Diamond Anderson speaks to a partially shaded crowd, backed by Pastor Nicolas O’Rourke.(Photo by DB Fromm)

By DB Fromm

On Tuesday of last week, community members, activists, and healthcare staff braved sweltering heat to rally against racism and inequity. Focused on Chestnut Hill Hospital and organized by SEIU Healthcare as part of a nationwide walkout, the gathering was hosted by Chestnut Hill United Church on its front lawn opposite the hospital. SEIU Healthcare is a division of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 2.1 million healthcare, and public and property services workers.

Led by Pastor Nicolas O’Rourke of the progressive Working Families Party (WFP), speakers included current and former C.H. Hospital staff, and local political figures and activists. Last year, Indiana native Pastor O’Rourke placed third in the race for one of two at-large City Council seats reserved for minority parties. Republican Council Member David Oh won reelection, while Kendra Brooks, also from the WFP, unseated Republican Al Taubenberger. Subsequently, O’Rourke was appointed the progressive party’s Pennsylvania Organizing Director.

O’Rourke, a seasoned public speaker, introduced and followed each speaker with confident authority, animating attendees with call-and-response chants and making salient points about activism. “There is a difference,” he noted, “between opposing racism and being actively anti-racist,” and “good policy starts where the pain is.”

The first speaker, Union Delegate and Support Organizer at C.H. Hospital Venus Wilson, described incidents of racism encountered at the hospital, including racial epithets and a phoned-in complaint about two black employees on break in the lobby looking “like a ghetto street corner.” 

Next, City Council Member Kendra Brooks condemned cultural biases. “I refuse,” she said, “to be judged by the diction in my voice, what I wear, or the sway in my walk.” Calling out systemic pressures hindering and deterring current and future generations, she said, “we built this country, and COVID-19 has shown us that we keep it running.”

Another at-large Council Member, Isaiah Thomas, called for Council to investigate senior centers’ handling of the pandemic, and to hold hearings examining local healthcare facility closures. “The City is struggling,” he said, and “hospitals got big assistance,” in relief funds, but “can’t provide hazard pay” to workers.

Former janitorial staffer Diamond Anderson described her experience at the hospital. Anderson said that a manager denied her request to transition to an available night shift because she wanted to pursue training as an EMT. After the denial, Anderson said, her relationship with the supervisor deteriorated.

She described enduring “months of harassment,” such as standing on her vacuum cleaner chord, which culminated in the manager cornering her alone in a room. “I told her I didn’t want to speak to her there,” she said, “but she locked the door and called me a racist slur.” “With no witnesses to support me,” she continued, “I was fired.” “I should be able to work to support myself and school,” she said. Undeterred, Ms. Anderson is currently completing an EMT apprenticeship.

Reached for comment after the rally, Chestnut Hill Hospital did not address the specifics of Anderson’s claims but issued the following statement:

“Chestnut Hill Hospital and Tower Health support respect and dignity for all individuals. Our employment policies and practices are applied consistently throughout the organization and do not tolerate discrimination or bigotry by any person. Claims of bias are investigated thoroughly and appropriate actions taken based on facts. We do not comment publicly on individual personnel matters. We work closely with union leadership on issues of mutual concern and are committed to creating a supportive and just workplace environment for all our employees.”

The gathering demonstrated hearty appreciation for Anderson’s testimony before welcoming State Representative Chris Rabb. Rabb represents the State’s 200th district, covering parts of Northwest Philadelphia, including Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy.”

“I’m here,” he began, “because [C.H. Hospital] is a nonprofit. They eat very well, but I want working people like Diamond to eat well too.” He recounted the experience of his father, a black doctor in Kentucky, who was told in response to his desire to work in his local hospital, “yeah, you can do it, boy.”

Rep. Rabb focused on the hospital’s diversity program. “I’m not impressed with diversity,” he said, “I want equity,” and “I’m here to let CEO John Cacciamani know I am not impressed.”

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