Social Justice

Aunt Martha’s Stands Against All Forms of Racial and Social Injustice

Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims (5th District, pictured to the far left) joined CEO Raul Garza (fourth from left) and the team at Aunt Martha’s Pediatric Health and Wellness Center in Chicago Heights to distribute protective facemasks and other supplies to community members on Thursday, September 3rd.


Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims (5th District) listens as Raul Garza, Aunt Martha’s President and CEO, speaks at the agency’s Chicago Heights Pediatric Health and Wellness Center on September 3.


Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer (right) raises a fist in solidarity as Raul Garza, Aunt Martha’s President and CEO, speaks about racial and social justice at a community event on Saturday, August 28.

Innovating and Investing in a Time of Crisis

October 21, 2020

In a time of crisis, Aunt Martha’s chose to stand up and speak out about the racial and social injustices that too many of our patients and clients, our parents and our children, our employees, our coworkers and colleagues continue to endure. We chose to challenge our peers to become more diverse at all levels, and to advocate for true change. There is progress, but the time has come for strides rather than mere steps. And in this time of crisis – inspired and driven by the courage and commitment of our employees – Aunt Martha’s chose to innovate, to invest in the immediate and ongoing needs of the hundreds of communities we serve.

We developed and opened the Children’s Quarantine Center (CQC), the state’s only facility designed to provide a homelike setting for foster care youth impacted by COVID-19. A hospital-grade negative air pressure system limits the spread of the disease, and its integration with Aunt Martha’s health care team ensures every youth is monitored for symptoms, has direct access to COVID-19 testing and care, and maintains full compliance with any other medication needs. Despite continuing opposition, the CQC continues to operate, at times near 100% capacity, serving youth placed from communities across Illinois.

We expanded access to care, expanding the use of our telehealth network to offer remote access to our therapy, medical and dental services. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, our providers and care coordinators completed more than 40,000 telehealth visits.

And, even in a time of social distancing, we have continued to forge ahead with new partnerships that leverage our unique experience to understand and respond to the rapidly evolving needs of our patients and clients. These collaborations will serve as the groundwork for initiatives that build on our CQC experience, reach new people in new communities and expand access to an integrated network of healthcare, child welfare, housing, education and employment services.

Aunt Martha’s chooses the path of innovation and investment. We choose to look inward and challenge ourselves. And we look outward, accepting the challenges ahead and challenging the assumptions that contribute to the injustices and divisions in our communities and in our country.

Exposing Racism in All Forms

September 21, 2020

I write today because you have always known me to be transparent with you about organizational issues Aunt Martha’s is facing, including at times what our leaders are experiencing personally. Aunt Martha’s has never hesitated, in its history of close to 50 years, to stand up against injustice in any form, in any forum or in any community. Over the past four months, I have written extensively to audiences both personal and public about our clear stance and commitment to racial and social justice. Many of our employees have also expressed their concern and their disgust with the level of inequity that exists within certain outside entities, and it has been my pledge to continue to take this fight to any and all arenas where it is necessary. To meet that commitment, I – and we – must be willing to challenge, even confront those among us who might hear our words but fail to heed our message.

Today, Aunt Martha’s is at the forefront in a movement of morality. The change we seek and the justice we demand may begin with the individual but it will not be realized until the morals of equity and fairness are part and parcel of the institutions upon which we all depend.

Among those Aunt Martha’s has challenged are the co-chairs of a statewide advocacy group comprised of CEOs, executive directors and other c-suite professionals, more than 75% of whom are white, which is not representative of the individuals who depend on their work. The response of the two white co-chairs to Aunt Martha’s challenge to build a more diverse, inclusive membership has been indignant at best. In some cases, the response has been blatantly racist.

One co-chair, on a call that took place more than a week after I had written a letter challenging the group to examine its diversity and practices, asked me why I had not brought my concerns directly and privately to them. My response was simple. This is a conversation that must not take place behind closed doors. The demand for change is clear; and the decisions we choose to make – to recognize what is right or perpetuate a culture of incivility and exclusion – must be made with the utmost of transparency.

