N.H. students of color said they were facing discrimination. After a staff member tried to help, she was fired.
Sandra Plummer thought she was righting an injustice.
After students of color were turned away from a professional hair styling event held by the New Hampshire Job Corps Center in Manchester because stylists did not know how to work on their hair, Plummer took it upon herself to arrange a “night of pampering”.
“We don’t have easy-to-style hair so the day when the other girls went to get their hair done in the gym, it left a few of us girls out,” one student wrote in a note to Plummer. “It hurt our feelings because, in a way, nobody thought about us.”
Plummer, the only licensed counselor of color in her program, said she found a stylist who could work on the students’ hair and, when the Job Corps program declined to pay for the services, she found the YWCA, a local community organization, was willing to host and pay for the event.
Less than a month later, she lost her job.
Job Corps, a program from the U.S Department of Labor, is the nation’s largest career technical training and education program for low-income people aged 16 to 24. Many Manchester community members view the program as a way to uplift students and improve job opportunities. But several students of color at the Job Corps Center in Manchester said they experienced harassment and discrimination during their time at the school.
A spokesperson for the Department of Labor said the school-run hair styling program did not meet the needs of all of their students and “did not reflect the values of the Job Corps Program.”
“The Job Corps Program fully embraces the Department of Labor’s commitment to hold ourselves to standards and expectations of equity, diversity, accessibility at least as stringent as those we enforce in our work,” spokesman Edmund Fitzgerald said in a statement.
Plummer thought the “night of pampering” was a way to help the students unwind and air their grievances. She said they talked about methods for addressing racism in calm, peaceful ways and wrote down the ways they felt mistreated during their time at the program.
“I had food thrown at me and was called the N-word in front of staff,” one student wrote.
“I told my counselor because I wanted to quit and went to the director and they acted like it wasn’t important and asked me what my tolerance level was,” another wrote.
“They gave me a random room search because I am Black,” a third wrote. “They said we were suspicious.”
The day after the “night of pampering,” Plummer said she was brought into a meeting with her supervisors to discuss the event, where they asked her questions about what they did and whether the students signed anything.
Not long after, she received a letter stating that Adams and Associates, which hires staff for the Job Corps Center, was terminating her contract. Though the letter never mentioned the “night of pampering,” Plummer couldn’t think of another reason for her dismissal— for seven years, she said she received stellar feedback from her supervisors and students.
Plummer received the highest scores allowed on her 2020 and 2021 performance reviews, which were obtained by the Monitor.
“I never had any kind of reprimand, warning, poor performance reviews, behavioral issues, policy breaking, nothing,” she said.
Adams and Associates did not return a request for comment.
Plummer said she is preparing to bring a civil suit against her former employers.
At a press conference Thursday, organized by NH Black Women Health Project, several advocacy groups pushed for the Department of Labor to make sweeping reforms to the program they said was necessary but deeply flawed.
Manchester NAACP president James McKim said he wants Job Corps to take a number of actions to rectify the situation, including holding diversity and inclusion training for staff, hiring an independent investigator to look into the initial hair event, and reprimanding staff involved in the incident.
“These actions have left trainees of color shaken, frustrated and demoralized — the total opposite of what the program touted to do,” he wrote.
He also said Plummer should be given the compensation for the months she has been unemployed.
Plummer said she thinks students and staff should be taught about the history of slavery and the pillars of diversity and inclusion.
“There's a lot that can be done to prevent this from continuing to happen and from happening in the future, and those educational components and trainings have not been put in place,” she said.
A spokesperson from the U.S Department of Labor said they would require all center operators to mandate staff to complete diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility training, to avoid similar circumstances in the future.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.