Workers Fight for Cleansing Expression in Workplace

3-16-2016
Social workers Bobbi Jo Potter and Brian Thorbjornsen are among the AFSCME members at St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services who want the right to smudge to ceremonially cleanse their offices for workers and Native American clients. Potter’s sign reads: “I’m not asking for anything new. I’m asking that you honor our rights [and] an existing policy.”
Social workers Bobbi Jo Potter and Brian Thorbjornsen are among the AFSCME members at St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services who want the right to smudge to ceremonially cleanse their offices for workers and Native American clients. Potter’s sign reads: “I’m not asking for anything new. I’m asking that you honor our rights [and] an existing policy.”

AFSCME workers in Public Health and Human Services can deal with the most emotionally difficult issues in their jobs: abuse, addiction, families struggling to keep the heat on and to keep their kids.

Several of these workers in AFSCME Local 66 in St. Louis County want to turn to a Native American tradition for help. They’re fighting for the right to occasionally say a silent prayer while burning small amounts of sage, tobacco, cedar or sweet grass in their offices.

The spiritual and medicinal tradition is called smudging. It generates a wisp of smoke that people draw over their heads and down their bodies. It’s used to help people gain peace, clear negative energy and bring healing.

“It helps center me,” says social worker Bobbi Jo Potter, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. She says smudging helps her deal with difficult, emotional cases and with the racism she and her clients face. “It’s almost like a release.”

“If you go into a space where people are tense or a little nervous and you smudge, you instantly feel like someone dialed down the dial a little bit,” says social worker Brian Thorbjornsen.

Helping clients with tough decisions

These workers want their Native American clients to have that option, too: Forty percent of the kids in foster care in St. Louis County are Native American. 

“When we’re telling them we’re going to move their children or their benefits are going to get cut, this is going to have a huge effect in their lives,” Potter says. “There are a lot of hard, emotional decisions families have to make in that building. That’s a time smudging would be helpful. Right now, they can’t deal with it in the way they know how.”

The workers have filed requests to smudge in the office, circulated petitions and are going through the grievance process. A discrimination case is pending before the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

Nearly 40 AFSCME workers joined a protest outside a grievance hearing to show support for smudging. "This is our time to speak up about what is right and just for all people, and making our workplace better, and for all people coming here for help," Local 66 president Dennis Frazier told those testifying. "Be confident!"
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But the county has repeatedly denied their requests, offering alternatives like smudging in a car or a parking lot, rather than the office, says Local 66 steward Theresa O’Halloran Johnson. That’s even though the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act has an exception for traditional Native American spiritual or cultural ceremonies.

County officials initially said smudging presented a fire hazard, O’Halloran Johnson says.  Now they’re arguing it’s a violation of the scent-free workplace policy. But she points out the county doesn’t police heavy perfumes, flowers or strong cleaning products – just smudging.

 “It’s been very frustrating,” Potter says. “In this day and age, when we talk about how much this agency values and wants diversity, asking to smudge and continually being told no makes me feel not valued.”

At the same time, she says, “This has been an opportunity for the union to advocate and support diversity in the workplace. It feels very empowering and supportive.”

Making accommodations

O’Halloran Johnson says only one worker has voiced concerns, and that worker was relieved to learn that smudging generates so little smoke. When supporters did a test run, nobody on the floor had health issues or even noticed.

“A little education has gone a long way to dispel any fears,” O’Halloran Johnson says, adding that they’d craft a policy that’s sensitive to colleagues with allergies or asthma, and they’d look to other public employers that allow smudging as a model. “The idea is to have a process so workers can do it in a respectful manner.”

Thorbjornsen says accommodations already in use would do the trick. During routine spraying or heavy construction, the county has sent out alerts so people with health issues can work offsite or at home for the day.

“When an accommodation can be made and has been made to address various issues in the past, why can’t one be made now?” Thorbjornsen asked.

As difficult as the fight has been, Potter is sure they’ll prevail: “When I hear ‘No,’ we keep moving, because every time we’re chipping away at the iceberg. Somewhere, something’s going to give and someone will realize just how foolish this is.”

Workers say they hope they’re making it easier for others to ask for spiritual or cultural accommodations in the future so that Native Americans and other diverse populations will feel supported, too.