Then, a subsequent conversation took place between the two co-chairs and three African American members of Aunt Martha’s executive team (Audrey Pennington, Chief Operating Officer; Dr. Charles Barron, Chief Medical Officer; and Dr. Forrest Moore, Chief Strategy and Innovations Officer) that was intended as an opportunity for the co-chairs to apologize for their offensive lack of a timely response to the concerns raised by Aunt Martha’s. However, as opposed to simply apologizing and then identifying actions the co-chairs could take to increase diversity, its other co-chair made repeated demeaning and hurtful remarks. In response to a suggestion from Audrey to change the composition of membership in order to identifying people of color beyond the c-suite, the co-chair repeatedly expressed concerns regarding people not coming “ready and prepared to do the work” and the need to identify individuals who were “strategic thinkers.” After the sentiments were expressed a few times, Dr. Moore attempted to redirect the comment by explaining that what the group was discussing and the co-chair’s concerns appeared to be two separate issues: 1) Identifying diverse members, and 2) Member roles, responsibilities and accountability.

Following the conversation, Audrey, Dr. Barron, and Dr. Moore felt compelled to memorialize their experience, which they all three identified as a micro-aggression, and sent a communication to the co-chairs indicating that the co-chair’s comments had perpetuated the “false narrative regarding laziness that Blacks have been forced to fight against for centuries” and informing them that “raising concerns regarding work ethic during a conversation about building a more diverse membership was, at best, misplaced.”

Despite the subsequent acknowledgment and requisite apologies that have been made, this memo is a condemnation of the sentiments laid bare by those two co-chairs. Their stance, whether purposeful or pure posturing, has no foundation. I had an opportunity to speak with the top 20 Aunt Martha’s leaders on Friday and upon sharing the details of this experience with them, they became emotional, they became angry, and they demanded change. Every single member of Aunt Martha’s leadership team, whether a person of color or not, was repulsed by the details of our colleagues’ experience. That experience reminds us that even publicly celebrated, respected individuals are not immune to the failures of deep-seeded, hurtful biases.

We continue to fight for fairness with a clarity of heart and in the clear light of day. Those who oppose our view should possess the same courage, lest their conversations and lust for control continue in the shadows.

New Support in Our Fight Against Racism, Discrimination in the Village of Midlothian and the Battle Against COVID-19

August 17, 2020

Backed by a $5 million donation from The Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, the Live Healthy Chicago collaborative informed Aunt Martha’s last week of a $50,000 grant award to offset a portion of the cost of the negative air pressure system installed in April at our Children’s Quarantine Center (CQC).

The CQC represents Aunt Martha’s response to calls from DCFS for agencies with the capacity to safely care for youth in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, it is the state’s only facility designed to care specifically for foster children whose living situation is disrupted by COVID-19. The installation of a hospital-grade negative air pressure system – which insures infectious germs do not spread through the HVAC system from the rooms where youth are quarantined to the rest of the facility – is one of the many investments we’ve made to protect our employees and the youth in our care.

The CQC has also come to represent the fight against a plague far older, far more infectious and far more dangerous than any virus. Since mid-May it has been the frontline of Aunt Martha’s fight against discrimination and intolerance. The Village of Midlothian continues to shroud its discriminatory effort to close the CQC behind a message of public safety. What level of concern was raised when there was a COVID-19 outbreak at a local nursing home? What questions did Village officials ask? What demands did they make of that facility and those responsible for its operation?

If fairness was their practice and public safety their priority, the Village would have subjected the nursing home to the same level of scrutiny to which it has forced Aunt Martha’s to respond. Instead, “fairness” remains a concept foreign to their vernacular and their selective concern for “public safety” only a weak attempt to veil their discrimination.

The breakdown last week of settlement negotiations in our federal lawsuit against the Village is further illustration of its defiance in the face of justice, of decency and what is right. The leadership of the Village of Midlothian chooses to ignore their moral obligation at a time when communities across our country and around the globe are so rightfully vilifying long-standing racial and social injustices.

