A Calif. FF resigned over a toxic work culture. Now he's returning to lead change

After months of self-reflection, Sacramento Firefighter Desmond Lewis has been working with department personnel to regain his position


Marcus D. Smith
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A Sacramento Fire Department firefighter plans to return to the agency after resigning earlier this year because of what he described as a culture of "hazing, sexism and racism" within the agency.

After months of self-reflection, Desmond Lewis has been working with fire department personnel to regain his position as a probationary firefighter.

Lewis does not yet have a return date, according to fire department spokesman Capt. Keith Wade. But Wade said Lewis has been taking the necessary steps to make a full return.

"For me, I think it was an opportunity to serve my community, fulfill a dream that I've worked very hard to attain," said Lewis. "Now that I've stepped away and feel like my head's in a better space that I can come back with a clear head and finish the job that I started, that's what I want to be about."

Despite his reservations about the existing culture, Lewis decided he wasn't going to give up his dream. Being a firefighter was Lewis's ideal career, but now it's become much more than that.

Lewis, who is Black, said there were times he felt alienated in the department and said his return was a "calling" to be in a position where he would be a catalyst to promote diversity and inclusion within the department. He wants to make a difference for people who look like him, but he says that change has to come from within the department's leadership.

"The motivating factor for me is to not give up on something I've worked very hard for, (to) be impactful in the city that I grew up in, and see the change in the fire department," said Lewis. "I shined the light but now I've got an opportunity to make a difference in a more impactful way."

He originally stepped away to protect his mental health and bring awareness to what he said was toxicity in the workplace. Eight months later, Lewis still shares some anxiety and reservations about returning to the environment that caused him to leave in the first place.

He decided he wasn't going to be intimidated or dissuaded from the bigger picture of attaining diversity, equity and inclusion within the ranks of the fire department.

"I think there's obviously going to be people that aren't very happy with what I did," said Lewis. "I think my goal is to bring more than awareness, I want to actually bring change."

The fire department wanted him to stay. In March, they asked him to be a leader of change.

Initially, Lewis declined that option. He didn't want to be seen as the "token Black child."

Since then, the fire department and the city of Sacramento have made strides to address the issues that Lewis brought to light.

Changes made by the Sacramento Fire Department

Immediately following Lewis's resignation, the department went through protocols to rectify the issue, beginning mandatory discrimination and harassment training for all employees.

In June, the city of Sacramento announced a series of audits in city departments to take effect in the 2021-22 fiscal year. The audits will look to assess the city's progress in diversifying its workforce.

The Sacramento City Council signed off on a $2.2 million budget increase to help the fire department diversify its ranks by creating a Diversity, Outreach & Recruitment (DOR) Division.

"Our department sets clear expectations that workplace discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated," Sacramento Fire Chief Gary Loesch said in a March media statement. "We are committed to building a more representative, equitable and inclusive fire department."

Lewis still believes that when it comes to putting change into action, the department has fallen short.

Just 3% of the department's 657 employees are Black — a lower percentage than just a few years ago — in a city where 11.3% of residents are Black, according to a November 2020 Sacramento Audit Report. Meanwhile, the fire department is 71% white. Roughly 32% of Sacramento's population is white.

The audit also showed 10% of fire personnel are women — the lowest percentage of any department in the city.

The higher the position rank, the more the diversity decreases. There have only been three Black fire chiefs in the history of the department.

"They had an opportunity to promote two chiefs and as I've always said, (it's not that) I don't think those chiefs (who were promoted) are worthy of the job but if you wanted to improve your diversity, equity and inclusion, I think that could start from the top (going) down and Chief Loesch decided not to do that for whatever reason," said Lewis.

A return to SFD

Lewis says he's looking forward to helping shift the culture at the department. He will finish his probationary period in six months before he can focus on joining diversity committees.

Lewis said the department's work toward promoting a diverse and inclusive workforce will depend largely on who it hires and promotes for key positions — decisions that are out of his control.

He doesn't know what to expect upon his return. He still has some reservations about the process.

Lewis knows it's bigger than him. It's about setting a precedent for the next generation of firefighters and being a role model in the community, especially for young men and women of color.

"I think it's important to me, for young Black women and men to see a person of color in the fire department, to be able to see that it is attainable," said Lewis. "It's not like this is a crazy hard job to get but it's not a career path that I remember seeing or even thinking that I would try to pursue."

Lewis is currently in the background check and LiveScan stages of the rehiring process and awaits his official start date.

With his rehiring, he says he hopes to see more men and women of color recruited.

He wants to target former athletes, such as himself, to provide them a career option to consider once they decide to hang up the jersey for good.

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(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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