Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Persistent Resistance in the 21st Century

Green tongues, bleeding from every orifice, impotence, even deaths: These were some of the complaints South African miners working for an American company made in the mid-90s. When Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo visited as a representative of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and heard about these health issues, she naturally reported them to the agency and encouraged them to investigate.

Little did she know that by basically doing her job, she was embarking upon a path of activism that would lead to the first whistleblowing legislation of the 21st century.

Given her background, it’s not surprising. Coleman-Adebayo worked with political activist Noam Chomsky at MIT while getting her PhD in political science. She specialized in International and African development, and her dissertation topic was considered controversial as it was about American newspapers and propaganda. Back in undergrad at Barnard, she demonstrated against South African apartheid. And it all started when she grew up in the Detroit area during the 1967 riots and volunteered at Black Panther Party-sponsored breakfast programs for children.

After she received her PhD, Coleman-Adebayo lectured in African Studies for American University, worked for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation as a senior social scientist providing research on newly emerging nations in Southern Africa, and worked with the World Wildlife Fund in the areas of African conservation and natural resources management. She was recruited by the United Nations to work as a project director in Ethiopia and Tanzania during the 1986 drought crisis.

In 1990, she joined the EPA but not before making her boundaries clear: She warned the director that she wasn’t going to be part of any policies or programs that had a negative impact on Africa or its people. As if her professional background wasn’t enough indication, her husband is from Nigeria and she has family and friends who live throughout Africa.

As soon as Coleman-Adebayo started working at the EPA, she encountered an environment of hostility. At every level, women and minority groups weren’t treated the same as their white male counterparts. When the governments of South Africa and the United States formed the Gore-Mbeki Commission to help with Nelson Mandela’s transition to a democratic government and improve the lives of South Africans, Coleman-Adebayo was appointed executive secretary of the commission. This meant her job “was to essentially help the South African government to work on issues that impact public health.” But it felt like a job in title only, as she wasn’t given the resources she needed. The EPA, for example, wouldn’t pay for her plane tickets to attend meetings, so the South African government offered to cover the cost.

Upon visiting South Africa, she met workers mining vanadium – which can be toxic for humans – while the company, Vametco, was ignoring their subsequent health issues. When Coleman-Adebayo reported her findings to the EPA, she was told they would raise funds to provide education and study environmental issues as well as the effects of vanadium.

But this never happened. Coleman-Adebayo told NPR that when she reported the situation in South Africa to her supervisors, she was incredulously told to “shut up” and just decorate her office. Instead of being rewarded for doing her job, she faced death threats, rape threats, and felt her family was in danger. “I was surprised that in the environment of the EPA…loyalty was a much greater value,” she told NPR. “When I began questioning U.S. policy, I was considered disloyal. And at that point, in the minds of many people at the EPA, I had become their enemy.”

Things only worsened. Coleman-Adebayo was removed from her position in South Africa, passed up for promotions she deserved, and then started getting impossible assignments. Her performance reviews went downhill and she told Barnard that she felt she was being set up to fail. When she discovered that she was the only person on an otherwise all-white professional staff of the Office of International Affairs who didn’t receive an outstanding performance evaluation or annual bonus, Time reported, she filed a discrimination complaint with the EPA’s office of civil rights.

When nothing changed, she realized her only recourse was to sue her employer. In the case of Coleman-Adebayo v. Browner, a jury found the EPA guilty of discriminating against her and creating a hostile work environment, awarding $600,000 in damages. The judge ultimately reduced the amount by half.

Even though the settlement surely did little to make up for the years of harassment, one benefit of the case was to make other EPA and government employees feel comfortable sharing their stories of discrimination by white supervisors. The support empowered Coleman-Adebayo, who testified before Congress and helped pass the Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act, or the No FEAR Act, in 2002. As the National Labor Relations Board states, “the primary purpose of the Act is to improve agency accountability for antidiscrimination and whistleblower laws.”

Coleman-Adebayo demonstrated her trademark persistence when continued to work at the EPA even through her diagnosis of hypertension. She filed a wrongful termination suit, in which she alleged that the EPA had been trying to force her out of her job since the Browner case. She also alleged that the EPA was retaliating against her for the No FEAR Act. A year later, she was reassigned to a lower position, and eight days later, placed in another post. The Washington Post reported that for a year, Coleman-Adebayo and the EPA “traded letters like punches.” She telecommuted until ordered into the office. After complaining of dizziness, she left in an ambulance and was placed on unpaid leave.

For the past six years, Coleman-Adebayo has been busy following through on what she started. She founded the No FEAR Institute, a non-profit devoted to educating the public about federal discrimination. She also founded the No FEAR Coalition, a group of civil rights and whistleblower organizations that fight for increased protection for federal employees and whistleblowers. In her book, No Fear: A Whistleblower’s Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA (September 2011), she writes about everything in detail. And her extraordinary story may be coming to a screen near you, as a film about her experience with the EPA is currently in pre-production.

In an interview with MIT, she said whistleblowers should be considered the canaries in the mine. When society doesn’t pay attention to these messages, the people who are causing the havoc develop a new confidence and their policies become more generalized, she added. “My message is that everyone should see themselves in a whistleblower…When we fail to pay attention, the larger society suffers,” she said.