order non hybrid seeds LandRightsNFarming: Two Letters to HR Clinton

Friday, September 26, 2014

Two Letters to HR Clinton

for wide distribution
it is sad to say that conditions at usda civil right continue to be abysmal. this letter tells that story.

Sent: 9/11/2014 5:04:25 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time
Subj: Two Letters to HR Clinton

The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton

1900 M St., NW, Suite 500

Washington, DC  20036


June 10, 2014


Dear Secretary Clinton:


My name is Lesa Donnelly. I am a civil rights advocate with a focus on federally employed women and minorities. As a former 24-year employee of the USDA, Forest Service, and the current vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees (the Coalition), I have worked with USDA officials for twenty years on civil rights matters. Coalition president Lawrence Lucas and I meet annually with senators and congressional representatives.  We have been invited to the White House three times to discuss civil rights issues, and in 2008 we testified before the House Sub Committee on Government Reform regarding issues of discrimination against USDA employees, Black Farmers and work place violence against women.

I am writing this letter to seek your assistance with Secretary Tom Vilsack. Our numerous attempts to engage the Secretary and have him address the glass ceiling, and egregious civil rights violations against women in the Forest Service – particularly California's Region 5 – have failed. It is our hope that with your assistance, Secretary Vilsack will turn his eyes toward this problem and work with us to create a true cultural change within the Forest Service. I know you are very busy, so please excuse the length of this letter. It is long because I feel it is important that you understand the gravity of the working conditions for women at the Forest Service.

In your 1995 presentation at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, you declared, "Women's rights are human rights."  More recently, through the Clinton Foundation, you established the 2013 No Ceilings Initiative: Full Participation Project for women and girls, and this year the Clinton Foundation went into partnership with the Gates Foundation to advance equality for women and girls. As a longstanding champion of women's rights, we believe you have the integrity and credibility necessary to get Secretary Vilsack to understand the importance of addressing his civil rights problems at USDA.

The Forest Service Pacific Southwest Pacific Region 5 encompasses the entire state of California, comprising 18 National forests. To provide a little civil rights history, Region 5 went through a long, arduous gender class action lawsuit (Bernardi v. Madigan) based on discrimination against women in non-traditional jobs such as fire, engineering, law enforcement and natural resources. A consent decree for hiring, training, and promotion lasted from 1981 through 1994. It was a difficult time.

To reach the civilian labor force parity of 43 percent, the USDA and Forest Service initiated an aggressive affirmative action program. The goal was reached, and many women received jobs. However, the Forest Service is a male dominated agency. There was much resentment against the women, resulting in a backlash against them. They were undermined, set up for failure, harassed, threatened, and even physically assaulted. Retaliation for reporting these incidents was severe, and many women were disciplined or terminated on false charges. A large number of women quit or relocated to other regions. Many women stayed.

In 1995, I filed a gender class action lawsuit on behalf of 6,000 Region 5 women based on the backlash from the Bernardi consent decree (Donnelly v. Glickman). This class action was based on gender/sexual harassment and reprisal. It was certified and settled under the Clinton administration. During this time, the Coalition had a lot of success working with the Clinton/Glickman administration on civil rights issues. The Donnelly consent decree continued from 2002 through 2006. It effected many beneficial changes to the work environment for women. After the consent decree ended, those changes vanished.

It is important to note that Region 5 was under federal court oversight for almost 30 continuous years. Some progress was made with both consent decrees. One would think that in thirty years time, the culture would have changed and women would now be receiving equal opportunities on a par with their male counterparts. Unfortunately, in many ways Region 5 has regressed to a state where conditions have become as bad as pre-Bernardi. At this time, the numbers of women in fire, engineering, law enforcement and natural resources are at, or lower than, pre-Bernardi numbers. Currently, a large number of women are being sexually harassed, threatened with violence, and are being physically assaulted. Agency responses to these conditions are to cover up the incidents, protect the male perpetrators, and often retaliate against the women who report them.

Some of the women currently being discriminated against are the same women who were in Region 5 during Bernardi and Donnelly and chose to stay. Their careers have been stifled for years. USDA and the Forest Service have denied these women inclusion and full participation. I feel it's necessary to provide you with concrete examples of the terrible abuses these women suffer on a daily basis.