Several days ago, I had occasion to speak with Robin Robinson, the highly respected, Emmy awarding-winning Chicago journalist. I shared with her Aunt Martha’s experience with the Village of Midlothian. Her reaction, describing the situation as a “travesty” and her offer to lend her voice in support of Aunt Martha’s were not unlike the responses I have received from so many others.

My conversation with Ms. Robinson and the new funding from the Live Healthy Chicago collaborative are just the latest examples of the valuable allies Aunt Martha’s continues to gain in this fight. Most importantly, they are friends and allies to the children and youth who rely on us – on you – to stand up on their behalf.

Reflecting on our Shared Journey

Excerpt from a Memo to Aunt Martha’s Employees from Raul Garza, President & CEO

July 2, 2020

On Tuesday, June 30, I published a statement following that days hearing before the US District Court in Aunt Martha’s discrimination suit against the Village of Midlothian.

The judge had extended the emergency temporary restraining order that prevents the Village from shutting down our Children’s Quarantine Center. The individuals representing the Village, however, have never been more transparent in either their desire or intent to shutter the CQC. They couch their motives in a message of public safety. But let me be absolutely clear. The protection they seek is not protection from a virus. They are fighting to keep diversity out of their community. They are fighting to prevent DCFS youth, most of whom are children of color, many of whom suffer from physical or mental disabilities, from receiving a level of care that every child deserves and which only the CQC can offer. They, in short, are fighting on the wrong side of history; and as far as Aunt Martha’s is concerned, their discriminatory practices and racist attitudes can be neither tolerated nor allowed to prevail.

This is where we stand as we enter the three-day holiday weekend. It is a good time to reflect on the journey we have taken together. I am certain that none of us has ever experienced a three and a half month period that has felt so long or caused so much upheaval in every aspect of our lives. We – you – have done this organization’s best work under the most trying of circumstances. Reflect on that, on the mental, emotional and physical sacrifices we have made for one another. Be proud, but also be mindful. Enjoy the holiday, but remember that we must all continue to protect each other and ourselves from a virus that is still very real and very dangerous. Reflect on your personal journey, celebrate our shared journey, and know that I believe our greatest work still lies ahead.

Finally, as I reflect on my own experience, I need to acknowledge the members of Aunt Martha’s Executive Leadership Team, whose commitment to our mission and dedication to our employees has never been so clearly displayed than it has over the course of the past four months. Through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic to the frontline of the fight to transform racial and social justice, their tireless and selfless work deserves our recognition and our thanks.

I, for one, have never worked with a stronger group of leaders than the team of: Audrey Pennington, Chief Operating Officer; Jessica Cummings, Chief Legal and Administrative Officer; Mary Martin, Chief Financial Officer; Dr. Charles Barron, Chief Medical Officer, and Allison Van Gerpen, Executive Assistant to the President & CEO and Director of Special Projects.

These five individuals have worked countless hours to ensure the safety of our employees. Their diligent planning and execution has saved jobs and preserved health benefits. They have, at all times, communicated with transparency and compassion. Most importantly, they have never allowed themselves or any member of their team to be comfortable or complacent with any of these priorities being anything less than fully accomplished.

My thanks to each of them, and to all of you. Please be safe this weekend as the rates of infection go up across the country and the city continues to see unprecedented increase in violence. Keep your children and yourselves safe.

A Statement from Raul Garza, President and CEO, on Aunt Martha’s Continued Stand Against Racism and Against the Discriminatory Practices in the Village of Midlothian

June 30, 2020

Last month, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a level of racial and social upheaval our country has not witnessed in a generation, Aunt Martha’s filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Village of Midlothian for violating the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act in an effort to shutter the state’s first children’s quarantine center for DCFS youth affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yesterday, the court issued its third extension of the Emergency Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), which Order continues to prohibit the Village from shutting down the only facility designed for this purpose, for yet another 60-day period or until August 28, 2020. The issue at hand is not one of local ordinances. The Village of Midlothian would like the public to believe that is the case. Nor is the issue at hand one of public health and safety. Still, the Village attempts to portray it as that, too.

