When Julius Payne became the first-ever African-American male manager of the Rape Crisis Center, the Akron man thought not of himself but of others who might follow in his footsteps. 

“If I fail, what does that say for other black staff if they apply?” he wondered.

Director Cindy Bloom, who promoted Payne a year ago, was surprised when he recently shared these concerns — thoughts she admits never crossed her mind as a white woman.

“Never in my career did I feel that, if I fail, I will be letting down all white women,” Bloom said to him. “That's the weight you bear. That's huge.”

This is one of the many cultural differences that Bloom has learned from Payne, who was the Akron nonprofit's only minority employee when she became the director in August 2015. The rest were white women.

Bloom and Payne come from very different backgrounds. Bloom, 41, hails from Diamond, a small, mostly white town in Portage County. Payne, 40, has lived in Akron all of his life.

But despite their differences, Bloom and Payne say they have built an open, honest work relationship that allows them to have frank conversations about issues of race. For the past year, the two have teamed up to try to improve diversity at the agency and train the entire 20-person staff about biases.

That process included having employees take a Harvard University survey about biases, complete an evaluation about how comfortable they were working with people different from themselves, attend diversity training sessions and participate in small discussion groups. Efforts also have been underway to increase the diversity of the staff, which now includes four African-Americans.

Bloom and Payne say the initiatives have been beneficial, helping to foster an environment in which employees can ask questions without fear of being labeled racist or sexist. Both, however, say there's more to be done and hope these continued efforts will improve the services they provide, which include teaching young people about healthy relationships and assisting sexual assault victims in Summit and Medina counties.

“I feel like we just opened a door,” Bloom said. “It's a start.”

“I don't think this will ever be a finished project,” Payne agreed.

The Rape Crisis Center's efforts reflect a growing awareness nationwide among victim-advocates — an area dominated by white females — that their staffs need to be more reflective of and sensitive to the diverse populations they serve.

Bias training

“Why do black people act so dramatic at funerals?”

Bloom shared this question, which she had previously posed to Payne, with the center's staff during a bias training session last January.

Payne explained to the employees, as he had to Bloom, that this was a stereotype and didn't apply to all blacks.

He noticed that one of the black employees was offended by the question and told her: “You can't get offended right now. This is a good spot to learn.”

The initial session set the tone for a yearlong exploration of different types of biases.

Bloom and Payne asked employees to write down stereotypes they believed to be true and those that had negatively affected them.

Among the things they wrote: “Fat people are lazy,” “Muslims are terrorists,” and “Black people steal.”

The staff also completed an evaluation that probed how comfortable they were working with people who were a different race, gender, sexual orientation or age range, or were disabled or spoke a different language.

Bloom evaluated the responses and scheduled trainings for any area in which the staff fell below 75 percent.

From April until August, the center had monthly small group discussions about different topics, including racism, sexism and ageism. They attended trainings on dealing with clients who are gay or disabled.

The staff's discussions about cultural differences continued in the workplace outside the sessions. Bloom recalled how a black female employee told her she instructed her kids early on about the proper way to respond if a police officer talked to them or pulled them over, such as putting their hands on the wheel and turning down the radio.

Bloom, who has two adult children, shared that the only thing she ever taught her children about the police was that they could go to them for help.

“That was one of those moments,” Bloom said.

Results of efforts

Employees at the center say the bias training has helped teach them about themselves, their co-workers and the people they serve.

“It gave us a common ground,” Kelli Cary, a therapy services manager said during a recent interview.

The employees said they liked how Bloom and Payne led the process together, and made it clear they were being open in their discussions with each other.

“That really set the stage for all of us,” said Jasmine Jones, a support group advocate.

Jones found a training session about people with disabilities illuminating. For the session, employees read the book Wonder, which is about a young boy with a facial deformity. The boy talks about how people look away as soon as they glance at him, rather than looking at him as they would anyone else.

“I was like, 'Ah, I do that,' ” Jones said.

Jones said this made her feel uncomfortable, which she figures is part of facing biases.

Reflect the community

While the Rape Crisis Center has been learning about biases, the agency also has been working on making its growing staff more reflective of the community it serves.

When Bloom took the center's helm 2½ years ago, it had only four employees, the same as Townhall II in Portage County, the social-service agency where Bloom previously worked and that serves a smaller population.

The center sought and received additional grant funding that eventually brought the staff up to its current 20.

The center also was awarded a $1,000 Vernon Odom grant to recruit minority volunteers and staff. Bloom used these funds to reach out to places in the community, such as African-American churches, to spread the word.

“I wanted the staff to be representative,” said Bloom, who has been in the rape-crisis field since 2001. “You can't have a well-rounded team if you don't have other cultures represented.”

A month after she started, Bloom chose Payne to move from a part-time to a full-time position over the objections of a manager who thought this spot should go to a more experienced employee. Then, last February, she selected Payne to manage the agency's education efforts in Summit County. He was the first African-American male manager at either the Rape Crisis Center or the Battered Women's Shelter, two Akron agencies that are closely affiliated, and the first black manager at the center in a decade.

The center, which has a high turnover rate, at one point had six minority employees and now has four.

Bloom would like to increase this number and attract other minorities, such as Asians.

“I want to make it as easy as possible for people to come here,” she said.

The center served 3,364 clients in 2017, an all-time high. Most called the 24-hour hotline, which is anonymous. Among the clients who provided demographics last year, 27 percent were white, down from 31 percent in 2016, and 15 percent were African-American, up from 11 percent. Eight percent were another race, compared to 1 percent the previous year.

The center's staff still remains female dominated, with only three men.

Bloom hopes to hire more men, though the majority of clients — 74 percent in 2017 — are women.

Payne thinks having men on staff is important because sexual assault doesn't only happen to women. He acknowledged, however, that not all women feel comfortable dealing with a man. He recalls once about a year ago when he received a negative reaction from a sexual assault victim in the hospital.

“Get out!” she shouted when he came into her room.

Payne took a deep breath and said, “Oh, OK.” He highlighted a few of the services the center provides, and then said he would leave if the woman wanted.

“No, I'm OK now,” she responded, adding that the man who assaulted her was African-American.

Payne said he didn't take the woman's response personally.

“With that attitude, I would not be able to help her,” he said.

Making progress

Terri Heckman, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center and Battered Women's Shelter, said the center's efforts can serve as a model. She plans to roll them out in the next year with the Battered Women's Shelter's 80-person staff.

“I think what Cindy and her staff have done is not dealt with it like, 'We are having a speaker today,' ” said Heckman, who has been in the field for more than 30 years. “It has become part of the culture, part of who they are when they walk to the parking lot at night. They're not afraid of it.”

The next step for the Rape Crisis Center will be a discussion in February about what was done in the past year and what should be done this year. Bloom said future efforts will include reaching out to clients and other agencies to find out how well the center's employees are addressing diversity and what can be improved.

For now, though, Bloom and Payne point to small examples they view as progress.

Bloom recalled how a white woman talking to her and a few other center employees, including a black female, made a joke last spring about how she didn't want to bring out her “angry black woman.” Everyone laughed, but Bloom felt bad about this later and asked Payne if she should have said something about this being offensive.

“Wouldn't it have meant a lot if you did?” he asked.

Bloom apologized to the black female employee for not speaking up.

Payne is pleased that Bloom realized her mistake and is hopeful that she will react differently in the future. He compared this to the bystander training that he and other center employees do in local schools. During the sessions, they encourage students to take action if they see someone in need, such as a student being bullied.

“Our main thing is: Do something!” Payne told students last week at Bolich Middle School in Cuyahoga Falls.

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.