Darlene Hall is a Forest Aviation Officer on the Angeles National Forest. She is a career firefighter with more than 25 years working in the fire organization. She was both a Bernardi class member and a Donnelly class member. She has spent these two-plus decades in a continuing struggle for equal opportunities to attain her career goals. She has been denied training, details, assignments and qualifications necessary to advance her career. She has been denied numerous promotions that were given to less qualified males. Darlene is currently being undermined in her job. She has endured false allegations and rumors, reputation damage, and multiple humiliations. With only seven years until retirement, Darlene has come to the conclusion that her career goals are not obtainable in Region 5. She has decided to move away from her family in California and work in another Region, if possible.

Jonel Wagoner, a Fire Training Officer on the Sequoia National Forest, has also worked in the fire organization for over 25 years. She was a Bernardi and Donnelly class member. Similar to Darlene, she has been denied training, details, assignments and qualifications. She has been sexually harassed on more than one occasion, and at one point her life was threatened. Jonel left the field and went to her dream job as a Fire Dispatcher. After a short period of time, and with no legitimate reason, the Agency involuntarily removed her from her position and placed her in the Fire Training Officer job. In this position, her supervisor and the Forest Supervisor do not allow her to perform her job. They allow male employees to assume her authority. They are rude and demeaning, and try to intimidate her by withholding her paycheck. They publicly humiliate her in meetings on a regular basis. Jonel is a union president and advisor to The Coalition. She works with women who are abused in the workplace every day. Jonel deals with incidents of male employees threatening and assaulting women, using drugs in the workplace, and even bringing guns to the work site. The Forest Supervisor rarely holds these employees accountable. Jonel and the other women who report these incidents have been retaliated against through negative performance ratings, denial of promotions, removal from positions, discipline, and termination.

Priscilla Peterson, a Resource Information Specialist on the Lassen National Forest, is another female firefighter who has worked for the Forest Service for over 25 years. Priscilla is Hispanic. She is a Bernardi and Donnelly class member. She started in the Agency as a firefighter. Priscilla was sexually harassed, humiliated, denied assignments, and like the other firefighters named in this letter, was told that women don't belong in the fire organization. So with an Archaeology degree, she moved out of the fire organization into the Archeology field (she continued to take fire assignments to support the fire organization, to make additional money, and because she loves working in fire). Priscilla was discriminated against as a Hispanic, female Archeologist. She obtained a second degree in Geographical Information Systems, and moved into that field. Even there, her supervisor gave the training opportunities, assignments, equipment, and work to her male coworkers. She had been going on fire assignments for years, but the supervisor refused to allow her to do that anymore. For reporting these incidents, Priscilla has been denied training and job opportunities. Like the other women, she has struggled for many, many years for full participation and inclusion, and like them, has yet to obtain that goal.

There are a number of women with 10-15 years vested in the Forest Service and firefighter retirement, like Denice Rice, a Fire Prevention Officer on the Eldorado National Forest. Denice endured several years of sexual harassment and abuse from her supervisor while the Agency knowingly looked the other way. Initially, she did not report him, because he was a physical bully and he intimidated her. Denice finally reported him when he assaulted her. Instead of disciplining her attacker, Forest Management publicly humiliated Denice in retaliation.

Then there is Brooke Nunez, a Fire Captain on the Cleveland National Forest, who has endured continuing harassment from six subordinate male employees. These employees were very vocal to management that they did not want to work for a female supervisor. The men called her profane names, screamed at her, destroyed her equipment, cut up her fire clothing, and threatened her. Shortly after she reported these incidents, the Agency removed her from the Captain position, trumped up false charges against her, and disciplined her... not the men. The Forest Supervisor acknowledged that the men didn't want to work for a woman, and said he took her out of the captain position because, "these guys are going to eat her alive." Despite our requests to Secretary Vilsack, the Agency has not investigated any of the reported the incidents to this day.

Another Fire Captain on the Sequoia National Forest is Darla Bush, a Native American firefighter. When she became pregnant with twins, as accommodation, she requested an alternate position, and to work some time at home. This is a common safety request from female firefighters who become pregnant, and is often granted – but not for Darla. Instead, the Agency placed her alone, in a dungeon-like basement room with no windows, no natural light, and no ventilation. There were mice feces and urine all over the room and on her desk. We even showed the Forest Supervisor photos of the mice sitting on the file cabinet. Darla and her unborn babies were at risk for Hanta Virus. I contacted Secretary Vilsack's office because the Forest Supervisor refused to move her from this potentially dangerous environment. No response. I was forced to call Governor Brown's Disease Vector Control Office in order to get the Forest Supervisor to move her to a clean, safe office. In retaliation, she has been harassed, disciplined, denied promotions, and was told by her supervisor that she will never promote as long as he is there. Darla also has an all-male crew who do not want to work for a woman. The Agency recently removed her supervisory duties because three of the men felt she was "unapproachable." As a result of this continual exclusion and harassment, Darla is considering quitting her job, and the Forest Service will be losing another talented female manager in the fire organization.

