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Man suing YMCA calls for open discussion about race

Nearly two months after a lawsuit was filed against the Ashland Family YMCA with allegations of racial discrimination, plaintiff Nkeruwem “Tony” Akpan said the time is ripe to continue pushing for open discussions about race.

Akpan, a Black man represented by lawyer Tom Dimitre, filed a lawsuit Oct. 24 against the fitness center in Jackson County Circuit Court, seeking $950,000 for 16 alleged violations including discrimination and harassment based on race, retaliation, failure to reasonably accommodate and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“Because Mr. Akpan has filed a lawsuit against the YMCA, it is not appropriate for us to comment about the allegations he has made, other than to reiterate that his claims have no merit, and we intend to vigorously defend against them in the legal forum he has chosen,” said Alexandra Hilsher, a lawyer representing the Ashland Family YMCA, in response to questions about employee protections, the Y’s role in burgeoning discussions about race, and whether Akpan’s termination was overseen by anyone other than CEO Dan Crocker.

Responding to Crocker’s former characterization of the lawsuit as a “media strategy,” Akpan said the statement reveals how out of touch YMCA leadership is with the seriousness of the reality he experienced.

Dimitre said based on interviews with current and former YMCA employees, Akpan’s experience is not singular. The organization faces a systemic, institutional problem that cannot be ignored, he said.

A 30-day window for the Y to respond to the lawsuit has been extended, after which Dimitre said he will request documents supporting Akpan’s claims and depose Crocker and others implicated in the suit.

Akpan said when he began working for the Y in 2015, his goal was to serve as a mentor for youth and encourage success in both school and sports activities. For many years, his team-first attitude allowed minor issues to slide by. In July 2019, he was promoted to sports director.

“Being a team player, just like an athlete, you try to make things work,” Akpan said.

Akpan said he eventually began documenting interactions with colleagues, gym members and supervisors — using email to make written reports about incidents of discrimination.

In 2019, Akpan said he was written up for allegedly failing to take a lunch break, which he denies. He reported concerns over the issue to leadership. Akpan said when he sent a letter asking for the write-up to be fully investigated, he received a negative characterization of his work ethic.

“When I cried foul about that, it followed up with if I want to continue with my investigation, that the Y would come down on me,” Akpan said. “At this point, I felt betrayed, I felt there was no one to stand with me. I was just there by myself.”

He ceased pursuit of the investigation and tolerated the unfair treatment — later receiving a pay raise, which he perceived as a reward for his silence.

Akpan said in summer 2020, he was subject to racist obscenities by a man on the YMCA field, who said he should “go back home to Africa,” Akpan recalled. His first concern was to protect children on the field from the man’s behavior, he said.

The incident was not addressed by supervisors, apart from a sympathetic comment about the man’s previous derogatory comments toward a female staff member, Akpan said.

Later, a gym member was asked to put a mask on at the entrance to the fitness center and refused, instead saying Akpan’s “kind” were the only ones who needed to wear masks, he recalled.

Akpan said he notified Crocker about the incident and was called in to discuss how the YMCA would address the slurs and discriminatory behavior he says he endured.

“I was happy to have that discussion,” Akpan said. “When I went in to discuss how the Y would protect me, I got a note asking me to sign papers. I read everything, and I said, ‘I can’t sign this.’ You’re taking away half of my hours, you’re taking away more than half of my pay, you’re taking away my benefits — how do you want me to survive with a family of six?”

Akpan received notice that his last day at the Y would be Sept. 4. Access to his office and computer were revoked and he undertook janitorial duties, which he said is honorable work if not in the context of encouraging an employee to resign.

A week after the Sept. 8 Almeda fire swallowed his home, Akpan received a separation agreement offering $2,910 in severance pay to drop claims alleged against Crocker, according to Dimitre. Akpan refused to sign the documents and initiated the lawsuit.

“I know how I was treated, I know what goes on at the Y. They know what they are doing, they know what they have done and now they want to silence me,” Akpan said.

After postponing legal consultation in January, Akpan said he decided his silence could subject another person of color to the same experience. Beyond his personal hardship with this case, Akpan said any platform within the greater community is the right place to have a discussion about race in Ashland.

Akpan said he recognized that contradicting the Y’s status quo would bring consequences, but he intends to keep momentum behind his case alive to alleviate fear for others in the community afraid to speak out and jeopardize their job security.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Nkeruwem “Tony” Akpan