what many people consider the most enlightened of all federal agencies, certain topics could raise red flags about one's career trajectory. One supervisor chastised me for raising issues of women's health at every possible opportunity. Don't we all breathe the same air? Drink the same water? Yes, we do, but we may not metabolize these elements in the same way, and with the standard for risk assessment being a 160-pound white man, as late as the 1990s women and children were left out of the protections of environmental toxicity assessments. Women who questioned this model risked being labeled angry or unserious or being called women's libbers.
Well before the arrival of Carol Browner, the writing on the wall about the direction for the agency was clear. After the watershed 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio, the EPA was coming to grips with the reality that it was no longer a strictly domestic agency. The Rio conference was the twentieth anniversary reaffirmation of the original UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. The intervening twenty years had not been kind to the status quo of governments laying down the law behind closed doors.
It was anticipation of Rio, in fact, that in 1990 prompted the EPA's Office of International Activities to begin hiring a team of experts — which included me — to engage this new dynamic. EPA was interested in broadening its global reach and effectiveness via the NGO sector.
My experience, both academically and through my clinical work in the field for the UN, were well known within the agency. In fairly short order, my expertise and my familiarity with the lay of the land inside the UN were seen to fit the bill, and I became the Environmental Protection Agency liaison to the United Nations. The briefing for an upcoming trip to New York to propose collaboration between the two organizations was the first time the project's team was assembled in one room. This was also my first face-to-face interaction with Administrator Browner.
I had been working on an environmental impact assessment tool since my days in Africa, where as a UN program officer I had seen firsthand the ravages of drought and famine on the people of Ethiopia. Such a tool could provide the means to measure, monitor, and begin to significantly reduce environmental degradation. I suggested that we join forces with the UN to monitor environmental data with this tool. A nearly immediate global impact could result from such a program's implementation. My role was to move the project forward, arranging meetings between Carol Browner and the United Nations Development Program administrator, William Draper III. Draper was the son of a banker and diplomat, Yale educated, with family ties to the first venture capital firm on the West Coast. During his tenure with the UNDP, Draper oversaw nearly ten thousand international aid projects. Carol Browner and I worked to bring Draper's acumen to bear in implementing the environmental impact assessment tool. When that effort succeeded, I walked away knowing my work at EPA could have an impact. I had worked closely with the administrator, who had proved to be a skilled negotiator and a delight to work with.
Excerpted from No Fear by Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. Copyright © 2011 Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgments,
1 Welcome to EPA: Consider Yourself an Honorary White Man,
2 The Fourth UN World Conference on Women, Beijing: "Call Me Bella",
3 Ultimatum to Public Service,
4 The Gore-Mbeki Commission: The Sound That Freedom Makes,
5 Alexandra: The Sacrifice Zone,
6 Who Are You Calling a Necklacer?,
7 Why Waste MIT on People Like That?,
8 My Name Is Jacob Ngakane,
9 Back to MIT,
10 Breathing College Air,
11 Barnard College: The Path Sisters Take,
12 MIT: The Vortex of Minds and Hearts,
13 Ethiopia: The Good Mother,
14 Retaliation at EPA,
15 Something Deeper Than Words,
16 President of the United States: The Playbook,
17 Last Obstacle to the End Run,
18 Yes, Clarice,
19 The 1998 Trip to South Africa: My Tongue Is Green,
20 Death Threats and Missed Opportunities,
21 Coleman-Adebayo v. Carol M. Browner,
22 Betrayal Is Best Served Cold,
23 Discrimination or Disappointment?,
24 The Verdict,
25 Can You Hear Me?,
26 Behind Closed Doors: The Browner-NAACP Meeting,
27 Congressional Hearings: Intolerance at EPA,
28 A Call to History,
29 Journey to No FEAR,
30 Al Sharpton: The X Factor,
32 Breathing African Air,
Postscript: Giants and Grasshoppers,
"Like a Landscape from the Book of Time",
Appendix: Legislative Stages to the No FEAR Public Law,