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LaToya Fernandez: ‘I was not supported’ as Norwalk’s first DEI officer. ‘They are not ready’

LaToya Fernandez, Norwalk’s first officer of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), was hired in October 2022 with great hope and fanfare on the staff of Mayor Harry Rilling. Just 16 months later, in February 2024, a city spokesperson confirmed Fernandez had left the position. At the time, Fernandez herself didn’t announce the move or reveal publicly why she had quit. On Saturday, in the following post on the professional social-networking site LinkedIn, Fernandez recounts the role as a “dehumanizing” experience:

I’ve been asked a few times about what happened in Norwalk and my role as the DEI officer.

Here is my official response, quoting the brilliant Glenn Singleton. “If a Black woman is not there it’s because marginalization happened.”

I was a very human person in a dehumanizing experience; there were severe impacts to my mental health and those were expressed consistently and clearly. I was not supported and came to realize the expectation was performative. Out of respect for taxpayers, community members and my own sense of psychological safety…. I walked away.

I did articulate clearly why I left. I would not recommend another POC be placed in that position.

They are not ready.

There is no title, role or salary that is worth selling out. While other self-interested leaders may not feel that way, I know who I am and who I ain’t!!

LaToya Fernandez, in October 2022 after becoming Norwalk’s first DEI Officer.

Since then God has blessed me abundantly and my business is THRIVING! Proof that I made that right choice.

I am a liberated person. I don’t believe in “playing the game”, it has nothing to do with God or good.

Respectfully, Another Black woman who left DEI

Fernandez, an author, speaker and artist, now works as a restorative justice facilitator and trainer based in West Haven, CT, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Comments

7 responses to “LaToya Fernandez: ‘I was not supported’ as Norwalk’s first DEI officer. ‘They are not ready’”

  1. I don’t know any details of Miss Fernandez’s experiences in this position, so I can not speak on that. But I am proud to have worked with her on writing the first, and perhaps only so far, DEI statement formally adopted by the City of Norwalk – specifically the City of Norwalk Arts and Cultural Commission. So her employment here did have SOME positive impact, even if she doesn’t see it, or acknowledge it.

    If there is one frustrating, and occasionally painful fact I have learned about city government, especially in a city the size of Norwalk, CT, is that things never happen as quickly as we want them to. That includes opening people’s minds to the ideas of DEI, how it will make things better for the people of our city; not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but for our children, and generations to come.

    Celebrating our cultural diversity as a city; working to close DEI gaps, working to make everyone feel included in civic life; creating opportunities that benefit and enrich people of all economic means, backgrounds, cultures, religions, ethnicities, genders, etc. All of it makes us a better, stronger, and more vibrant city, so we must never stop trying to move forward. Change will not happen overnight, as much as we would like it to.

    Miss Fernandez says “They aren’t ready.” In my opinion, Norwalk has never been more ready.

  2. Deb McMurray

    As a taxpayer in this city for over 27 years, I am sorry to read this. Thank you for sharing your story. My family and I appreciate you!

  3. James Cahn

    I have so much respect for this woman to say the quiet part out loud. “Performative” is precisely why she was hired and then, clearly, once the political class was able to check the optics box, they had no idea what to do with her. I think that DEI initiatives are mostly performative and can largely be dismissed on that basis. It’s a fad and a trend that is mostly used by organizations to virtue signal. Frankly, the fact that we pretend that we can deal with and start to solve the cultural and societal effects of racial discrimination and ADOS by just appointing DEI officers is insulting at best and demonstrates a type of ignorant perpetuation of the very issues we seek to solve at worst.

    It’s an absolute sin that we lost Latoya. She’s clearly sharp as a tack, authentic, passionate and seems to be a “think before you speak” leader. The fact that we hired her with no idea what we were going to do with her after was the first screw up. The fact that we then misused and lost her talent is a complete failure of leadership. A lesser woman would have just sat on her six figure tax payer funded salary and made due. That Latoya has the integrity to do the opposite is exactly why we should have gone out of our way to find an appropriate place and role for her.

