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A Hennepin Healthcare System board member is calling on the health system to fire the employees who were photographed in blackface.

Irene Fernando, a board member since 2020 and current Hennepin County District 2 commissioner, described the actions of the two employees as "abhorrent," and called on both to be fired. 

"Dressing in blackface and treating race, ethnicity, or culture as a costume is degrading, extremely racist, and cannot be tolerated," Fernando said, adding any supervisors "who were aware of this misconduct" should also face discipline.

Fernando's rebuke came hours after the Star Tribune published a story revealing the photo in question. The photo, which isn't dated, shows a deputy chief of Hennepin Healthcare Emergency Medical Services and two others (one of them currently a paramedic with Hennepin Healthcare) in blackface. The trio were apparently attempting to dress as the Supremes. The paper said another photo (which wasn't published) shows two white workers in dark makeup and dressed as Milli Vanilli.

The Hennepin County Association of Paramedics and EMTs, which spoke to the Star Tribune, issued a strong denunciation of the photo, which includes a union member. The union, in a full statement released publicly, said: "We want to be crystal clear and say this behavior is unacceptable, full stop."

"We serve the most diverse community in the state, from Minneapolis to the shores of Lake Minnetonka," the statement continued. "We are honored to be called into your homes and businesses. We don’t take lightly the responsibility we have to this community, especially vulnerable populations and our BIPOC patients. These types of racist displays are wholly unacceptable. It does not matter if this happened 10 days ago or 10 years ago, it is wrong."

Hennepin Healthcare has since provided a public response to the story as well, saying it is aware of the photos but, because of a pending review, can't say much.

"Let us be clear that we take this very seriously and our next steps will be determined by any findings," the health care system's statement said. "We acknowledge the harm and apologize for the impact to our community and our teams. We regret our role in causing further pain for those we serve and for those who serve."

Fernando argued the two newly revealed photos "represent a harmful pattern that damages community trust." Anonymous Hennepin Healthcare workers who spoke with the Star Tribune also detailed other questionable workplace incidents, including one involving a sculpture of a bear holding a Confederate flag, and another involving a "Justice for Daunte Wright" poster.

Said Fernando: "These incidents are not isolated — they each fit into a long series of racist incidents and practices by Hennepin Healthcare employees and leadership. It is clear that racism is deeply rooted within the organization and must be addressed directly through systemic changes in both the policy and leadership of Hennepin Healthcare."

The health care system vowed to do better.

"Hennepin Healthcare employees are committed to caring for our patients and communities and will stand strong together against racism or any acts that produce harm," its statement said. "This is everyone’s work, everyone’s responsibility, and everyone’s commitment."

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