S.E. Williams | Executive Editor
“When the rules are unwritten they are easy to break when it is convenient. And, it is hard to argue they are not being followed when they are broken.”
The Inland Empire is a microcosm of the nation when it comes to women’s ongoing struggle for equity.
Already this year the challenges played out in a local city council and most recently, the Fontana Planning Commission (FPC).
In both instances women were denied leadership opportunities despite their tenure, qualifications, demonstrated leadership and established rotation protocol. In both instances all the men coalesced their support behind a male candidate instead and with limited, if any, public discussion about why they chose to ignore established, though unwritten, rules of leadership rotation adhered to in previous years.
Both times, the public was incredulous and questioned whether the changes in leadership selection were in one instance, racist; in the other sexual bias; or in either case intentional misogyny or unconscious bias.
When Fontana Planning Commissioner Cathline (Cathy) Fort, who served as its vice-chair in 2020, considered taking on the role of chairperson in 2021, it was the logical next step in her service as a commissioner.
Fort, an industrial engineering, safety, and risk management professional, spoke about her background in public service and role with the Commission.
“I served on the school board for years and during that time I was always involved in the community.” While a member of the board, Fort was also involved with the School Board Association and served as a delegate to the California School Board representing parts of San Bernardino County.
Her time with the board ended in 2016 and the following year with encouragement from Fontana Mayor Aquanetta Warren she accepted the role of Fontana Planning Commissioner.
As a member of the Commission, Fort spent her first year learning the operational landscape and gaining an enhanced understanding of the Commission’s functions and responsibilities before accepting the role of secretary in 2019 and in 2020 she was selected to serve as vice-chair.
The Controversial Vote for Chair
As noted, there are no written rules governing progression to the position of Commission chair though normally, one moves from secretary to vice-chair to chair. “It typically works that way,” explained Fort.
When a vote was scheduled March 2 to elect new leadership, it was not extraordinary for Fort to expect she would be the new chair. However, the vote yielded a different result—it was not to be—at least initially. The men on the Commission unanimously elected Commissioner Idilio Sanchez.
“I was surprised and caught off guard,” she explained looking back on that night. “Maybe shame on me for taking that for granted. When something is established as a norm and then something happens contrary to that, you start to question. It seemed outside of the norm to me.”
Her fellow commissioners offered a consolation prize—a second opportunity to serve as secretary. This appeared cynical to some and ironic to others, considering Fort was nominated for this, by the very commissioner who was elected chair in her place. She respectfully declined.
During the session Fort tactfully reminded her peers two to three times of the approach the Commission took in previous years of rotating the vice chair to chair so every commissioner can gain experience in the role. Each time her comments were met with awkward silence. View the full discussion here.
Fort admitted she tends to challenge the norm sometimes. “When we place ourselves in circles where we typically [as Black people, as women] are not, then we can’t be surprised when things are different than how they customarily occur. We know on some level, there may be some choppy waters.”
“When people who look like me are not part of the process, then we cannot be surprised when we are not represented. Be the change you want to see,” she declared. “I’ve always adopted that model. So, when things happen differently than they normally would, I’m not surprised. This is not my first rodeo. You learn how to navigate those waters but still embrace who you are as part of the process.”
Recalling her time at Stanford University when its African-American population was about four percent she stated, “I know the struggle. Just being in California, lots of times depending on the room you’re in, you may be the only one [Black and/or woman] so you’ve got to learn how to navigate those waters.”
Explaining why she declined the role of secretary she noted, “Because I felt strongly I was qualified to serve as chair. I understood nine times out of ten, the vice-chair becomes the chair and why that did not happen this time,” she could not say.
There are two new commissioners and the night of the vote was their first meeting. “Maybe that was part of it. I know the four of them (referring to the four male commissioners) are on other committees and groups within the community where they work together. They say blood is thicker than water, maybe that’s a part.”
Being the only female on the commission sometimes there is a ‘bro-mance’ happening, acknowledged Fort with the recognition, as a woman, she can never be part of that. “Who knows,” she speculated. “There are other factors that could be involved. I can’t say.”
When asked directly about race as a factor, Fort responded, “No one’s ever made any racial comments or indicated any racial concerns or anything like that. So, I can’t say. It could have been a part of it,” she offered with qualification about the newest commissioners. “I don’t know them at all. I don’t know what their perspectives are on things. We will have to get to know one another as we continue to serve together.”