Female employees who are newer to the Agency also endure terrible working conditions.  Elisa Lopez-Crowder was a Hispanic apprentice firefighter on the Eldorado National Forest. She is an Iraq war veteran who learned to fight fire in the military and decided to make it a civilian career. From the beginning of her employment in 2011, she experienced racial epithets, degrading comments about her gender and the color of her skin, and was physically assaulted by her supervisor. The Agency attempted to cover up the assault, and protect the supervisor.  The Forest Supervisor publicly humiliated her for reporting the incidents. After only two years as a firefighter, she left the fire organization because she did not feel safe. Elisa told me she felt safer on a military ship with a thousand men then she did on her fire crew.

Alicia Dabney is another Native American, and former apprentice firefighter on the Sequoia National Forest. Alicia wanted to be a firefighter since she was a child. Hired by the Forest Service in 2011, she endured racial epithets, was constantly sexually harassed by her crew, and firefighters publicly called her a whore. In extreme acts of discrimination and harassment, she was forced to urinate in front of her male coworkers on a public highway, and she was ordered to report the start of her menses to her supervisor every month. She was spit on, physically assaulted and experienced an attempted rape. She reported the incidents. Subsequently the Agency falsified charges against her, and terminated her after only two years of employment.

Madam Secretary, these female fire professionals are representative of a long list of women who continue to suffer reprisal, disparate treatment, and outrageous acts of humiliation from their male counterparts. All forests in Region 5 have these same problems, from the southern forests of San Bernardino and Los Padres, to the northern forests of Shasta-Trinity and Klamath.

Although these women have been victimized by everything from blatant harassment to benign neglect, I must ask, please, that you do not see them as victims. They are all strong, educated, articulate, experienced, qualified women. Most of the women named here have traveled to Washington, DC at their own expense to meet with the Secretary or his staff, and to speak with their congressional representatives. We wrote letters to Secretary Vilsack, President Obama, and even Michelle Obama seeking assistance. To President Obama's credit, his staff did contact the Secretary with concerns about the civil rights violations occurring in Region 5. Due to the White House's concerns, in 2011, Secretary Vilsack removed the Employee Relations and Civil Rights authorities from the Forest Service for a period of time. He put Deputy Assistant Robin Heard in charge. Unfortunately, Ms. Heard was unable to effect any change. In fact, she personally retaliated against some of the women who came forward to speak with her.

In 2013, Secretary Vilsack assigned Deputy Chief Oscar Gonzales to communicate with the Coalition about the civil rights issues. Mr. Gonzales works for Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden, with whom we've also communicated on more than one occasion. For a year now, the Coalition has had numerous discussions with Mr. Gonzales. However, he has not taken any substantive action, despite his promise to work in collaboration with the Coalition, and to establish a firefighter task group.

In March 2014, due to the lack of response from the Secretary's office, the above group of female firefighters, and others decided to file a class action complaint. This will be the fourth Region 5 gender based class action in the past 35 years. The group put the class action complaint on hold when Mr. Gonzales stated he would work with them. He agreed to come out to California and meet with me. He agreed to our request to form a task group. However, once again, Mr. Gonzales did not keep his word. The week of April 21st I asked for an update from Mr. Gonzales and his appointed staffer Carl Ruiz about the Nunez investigation and the firefighter task group. I received the same answer we've received for a year, "I'll look into it." Since that time, Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Ruiz have stopped all communications. The investigation into Ms. Nunez' situation never occurred. As the Secretary's Office hides its head in the sand, women here in the West continue to be emotionally, physically, and financially harmed. As a result of all of this, the class complaint will go forward. It will now be filed this fire season.

Secretary Clinton, if you decide to become the next US president (and I hope you do), you will inherit the Forest Service California Female Firefighter class action during your administration. I propose that we collaborate, and act now to avoid that scenario. As I said to Mr. Gonzales, the Coalition and female firefighters do not have all the answers. But, we do have many viable recommendations for changes to the culture, based on the accumulated years of knowledge, experience, and observation. While Mr. Gonzales prefers only dialogue, we must have collaboration and action in order to effect lasting change to this existing culture of abuse and violence against women.

It is necessary to point out that gender discrimination in California Region 5 is only the tip of the civil rights iceberg at USDA. The civil rights abuses happening to the women in California are happening throughout the Forest Service and the agencies of USDA, and to minority employees as well. Additionally, Black Farmers endure discriminatory treatment similar to that of employees.

