Fired staffer alleges racial toxicity in Lansing Mayor’s Office

Former city scheduler fired after alleging financial mismanagement

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FRIDAY, June 5 — Natasha Atkinson was in love with her job as an events coordinator at Lansing Mayor Andy Schor’s office. But that was before her ideas for diversity were dismissed, white staffers started to ignore her, and her desk had been repeatedly ransacked, she said.

“As black people, we deal with these situations every day. Most of these covert racist acts happen over our heads,” Atkinson said. “We don’t carry it as a chip on our shoulder. It’s just when it becomes so heavy that you can’t bear it anymore. It just wasn’t an open place.”

Atkinson appeared on tonight’s episode of “Merica 20 to Life Live,” hosted by Lansing activists Mike and Erica Lynn. It’s the first time she has spoken publicly about her time with the city.

Atkinson, with a background in public relations and crisis communications, was hired into Schor’s administration several months ago as a scheduling and event coordinator. The idea, she said, was for her to eventually replace community outreach coordinator Marilyn Plummer.

An at-will mayoral staffer, Atkinson was fired in early February. She said Schor’s office offered no reason — only a reminder that she wasn’t in a union and had no say in the matter.

“I have beliefs on what happened,” she said. “But officially from the city, I don’t have anything.”

Atkinson contends Schor was dismissive when Black Lives Matter activists attempted to confront him over black teenagers who were violently arrested by local police last year. And when she tried to step in to offer help, Schor and his staff only diminished those concerns.

“Black Lives Matter is just a dog without a bone,” Atkinson claimed a mayoral staffer told her.

A few months later, a few members of the mayor's staff were loading new music with mostly white artists into the city’s downtown playlist. When she suggested some more diverse tunes, Schor’s staff only dismissed the idea. The response was just “negativity,” Atkinson recounted.

“It’s just not an open place where you can have these conversations,” Atkinson added.

White mayoral spokeswoman Valerie Marchand is the city’s DJ for its downtown music system.

Atkinson said she later suggested to Schor and Deputy Mayor Samantha Harkins that some of the mayor’s staff undergo some racial sensitivity training over their inadvertently offensive conduct. That suggestion was also tossed to the side. Nobody went to the training, she said.

“Tensions were a little icky, but it was nothing too bad until the end of 2019,” Atkinson said.

After watching unhealthy racial undertones develop in Schor’s office for months, Atkinson said she suggested the creation of an office or city department dedicated toward inclusion. The idea never generated any results. And that’s when the Mayor’s Office became real quiet, she said.

“None of the white people were talking to me at all,” Atkinson said. “I’d say hello. No hello. It was like I was completely excluded. It came time to start planning for the State of the City. It was my job, but I was told that you’re not going to be planning the afterglow for the State of the City.”

Atkinson later arrived at her desk to find her belongings scattered across the floor, she said. All of the drawers were opened. Schor suggested that a cleaning crew might have done it. But that wasn’t the first time her desk was trashed, she said. It would happen again before she was fired.

“This time I had a witness,” Atkinson said. “They said this is internal. And this is personal.”

Atkinson also alleges that Schor’s staff misused city credit cards to purchase expensive lunches and drinks during the early afternoon. It’s OK, they told her. The receipts just get lost, she said. And after Atkinson tried reporting it higher up the chain, she found herself out of a job, she said.

“Drinking in the mayor’s office is not unusual,” Atkinson added.

Atkinson was a guest on “Merica 20 to Life Live” tonight alongside former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and Angela Waters Austin, the co-founder of the Lansing chapter of Black Lives Matter.

Thursday night, Waters Austin called for Schor to resign over his alleged failure to connect with the black community and his handling of a protest against police brutality that turned violent on Sunday. Schor defended the Police Department’s use of several rounds of tear gas on hundreds of people after a car was torched, windows were broken and bottles and other objects were thrown at the police.

Schor has also faced criticism over his treatment of black employees after several of them either quit or were removed from their positions since Schor was elected. Former Fire Chief Randy Talifarro, for example, claimed Schor had "made the workplace “extremely uncomfortable.”

“I am right now calling for your resignation,” Waters Austin told Schor Thursday night. “How dare you get on here and act like you care about my people? We said we’d get behind you. We told you we’d show up for you. And look how you showed up for us: You put our children on the firing line.”

Schor told her that he was “not planning to resign right now” and has defended the police tactics.

Earlier today, Schor referred a City Pulse reporter to the city’s Human Resources Department for details regarding Atkinson’s recent separation with the city. Emails to officials there were not returned today. Schor also declined to respond to Atkinson’s complaints earlier this afternoon.

“This was a personnel issue. I expect you need to talk to our HR folks,” Schor said in a text message earlier today. “Whatever they can provide is the best answer that can be given.”

 

(City Pulse will continue to investigate these allegations. Check back for continued updates.)

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