Listen: 20200714_Script: John Staine (Kraker)

MPR’s Dan Kraker interviews John Staine, a real estate appraiser at St. Louis County courthouse, who in an effort to address racial bias in the workplace, started a direct dialog about race with his fellow 2,000 St. Louis County employees.


2020 MBJA Eric Sevareid Award, award of merit in Soft Feature - Large Market Radio category


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SPEAKER 1: And now to St. Louis County for the story of a County staffer, one of the few Black employees at the County Courthouse in Duluth. John Staine felt he was being singled out because of the color of his skin. And he was sick of it. Dan Kraker has this story on the unusual approach Staine took to dealing with the discrimination he faced and how he's reflecting back on it since George Floyd was killed.

SPEAKER 2: John Staine has worked at the St. Louis County Courthouse as a real estate appraiser for two and 1/2 years. He loves his job, except for one part, repeated questioning from security guards. There was the time a guard blocked him from walking through a doorway.

JOHN STAINE: You know, and just gives me the up-down look. And I was like, you don't recognize me? You know, he did, like, a shaking his head nope. And I jumped right to the point. I was like, I'm one of the only Black person in the building. I recognize you. I see you all the time. He was like, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

SPEAKER 2: There were other times guards made him take off his winter hat, the times they checked his badge, the times he was stopped and questioned. The tipping point came in January. He was talking to a colleague in the hallway.

JOHN STAINE: A court security guard just cuts us off and right in the middle of a conversation, just looks at me and says, do you work here? And I had said, I do, but why does that matter? And you didn't say anything to her.

SPEAKER 2: Staine walked away frustrated. But then he thought maybe he should help relieve the tension.

JOHN STAINE: So I went back, introduced myself. I'm like, yeah, I'm John Staine. I've been here for a couple of years now. And I've been asked too many times, like, do you work here? How did you get in the building? Who let you in? You're like, with my badge in sight. I was like, you see my badge is on me. You had other people walk past you and you didn't say anything to those other people.

SPEAKER 2: The guard said, well, some people have fake badges. There are homeless people around.

JOHN STAINE: I just told him I was one of the few Black people in the moon. He was like, oh, I be racist because I worked in corrections for over 20-something years.

SPEAKER 2: Staine ended the conversation there. He called his wife, fuming. And she said, why don't you write an email. Tell people who you are. So that night, he did.

JOHN STAINE: Good morning all. My name is John Staine. I work on the second floor of the courthouse in the Assessor's Department.

SPEAKER 2: He wrote that he's 27. He's lived in Duluth in Superior, Wisconsin most of his life. He's married with a three-year-old son who he adores.

JOHN STAINE: And I'm used to that don't belong here, how'd you get here type of deal. And I'm being told I'm out of place. I was up all night restless, confused, and upset, thinking how can I make things easier for myself and for those around me?

SPEAKER 2: And then he said he hoped this email would make people feel more comfortable when they saw him in the halls.

JOHN STAINE: Signed the young Black man with some tattoos, braids, afro, or a ponytail.

SPEAKER 2: The next morning, he hit send. It went to around 2,000 St. Louis County workers.

JOHN STAINE: Yeah, the heart was beating. I was nervous.

SPEAKER 2: Staine didn't know how his colleagues would react. But he knew he had the support of his Department head, Mary Garnis. Staine showed her the note before he sent it. She told him there was actually a policy against sending all-staff emails. But she encouraged him to do it anyway.

JOHN STAINE: I think it was that important to just, you know, John I'll support you. And if there's any fallout, I will take the heat. Because I think, often, those stories, there's just not an awareness because people don't feel comfortable saying anything and calling it out.

SPEAKER 2: The reaction was overwhelming. Staine got over 200 responses, almost all of them positive. People came to his office to introduce themselves. They thanked him for telling his story. He started meeting with other employees of color. Still, he says it's frustrating that he had to work to make others feel comfortable, when he's the one who's been dealing with discrimination in the overwhelmingly white County government.

JOHN STAINE: It's very exhausting. And it's tough too because you play the game of chess, right? So you kind of figure out how I'm going to respond to this attack, which, again, that person might not have seen it as an attack, but it is an attack. Why? Because the last person did it, and the last person did it. Because, yeah, those microaggressions definitely add up.

SPEAKER 2: Now, in the wake of George Floyd's killing, Staine thinks about how his story could have ended if he had reacted differently.

JOHN STAINE: It hit a lot because it's like, yeah, I could've been there in the Courthouse with a knee in my neck, you know?

SPEAKER 2: Staine says he feels like his email was his own personal protest, a way to make his voice heard, to make people realize, if only for a moment, how their actions have impact. Dan Kraker, NPR News, Duluth.


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