Mayor Acquanetta Warren Offers Insight
Mayor Warren understands and has lived Fort’s experiences. “I’m female. I’m Black. I’m a mayor. When I ‘hit the door,’ I’m asking for it,” she said. “It rises to the top,” she explained noting, “ how difficult it is to be in leadership roles as Black women.” What is difficult for some to understand she continued is, “We are not trying to take over their spot. We have a right to a spot too.”
Warren herself was passed over for a position a few years ago. It involved an opportunity to serve as mayor pro tem on the city council where there were similar unwritten rules for leadership rotation.
The mayor summed up the challenges faced by women, especially Black women, in community leadership roles, “We are just trying to help. We are not making big money. We care about our community and we have a right to do this,” she declared.
Perhaps it was her own experiences in addition to her leadership acumen that led Warren to interact with male members of the Planning Commission in the aftermath of the March 2 meeting about what happened.
“The more I reviewed the tape of the meeting and talked to some of them I don’t think they realized the optics of what they did . . . how it looked to have done this to the lone woman on the commission and the only African-American.”
“Not everybody is racist or sexist,” she continued. “I just think people do things they think are okay to get away with and you have to call them on it. Fair is fair. She [Fort] is qualified. She was vice-chair. There was no reason for her not to be the next chair.”
The mayor was asked whether she believed unconscious bias played a role in the other commissioners’ decision.
“I think it was self-serving,” she offered, explaining how the individual who was selected thought he had the votes and could get away with it, but after it happened and brought it to their attention, “They decided to do the right thing.”
When Warren contacted Commission members the night of the vote she asked, “What is going on here? You guys are kidding me, right?” She then left them alone to come to their own conclusion.
The Public Weighs In
In the meantime, members of the public were reaching out to her about what happened. “I told them I was fully aware of how it looked, but I was going to focus on how I get us together [as a community]. Everybody was 100 percent on that level.”
Whether working with local ministers, members of the Chamber of Commerce or others, the Mayor’s outreach efforts continue to expand. “I’m so happy we’re talking, not that we have not talked in the past.” Warren sees this as an opportunity to further engage residents on the myriad of issues exacerbated during the pandemic including racial justice, job losses, job opportunities, etc.
Fort echoed the importance of dialogue as she reflected on the reversal of the Commission’s leadership decision on March 16 when fellow commissioners elected her chair by acclamation. “I know there’s a lot of focus right now on diversity and inclusion, equity and belonging. Organizations are working to do better in these areas and I think anytime we can challenge the norm and help people self-reflect, that’s a good thing.”
She continued. “My hat is off to the individual they nominated for chair. He did ask me afterward why I declined [the position of secretary] and it opened the door to a conversation about merit, and earning a position on your merit, experience and qualifications; and how sometimes that can be viewed differently through different lenses.”
During the March 16 meeting Sanchez respectfully declined the position of Commission chair, nominated Fort in his place and asked the other commissioners to support his decision and recommendation.
“I respect that he shared with me, his wife works with him in his business and his daughter works for a corporation and how he wants them to have the opportunities they rightfully deserve.”
Initially Sanchez said he did not see his nomination by the other men as anything other than their respect for his leadership. “But, after he had an opportunity to really self-reflect and think about why I told him I declined [the secretary’s position],” Fort explained, he felt nominating her and declining the position himself was the right thing to do.
“He did feel I deserved that position and when you think about how the process had gone the year before and the year before that and the year before that, why was it different this time?”
Anytime we can challenge the norms and help people self-reflect, though things may not change right away because change can be slow in coming Fort stated, “But, as John Lewis said, sometimes we’ve got to make good trouble. I could have accepted it and just rolled with it, but it was not right and I’m not just going to roll with it.”
Fort believes it made a difference when she answered his question honestly and directly about why she declined the nomination for secretary without being accusatory towards him.
In a similar situation in February, men on the Redlands City Council never changed course after they by-passed Mayor Pro-tem Denise Davis for mayor. The unwritten rules were the same but rather than vice-chair to chair it involved mayor pro-tem to mayor. Davis too was blind-sided during the election process and deprived an opportunity she was qualified and positioned to undertake. Like Fort she handled the disappointment with professionalism. Read the IE Voice news report here.