Three African American women who helped run Multnomah County’s first transitional housing program for black women returning to the community after prison are suing their former employer, Bridges to Change, alleging racial discrimination.
O’Nesha Cochran, who was fired last spring as program manager of the new Diane Wade House, along with two former employees, Sonja Freeman and Shalontelle White-Preston, filed the suit. Freeman and White-Preston ended up resigning two months after Cochran’s termination.
The home is named after Cochran’s probation officer, Diane Wade, who died while Cochran was serving time at Coffee Creek Correctional Institution. Cochran was chosen in Spring 2019 to run the new home to help African American women on parole or probation transition back to the community.
The three women are seeking $2 million in damages, alleging their former employer subjected them to a racially hostile work environment, “tokenized them,’’ and exploited their labor.
Cochran spoke out to The Oregonian/OregonLive immediately after she was fired last spring, just three weeks after Multnomah County officials had applauded her abilities in her role leading the new program. She said then she believed her employer retaliated against her for her outspokenness in pressing for promised Afro-centric membership and support programs for residents at Diane Wade House.
“I put my heart and soul into this program,’’ she said. “I believe they wanted a Stepin Fetchit black person who would say ‘yes sir, no sir. Whatever you say. Whatever you need me to do’ …and that’s not who I am.’’
Monta Knudson, executive director of Bridges to Change, said last spring he couldn’t discuss a personnel matter.
Cochran’s termination letter, which Cochran provided, cited an ongoing “pattern of failure to demonstrate effective leadership and professionalism,’’ an inability to respond to community partner concerns or collaborate, a lack of accountability and an overall need to improve performance.
Cochran argued that she wasn’t given sufficient training or support when promoted to manage the house.
The county contracted with Bridges to Change to run the 38-bed home through a $2 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Freeman and White-Preston each began working as a recovery mentor at the Diane Wade House on Aug. 6, 2018, and then both were reassigned in January 2019 to work as resident assistants, helping with the home’s day-to-day operations.
The suit contends that the black women residents of the Diane Wade House were treated less favorably than white clients at other residences, given poorer quality and expired food, less mental health and detox support, insufficient culturally-appropriate hair and skin care products, and were subjected to earlier curfews, harsher rules and punishments for minor infractions.
It contends one black resident who used profanity, for example, wasn’t permitted to see her children.
“I put my heart and soul into this program,’’ O’Nesha Cochran said, wiping away tears hours after she learned of her firing. “I believe they wanted a Stepin Fetchit black person who would say, ‘Yes sir, no sir. Whatever you say. Whatever you need me to do’ … and that’s not who I am.”
On Feb. 14, 2019, according to the suit, Cochran raised her repeated concerns to a supervisor about lack of support, observing, “what is the good of a black program with black bodies or even calling it Afrocentric if it is really being controlled by white people?’’
But nothing changed, the suit said. Two days after a much-publicized ribbon-cutting ceremony at the newly-opened Diane Wade House in Gresham, Bridges to Change informed Cochran on April 11, 2019, that she’d be placed on a “performance improvement plan,’’ when she returned from her previously scheduled vacation.
The day Cochran returned from vacation, her boss told her she lacked supervisory skills and instructed her to remove content from her personal Facebook page, which she said included poetry about the oppression of black women, according to the suit.
After firing Cochran on April 29, 2019, Bridges to Change, according to the suit falsely told community members that Cochran had been let go for misuse of company funds.
After Cochran’s firing, Freeman and White-Preston said going to work, which they had loved under Cochran, “became agonizing and dreadful,’’ the suit says. They experienced stress, took medical leave and then resigned in June 2019.
Attorneys J. Ashlee Albies and Kimberly A. Sordyl filed the suit Tuesday on behalf of the women in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
Program manager for Multnomah County’s Diane Wade House fired
O’Nesha Cochran, an ex-convict tapped to run a new transitional home for African American women on probation or coming out of prison, was fired Monday just three weeks after Multnomah County officials and her employer hailed her unique abilities to lead the program.
Cochran said she refused to sign her termination letter. It cited an ongoing “pattern of failure to demonstrate effective leadership and professionalism,’’ an inability to respond to community partner concerns or collaborate, a lack of accountability and an overall need to improve performance.
More at The Oregonian
She did 3 stints in prison. Now she heads first-of-its kind transitional home for black women in Gresham
Once out, O’Nesha Cochran continued smoking crack and drinking. She got kicked out of several treatment and probation programs for her bad attitude, foul mouth and inability to follow the rules.
Then she found mentors in other African American women at a Narcotics Anonymous group. That’s when Cochran began to want a better future for herself.
A POWERFUL WOMAN: DIANE WADE
Ooooh, ain’t it funny how insecurities of some come out
When they run into a powerful Black woman with clout
Powerful woman don’t take no mess
She never says no when she really means yes
Powerful woman tap into their power
A lady with influence is today’s woman of the hour
Let’s talk about the way she walked
Let’s talk about the way she dressed
She had the power to stop you cold!
With just the snap of her neck!
Her skin was black smooth liked mahogany
She made me feel powerful too by the way she talked to me
She had attitude, love, discipline and respect
She never was predictable who knew what she’d do next
Diane Wade, wade in the water float thru our mind
Take a minute to think about the way she spent her time
She came into the prison to see us and dared us to dream!
She told us nothing was impossible or as bad as it seemed!
Her biggest message to women was to love yourself!
But most of us was stuck on an easy to make our wealth
She would say; if you lived right, right would come to you
And one day I hope to see if her words were really true.
She said a woman’s spirit just ain’t complete
Until she obtains that necessary self esteem
Diane made me cry and yeah she made me mad
There were times we disagreed, times when I got sad
She said “if I didn’t care I wouldn’t be so hard on you”!
And her words would pierce my soul Cuz I knew her words were true!
She would not want her AAP girls to forget we have a choice!
She didn’t teach us to tap into our power to forget we have a voice!
She was a powerful woman! I still feel her here!
We can sit around and honor her, with our tears
Or we can stand up!! And be the women she wanted us to be!
We too, can be powerful we too can be free!!
Not just outside of prisons doors but outside of prison mind!
So we say; thank You Diane Thank you for your time
Thank you for being powerful and empowering others
Thank you for keeping the care of your sisters and brothers
Ooooh ain’t if funny how a powerful woman Goes beyond and above!
To empower, to teach, to listen, to and to spread her love
Written by O’Nesha Cochran 14063093 in 2010, an Inmate in Coffee Creek Correctional Center and a member of Multnomah County AAP Program