Reset of DEI work at WNET quiets discord but hasn’t healed all rifts

Print More

wdstock/iStock

WNET's street-level studios in Manhattan.

At the WNET Group in New York City, an employee group working with Chief DEI Officer Eugenia Harvey has established new practices for improving diversity, equity and inclusion by focusing on content and creating forums for employees to discuss their experiences, though thorny issues like pay equity have yet to be resolved.

The Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Advisory Council, comprising managers and producers from across the public broadcaster serving metropolitan New York, Long Island and New Jersey, began collaborating with Harvey in early 2021. The council has weighed in on WNET’s productions for PBS’ school-age and prime-time viewers, and shaped “Making Space,” a workshop series designed to support staff in discussing racism and other forms of discrimination.

Harvey

Harvey, a veteran TV producer who has led WNET’s DEI work since June 2020, credited these efforts for helping to lower the temperature at WNET after months of internal conflict over management’s approach to DEI. The WNET Group’s content and the staff who create it are gradually becoming more diverse, she said, as are the companies that supply products and services to WNET. Overall, the changes have helped foster a greater sense of belonging among employees, she said.

“I don’t think I could ask for anything better,” said Harvey in an interview. “You want a magic wand, you want things to happen quickly in a dream scenario … but I am very pleased.”

Harvey’s longer-term plan for improving DEI, a professional development program called the Ideation Academy, is at least a year away from launch and requires more research, she said. Her goal for the academy is to provide mentorship to employees and improve retention.

“I’m aware that that’s going to take a while,” Harvey said. “I come out of TV production, so I like to kind of move fast, get in there and get it done, but it’s very important to get things right.”

“It’s great to do something big and splashy, but if your foundation isn’t solid when you’re building something, it may not be sustainable,” Harvey said.

‘People aren’t fighting anymore’

When Harvey took on the DEI role, race and equity protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020 were at their peak. WNET staffers challenged CEO Neal Shapiro to address institutional racism within WNET on multiple fronts, including its policies related to pay structure, promotions and transparency.

An independent employee group called the Inclusion and Diversity Council, which had worked with the human resources department to support diversity initiatives within WNET since 2015, detailed staff concerns and demands for change in a letter to Shapiro. He responded in part by appointing Harvey, a Black woman with experience in network TV news and public media, to guide the station through a series of DEI reforms recommended by Jennifer Brown Consulting. The firm had completed a study of workplace equity and inclusion practices at the WNET Group in early 2020.

One of the consultants’ recommendations drew strong objections from IDC members. JBC called for creating a new advisory group of employees who work directly with management on diversity and inclusion. Best practices for effective employee advisory groups on DEI call for a reporting structure that’s aligned with management, according to the consulting firm. The IDC pushed back, criticizing the process for selecting council members as lacking transparency, but Shapiro and Harvey pressed ahead. By November 2020, 12 staffers had been appointed to the new Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Advisory Council. Two of the staffers who joined the IDEA Council had been founding members of the IDC.

WNET Group employees who spoke with Current agreed that internal frictions over DEI initiatives have dissipated since the new council began working with Harvey in early 2021. But they attribute the relative calm in employee relations to the dissolution of the IDC, which operated independently of senior management. Those who supported the IDC’s agenda for change in 2020 said issues such as pay transparency, which the IDC petitioned management to fix, haven’t been properly addressed.

Four current employees who were active with the IDC in 2020 requested anonymity to discuss DEI initiatives at WNET because they were not authorized to speak to Current. All feared retribution for speaking out.

The employees said they now mostly share their gripes in private, either because they’re tired of fighting with management, burnt out by the pandemic or wary of facing reprisals for openly criticizing their employer. Being associated with the more vocal, change-oriented factions of the IDC became too risky, according to one of the employees who requested anonymity.

Senior management was “effective in quieting everybody down,” the employee said. “We are in the middle of a pandemic, and we spent over a year trying to fight for diversity at WNET, and we got shut down. So yes, people aren’t fighting anymore, but it’s because they’re scared and they’re tired.”

Members of the IDEA Council were also reluctant to talk about their experiences. Two members declined interview requests because they weren’t authorized to speak about WNET. Communications staff approved an interview for one of the IDEA Council members, but the employee asked to speak without attribution. The IDEA Council member, a producer, “is not interested in being in the spotlight,” said spokesperson Lindsey Horvitz.

‘Everyone has their blind spots’ 

The IDEA Council has the power to weigh in on content decisions and event planning, according to Harvey and the IDEA Council member who spoke to Current. Its members can also propose DEI initiatives to Harvey, who ultimately leads all DEI-related activities. Harvey also works with Beryl Harold, who was hired last year as senior director for DEI and has prior HR and DEI experience.

After the council convened last year, staff from WNET’s children’s media and education team invited the group to review and provide feedback on Mission US, an educational gaming website that teaches American history, according to Horvitz.

Funded by CPB, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education, the site launched in 2010 as a learning resource presenting lessons on sensitive topics in American history, including slavery and genocide, for students in middle school and above. Public school districts in Minneapolis and Phoenix banned use of the game in their curriculums in 2015 and 2017 after parents and Black educators objected to interactive narratives depicting the lives of a teenage slave and a Native American boy.