This discrimination case has been and continues to be one of fairness. It is, at its core, the issue we are all challenged to confront and represents the systemic inequities we have allowed to become so deeply entrenched in our society and, at our own fault, in our own communities.

There is no challenge more difficult to overcome than that which we refuse to confront. The events of recent weeks have given rise to difficult conversations. Those conversations must be had in our boardrooms and in the public forum, at our breakfast tables, across our balconies and over our backyard fences. 

Aunt Martha’s chooses to follow the right and just path. So, too, do our allies, who we are proud to recognize and to stand alongside. Recognizing the civil rights violations being perpetrated by the Village of Midlothian against the DCFS youth served at the Children’s Quarantine Center – youth of color, youth with mental and physical handicaps, youth who are now fighting COVID-19, this week Aunt Martha’s legal team led by Jessica Cummings and Ricardo Meza, anchored by Roger Derstine, and assisted by Sohil Shah, was joined by Homero Tristan and the UIC John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Clinic. We issued a press release annoucing that partnership today.

It is my solemn commitment that Aunt Martha’s will continue to stand up against discrimination in all forms and will continue to advocate against inequality and the health disparities that systemic racism and inequality ultimately breeds.  We will not allow the Village of Midlothian or any other government entity, institution, or corporation to prevail in treating the most vulnerable members of our society disproportionately.

Juneteenth, the Supreme Court and Living up to our Ideals

A Statement from Raul Garza, President & CEO

June 19, 2020

Today, June 19 – or Juneteenth – commemorates the freedom of the last Black slaves in America. It has been 155 years since the date was first recognized in 1865. As recent events have demonstrated, our country and each of us as individuals still have a great deal of work to do in the name of equality and justice. It is a day to reflect on the type of country we are, and the type of country and the type of people we must still strive to become.

We must choose to be accountable for our words and our actions. We must consider our own shortcomings, our biases and misperceptions. Then, we must make a conscious effort every day to not merely correct our own failures but to insure we do not condemn future generations by poisoning our children with those same shortcomings and biases.

The Supreme Court reminded us this week of the basic values, the basic rights that too many people have learned to take for granted, but which too many others have had to fight so hard to enjoy. First, on Monday, the Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination based on sex. That decision represented a huge victory for the LGBTQ community. Then, yesterday, the Court blocked the president’s administration’s attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation.

As we come to the end of another week in our continued fight against the coronavirus and our renewed effort to live up to our country’s true ideals, I want to thank all of you who have taken the time to reach out to me directly. Your words of gratitude and support tell me that Aunt Martha’s has chosen to be on the right side of history. Your messages are appreciated and valued more than you know.

Finally, I want to wish Happy Father’s Day to all of the fathers of Aunt Martha’s. Please take the time to enjoy your children, however young or old. The future we are fighting for is theirs.

And, to everyone, please have a safe weekend. Take care of yourselves and each other.

A Landmark Decision for Diversity and Inclusion

Excerpt from a Memo to Aunt Martha’s Employees from Raul Garza, President & CEO

June 15, 2020

I have mentioned the work being done to restructure the design of our orgnization to best support our employees and thrive in the new reality of COVID-19; and, more importantly, strengthen our ability to contribute to a social environment of racial equity and justice.

I am pleased to report that we have completed the design phase of that effort. Now, we must all go to work. The changes we make and the work we do together will represent an extension of our collective fight against the racial and social injustices faced by so many members of the communities we serve.

I am pleased to share that today our country’s evolution into a more just society took an important step forward. Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

We are living through a historic time. Our own work at Aunt Martha’s is both inspired by recent events and meant to position our organization to serve as an agent of inspiration in response to the renewed and, I hope permanent, demand for and attention to bringing justice and equality to all aspects of our society.

A Continued Call-to-Action

A Statement from Raul Garza, President & CEO

June 12, 2020

In calendar year 2019, more than 70 percent of the patients and clients who turned to Aunt Martha’s were people of color. One-third of those we served identified themselves as being Hispanic or Latino in ethnicity. More than half (55 percent) identified themselves as African American.

