A photo from inside the Diane Wade House.
A photo from inside the Diane Wade House. Multnomah county

Update, May 6:

In a statement send to the Mercury, Bridges to Change's board of directors have denied all allegations in the lawsuit, calling them "mistruths that have the potential to impede in our mission to deliver critical services."

"At Bridges to Change, we are deeply concerned about any accusations of racism, bias, and discrimination," the statement continues. "We unequivocally deny the inflammatory and highly distorted allegations contained in the recent complaint filed against Bridges to Change and will defend the integrity of our organization to the fullest."

Original Story, April 24:

Three former employees at a Multnomah County-funded transitional home have filed a lawsuit against the nonprofit that runs the home, alleging racial discrimination in their complaint.

Former program manager O’Neesha Cochran and fellow ex-employees Sonja Freeman and Shalontelle White-Preston are suing Bridges to Change, a nonprofit that manages many housing and addiction services programs in the Portland area. The three women worked at Diane Wade House, a home for Black women who are formerly incarcerated or experience mental illness. Diane Wade House, located in Gresham, is owned by Multnomah County but operated by Bridges to Change.

Diane Wade House is meant to provide its residents with skills they’ll need to eventually live on their own, and offer a supportive environment that is racially and culturally specific to African American women. But soon after the home opened last year, the employees say they began noticing problems—including racial discrimination against employees and residents by Bridges to Change staff, and neglect of the residents’ needs. All three women who filed the lawsuit are Black.

The Mercury reported on alleged problems at the Diane Wade House in July 2019. From our previous reporting:

The problems Cochran and Freeman say they identified include Bridges to Change staff members treating house residents with disrespect, scant resources like personal hygiene products and cookware for residents, Bridges to Change failing to secure the contracted program vendors Cochran wanted to work with, clients being randomly separated from their mentors, and residents not being allowed to see their children in foster care as punishment for offenses as minor as swearing in the house.

… Freeman tells the Mercury that conditions at Diane Wade House got noticeably worse after Cochran was fired. Those in leadership positions at Bridges to Change filled in for Cochran until they found a permanent replacement, and Freeman, along with several residents, said relations between Bridges to Change employees and residents were tense, and residents’ complaints weren’t being listened to. But when Freeman tried to bring up her concerns with Bridges to Change leadership, she was brushed aside, and stripped of some of her key duties. It was the distress caused by this treatment, Freeman says, that prompted her to take a leave of absence.

“For me, the impact that it had on me as a Black woman was horrific,” Freeman says. “And I watch the women relive this terrorization over and over—I just had a really hard time. So I did my best for the women, but eventually I just couldn’t work like that.”

The civil lawsuit filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court this week echoes the concerns expressed by employees last year.

“Instead of supporting these women and clients in this mission, Defendant Bridges to Change used Black female employees to maintain a well-funded grant but failed to take appropriate action to serve this population,” reads the lawsuit, filed by Portland attorneys Kim Sordyl and Ashlee Albies. “When Plaintiffs repeatedly raised concerns about Defendant Bridges to Change’s programmatic and systemic failures, Bridges to Change punished them for it.”

The lawsuit was first reported on by the Oregonian.

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Before being awarded the contract for Diane Wade House by the county, Bridges to Change had never overseen a program intended specifically for people of color. Monta Knudson, Bridges to Change’s executive director, told the Mercury last year that the home represented “an area of growth” for the nonprofit.

“We can make this work,” he added.

In addition to racial discrimination, Cochran, Freeman, and White-Preston allege that Bridges to Change management engaged in retaliation against them, and caused them emotional and financial distress. They are seeking $2 million in damages.