Producers of Cyberchase, the math-focused PBS Kids series and online learning platform, asked the group to discuss character development for a new season of episodes that premiere this year, according to the council member. The Cyberchase team was “bringing on some new characters, some of whom were people of color, and they just wanted our expertise and extra set of eyes,” the council member said. “It was an opportunity for us to ask questions and really challenge the producers to maybe think about things they hadn’t thought before, not because of any ill intent but because everyone has their blind spots.”

The CyberSquad with cyborgs May, in yellow, and Ren, in blue hoodie, characters introduced in an episode of “Cyberchase” that debuted in 2020.

The council has also worked with American Masters, the biography series that WNET produces for PBS, and All Arts, the station’s multimedia platform of arts-related content.

The IDEA Council member praised the WNET Group’s “Making Space” workshop series. As of January, the station had held 14 workshops. Some have been open to all staff, and others were designated for four separate affinity groups for employees, according to WNET. An average of 77 employees RSVP to “Making Space” events that are open to all staffers.

“I think it’s really good to have opportunities to take a time out and have a space at work where you can express yourself, your emotions, share your background, your experiences in a safe space with your colleagues,” the council member said.

WNET also created “Community Connections Lunch and Learns,” in which leaders of community-based organizations that serve youth and communities of color discuss topics such as equal justice and public defense, and promoting community culture. Participating organizations have included Urban Word NYC, Art and Resistance Through Education, the Bronx Defenders, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and the American Indian Community House.

Harvey also oversees “Exploring Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and Extremism,” a reporting initiative that focuses on “the roots and rise of hate in America and across the globe.” Director of Production Judy Greenspan is working with Harvey on the project, which has partnered with WNET’s regional programs and national series, including GBH’s Frontline and the CNN co-production Amanpour and Company. A three-part virtual town hall series, “Exploring Hate Presents,” livestreamed on YouTube last fall.

In May, “Exploring Hate” will premiere a one-hour documentary directed by Titi Yu on PBS. One Day in March examines the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting in which eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed. Yu is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who investigated Uyghur reeducation camps in northwest China in They Come for Us at Night, which she produced undercover for Vice News Tonight on HBO in 2019.

The Ideation Academy, the training and membership program that’s in the research and planning phase, will focus on professional development and training in production-related jobs, Harvey said. It is being developed with input from the IDEA Council.

So far, planning for the academy has included exploratory conversations with JBC, the National Association of Black Journalists and other organizations that offer content-related leadership programs. The IDEA Council member said the academy will be crucial to WNET’s workforce development.

Harvey is also working on improvements to WNET’s succession planning that will empower employees from all backgrounds to advance in the workplace, she said.

‘It’s not there yet’

Employees who were active with the IDC in 2020 said progress on the issues that were most critical to their agenda has been incremental at best.

The IDC called on WNET to change its policy for nondisclosure agreements and provide more transparency on employee compensation. The IDC had argued that NDAs unfairly prevent current and former staffers from speaking freely about experiences with racism, harassment and discrimination in the workplace. It demanded that WNET release former employees from nondisclosure provisions in severance agreements and abolish the practice of requiring NDAs for all severance packages.

WNET has updated the terms of its NDAs, though employees must still sign them as part of a severance agreement, according to Harvey. The new contracts don’t prevent signatories from “truthfully disclosing the underlying facts or circumstances surrounding allegations or claims of unlawful harassment, discrimination or retaliation,” Harvey said, quoting directly from the new language. Harvey described the amended provision as “logical” and “reasonable.”

As for pay transparency, WNET is ready to comply with a new law that will require employers in New York City to disclose minimum and maximum salaries in all job posts, according to Harvey and Horvitz. But the WNET employees who requested anonymity want the organization to do more than comply with the new law. They want leadership to improve the organization’s policies and practices for promoting employees and ensuring pay equity.

Two employees said their managers haven’t given them formal performance reviews. Employees who want feedback on their work have had to ask for evaluations and felt the process lacked rigor. “How are you ever supposed to start a conversation about a promotion or a raise if no one is evaluating you?” one employee asked. “Yes, it is a pain for managers, but it needs to be done.”

WNET’s senior management promotes “continuous feedback and coaching” with employees instead of annual formal discussions led by managers, according to Horvitz. “There is also nothing preventing managers and employees from having formal reviews. That process can be initiated by either party,” she wrote in an email. A written policy guiding promotions is available to all staff on the stations’ intranet and through an employee newsletter.

Though a weariness has set in for those who pressed for change through the IDC, one of the employees who spoke without authorization hasn’t given up on WNET’s potential to transform itself.

“I’m tired and disillusioned,” said the employee, “but I still think it’s possible for the organization to truly be a public media organization that truly serves all of the public. But it’s not there yet. That’s disappointing.”

For her part, Harvey said the best is yet to come. She is open and responsive to employees who contact her, and the feedback she’s received about her DEI work so far has been largely positive, she said.

“I think people are encouraged by the change. They are seeing it. It’s not lip service, and it’s not performative. We are literally doing the work,” she said. “We’re moving on. We’re making change.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.