These numbers are more than statistics. They represent this organization’s commitment – your commitment – to serving and to caring for those who historically have been underserved at best, and often left to fend entirely for themselves. They also represent Aunt Martha’s. They represent you and I. Today, for the first time in its proud history, Aunt Martha’s has people of color serving in the roles of both CEO and Chief Operating Officer. Overall, more than 75 percent of the agency’s staff (including close to 60 percent at the leadership level) are people of color, representing and reflecting at every level of the organization the experiences and challenges faced every day by the people we serve.

Our commitment to and achievement (at least relative to many other organizations) of true diversity up, down and across our organization can and should be a source of pride. More importantly, it must continue to be a call-to-action.

The self-reflection, difficult conversations and the rightful demands for justice and change throughout society brought about by the tumult of the past weeks are merely the beginning. The depth of the depravity and discrimination to which so many are subjected must be eradicated, but it must never be forgotten.

As an organization that is committed to diversity and inclusion, and that celebrates the strengths of every individual, we must never allow ourselves to accept – individually or as an organization – anything less than the full and true realization of the HUMAN RIGHTS of every person in our community. That challenge sits with each of us. We are called to carry it and to live its truth in our homes, our neighborhoods and our workplace.

Finally, however, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from the continuing, global health crisis of the coronavirus. I have repeatedly urged each of you to take the precautions necessary to protect yourselves and your families. This is particularly important for those who might make trips across the state line, where although the restrictions may be fewer, the health risks remain the same. I would be remiss if I did not continue to echo my previous requests. The decisions we make as individuals will have a direct impact on our families, our coworkers and those we serve. I ask you all, once again, to please take care.

We Stand Against Racial Injustice

A Statement from Raul Garza, President & CEO

May 31, 2020

The overt acts of racism that have occurred across our country over the past few weeks are truly disturbing. The tragic events that have been covered extensively by the media recently are truly some of the worst examples, but they are not the only racist events that have occurred in the past month, past week, or even the past day. Racism of varying degrees occurs every minute of every day – some with tragic outcomes such as the heartbreaking cases of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. May they both rest in peace.

Although the internet and social media has, at times, allowed racism to be more readily exposed, racism in our country is not a new reality. The dark history of mistreatment of people who are perceived to be “different” than those in power has scarred this country and all who call it home. The disadvantages created by the vicious cycle of historic and ever-present racism is immense. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified the inequalities that already existed.

Recognizing and calling out racism is the first step in bringing about change. To do our part, we must stand up against racial injustice and make a commitment to be overtly anti-racist. That is the commitment that we all must share. It is not only our duty as human beings or U.S. citizens, but also as individuals who, as members of the Aunt Martha’s team, have committed our lives to addressing the effects of the racial and social injustice many of our patients and participants have experienced throughout their lives.

As an organization, Aunt Martha’s believes that we have a duty to stand up against what is wrong – whether it is against an individual, a company, an association, or even a municipality.  That belief is reflected in our long history of standing up for the rights of DCFS youth in care, the majority of whom are children of color, especially African American youth, whose lives have been immeasurably impacted by the weight of racial and social injustice this country has failed to accept and address over hundreds of years. This belief is what underlies Aunt Martha’s decision and commitment to our fight against the discriminatory actions of the Village of Midlothian.  And as I have said before, it is a fight from which we will not shy away.      

This is the time that we must all bond together – to treat one another with respect, to appreciate our differences, and to recognize that there are those among us who, based simply on the color of their skin, are more at risk than others. To our hundreds of team members of color, I am immensely sorry that this is your reality. Please know that myself and the rest of the Aunt Martha’s leadership is here for you and we will do anything we can to support you. As always, your safety and wellbeing is of utmost importance. Please be safe as you travel to work or within your communities over the coming days and do not hesitate to reach out to us if needed.     

And if you feel that you would benefit from additional support during this difficult time, you can reach out to me or any member of Aunt Martha’s leadership team. Confidential counseling services are also available through the Employee Assistance Program by calling 1-800‐292‐2780.