    Malcolm X’s birthday was yesterday. We used to make note of that but we don’t seem to anymore. Regardless, every year on May 19th, I re-read “The Ballot or the Bullet” from Detroit in 1964. In it, Malcolm states, “Anytime you have to rely upon your enemy for a job, you’re in bad shape.” That’s a message to not only the job seeker, but also “the enemy.” I respectfully disagree with Latoya on most things, politically. But I’d hire her in a second and figure out how to leverage her energy, passion and views to make her mark on driving my organization forward. I wish her continued success and flourishing. She has a purpose and is pursuing it. I’m firmly team Latoya! Go get it Latoya. If I can help, call me.

  4. David McCarthy

    Well, now. A long history of lip service support of minorities by Harry Rilling is now coming home to roost. Is anyone surprised that Harry couldn’t be bothered to effectively lead and make D E and I a sustainable part of Norwalk’s government? I’m not. Shame.

  5. Bob Giolitto

    This is, sadly, no surprise. The significant phrase from Ms. Fernandez is: “I was not supported and came to realize the expectation was performative.” In February 2021 a social justice group to which I belong (since this is a personal letter and I am not writing on behalf of the group I have substituted “we” for our name), after meeting with Mayor Rilling and then police chief Kulhawik, sent a letter to the mayor asking why nothing had occured since a meeting he had held in 2020 promising action after the death of Geprge Floyd. The letter, of which I have a copy, was sent to Mr. Rilling three times over six months; we received no acknowledgement or reply, even though he had told us to write to him. Not until the fourth attempt, which was also copied to the Common Council, Nancy On Norwalk, and The Hour, and a subsequent article published by The Hour, did we receive a reply. And not until October 2022, after two years of promises dating back to June of 2020 when our group first reached out to the mayor, and following the the expensive fiasco with Led By Us–who were equally as frustrated as Ms. Hernandez–was Ms. Fernandez hired, with no staff or support.
    Again, this should come as no surprise. The mayor consisitently promises without real delivery–note his quote from his 2020 meeting regarding equity: “We have all been to meetings like this where peoples’ concerns were heard, and participants left eager to engage in promised change, and nothing happened. I promise you that this will be different.” Technically the promise was kept; Ms. Fernandez was hired. But in reality nothing was done–she received no support. And less this be taken as a political attack, where were the Republicans and Independents? Neither of those parties called for a DEI, nor did they pubicly support Ms. Fernandez. The Republicans stated that Critical Race Theory would never be taught in our schools (it can’t; it’s a college program that teaches all of history, not just selected parts), and the Independents have called for “preserving our neighborhoods,” racial coding. None of us are “off the hook” on this; I myself should have spoken more.
    The result? Black and brown people are once more underserved.

  6. John O’Neill

    If the above commenters truly cared about the Black community they may want to direct their frustrations towards the Board of Education in this city.
    It’s evident the current policies are not working. I would go further and argue that if there was a referendum on
    accountability/discipline/civility in our schools the vast majority of the Black community would sign on for change. While I find groups from the left well meaning, their school policies are failing everyone.
    As far as Latoya Fernandez? Based on her resume she may be spirited, but she has moved around a lot. For those complaining about Harry Rilling, I would argue quite the opposite. I think Harry has been a friend of the Black Community.

    1. Romney Donald

      Certainly, here’s a revised version of your message:

      If members of our community truly cared about the Black community, they would boldly call out racism. LaToya’s resume speaks for itself, and longevity in a position does not negate someone’s impact. Are you a member of the Black community? If not, I kindly ask you to refrain from stating “Harry has been a friend of the Black Community.” How would you know if the Mayor has been a friend to the Black community? Black residents have been significantly impacted by gentrification, skyrocketing cost of living, and systemic and institutionalized racism. It’s crucial to remember that these inequities were created by those in power who have intentionally oppressed the Black community by withholding resources.

      LaToya’s experiences were incredibly harmful to her mental and physical health. She was treated horribly by white men and women, and even by some members of her own community in this city. Accountability needs to start with the white people in power, who must call out mistreatment and systems of oppression. The Black community should not bear the sole responsibility for resolving issues we did not create.

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