A perfect example of the racist USDA culture is the story of Jon Dixon, an African American firefighter. He was the only African American firefighter on the Eldorado National Forest in 2012. He joined the Forest Service with hopes of entering the Wildland Fire Academy and becoming a career firefighter. Unfortunately, his supervisors made derogatory remarks about his Muslim religion, treated him differently than white employees, and he endured extensive use of the "N word" in the workplace during 2012 and 2013. After he reported these incidents, management falsely accused him of misconduct and violent behavior. Violent behavior is a common false accusation against Black men in the Agency. Jon did not return as a firefighter in 2014 due to concern for his safety. In a more recent situation, an African American employee experienced an attempted poisoning.  The level of violence against women and people of color in USDA is astounding. This insanity must be stopped.

If you contact Secretary Vilsack, he is likely to discuss his "Cultural Transformation" program as the ultimate answer to USDA's civil rights problems. While the program is useful, we have found no nexus between the program and any change in the USDA culture of abuse. The Coalition met with Secretary Vilsack in 2011. We told the Secretary that we did not want to minimize his Cultural Transformation program, but it was important for him to understand that the program has had no substantive effect on working conditions in the field.

The Coalition has identified many issues and offered recommendations to effect the needed changes. We've asked Secretary Vilsack many times to work in collaboration with the Coalition. He has been completely non-responsive, until March 2014 when Mr. Gonzales agreed to the establishment of a working task group, but it never came to fruition and he will no longer communicate with us.

The extensive information I have provided in this letter is to emphasize the dire working conditions for so many female employees – employees who may ultimately work for you in 2017. Our request is that you contact Secretary Vilsack to ask him to meet with the Coalition, and agree to develop a collaborative process to insure all employees are treated with respect, and with dignity, and provided an equal opportunity for full participation in the work place. 

Madame Secretary, I want to thank you for your consideration of this request. If you have questions, or wish to be provided any further information, I can be reached at 530-776-8582. Mr. Lucas can be reached at 856-910-2399.




/s/ Lesa L. Donnelly

Lesa L. Donnelly

Vice President, USDA Coalition of Minority Employees



Letters to President Obama dated 1/31/14; 3/31/12; 9/29/11; 5/19/11

Letters to Secretary Vilsack dated 2/4/11; 7/26/10; 4/27/09

6/27/11 Letters to Michelle Obama;Valerie Jarrett; Kathleen Merrigan


The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton

1900 M St., NW, Suite 500

Washington, DC  20036


September 9, 2014


Dear Secretary Clinton:

Attached is the June 10, 2014 letter I wrote to you in regard to the civil rights violations against women, particularly female firefighters in the USDA, Forest Service, Region 5 (California). We have been waiting to receive a response and have not heard from you. I realize that you were on your book tour when I sent the letter and you are very busy with your "Ready for Hillary" campaign for president. However, it is imperative that we hear from you on our request for intervention with Secretary Vilsack. Women are suffering.

It has come to my attention that you and former President Clinton are going to attend Senator Harkin's 37th Annual Steak Fry on September 14th. Senator Harkin has been a long-standing supporter of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees organization and has worked with us in the past on USDA/Forest Service civil rights issues. The Coalition of Minority Employees group has met with him on many occasions over the years to discuss civil rights matters within the USDA and Forest Service. He has contacted Secretary Vilsack and previous Secretaries on our behalf in the past. I respect him immensely. We will surely miss him and his advocacy when he retires.

I understand that you and former President Clinton will be speakers at the Annual Steak Fry. I also understand that Secretary Vilsack and his wife Christie are colleagues of you and Mr. Clinton. And since Secretary Vilsack was Governor of Iowa and Mrs. Vilsack ran for representative in the recent past, I assume they will attend the Steak Fry. By this letter, I am requesting that you speak with Secretary Vilsack about the issues I presented in the June 10th letter and ask that he contact us to begin a dialogue and collaboration process. Since my last letter to you, the female firefighters in Region 5, California filed a pre-class action complaint. It is my hope that we can begin dialogue while it is in the informal stage so that it doesn't have to be filed as a class action lawsuit in the coming months. Please speak with Secretary Vilsack about these issues. Thank you for your consideration of this request. I can be reached at 530-776-8582 or email at lesa@snowcrest.net. Lawrence Lucas can be reached at 856-910-2399.





/s/Lesa L. Donnelly


Attachment: June 10, 2014 letter to Hillary Clinton