Protesters outside the Dallas Arboretum during a March demonstration. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

Less than a week after Cece Cox, Steve Atkinson and Kate Newman sent a letter to the board to the Dallas Arboretum, board chair Jim Ryan has responded.

Cox said the letter also went to members of the Dallas City Council and the parks board.

In his letter, Ryan outlined the steps the board is taking to address charges of employment discrimination. Protesters have been demonstrating outside the gate of the Arboretum for a couple of months and EEOC complaints have been filed charging homophobia and racism at the facility that stands on city property.

On June 16, the board held a special meeting to address the charges and an ad hoc committee has been appointed.

Among the steps taken are changes to the employee manual and diversity, equity and inclusion policy have been made. A human resources consultant has been hired and and mandatory training entitled “Our Respectful Workplace” is being implemented. And to settle a lawsuit by a former employee, the board hopes to be able to negotiate a settlement with Lambda Legal.

Below is the full text of the letter:

Dear Cece, Steve and Kate,

Thank you for your letter dated June 21, 2022 to the members of the Board of Directors of the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Society, Incorporated. Thanks also for your extensive contributions to the Dallas community.

The members of the Arboretum Board of Directors and the Arboretum management team take seriously their obligations to make sure that the Arboretum operates both internally and externally in a fair, equitable and inclusive manner. We welcome the opportunity to discuss with you the contents of and the requests made in the June 21 Letter. We note that counsel to the Arboretum reached out to the EEOC on March 11, 2022 to determine whether Lambda Legal would be willing to participate in a confidential mediation to address concerns raised by Lambda Legal and its client. On March 17, 2022, the EEOC informed the Arboretum counsel that Lambda Legal and its client declined mediation. Also, on May 11, 2022, the Arboretum’s counsel confirmed with the investigator at the Dallas Fair Housing office who is investigating the first claim brought by Lambda Legal and its client that the Arboretum is willing to participate in a mediation or meeting with Lambda Legal and its client.

The Arboretum regrets and is concerned that the employees and former employees referenced in the June 21 Letter believe that they have been treated unfairly. The Arboretum agrees with you that the concerns you have raised prior to June 21 and in the June 21 Letter demand a thorough investigation, a transparent response and accountability because those concerns are entirely inconsistent with the mission of the Arboretum. The Arboretum strives to improve and to be an outstanding example of inclusiveness. The recent claims have caused the organization to take steps over the past months to examine and improve its policies, procedures, practices and culture so that the organization can undergo institutional change and ensure that all of its constituents are heard and welcome. In March 2022, the Arboretum retained Dede Church & Associates, a prominent, experienced human resources consulting firm.

The HR Consultant’s initial engagement centered on review of and recommendations of changes to the Arboretum’s employee manual, updating the Arboretum’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Statement and review of and recommendations with respect to the Arboretum’s employee training program. Following receipt of the HR Consultant’s recommendations the Arboretum has made the following changes:

1. Employee Manual – the Arboretum made several changes to its employee manual based on the recommendations of the HR Consultant. In making its recommendations, the HR Consultant analyzed City of Dallas policies and procedures to provide for consistency between the Arboretum’s employee manual and City of Dallas requirements;

2. DEI Statement – The Arboretum updated its DEI statement, which was previously written by our Board’s Diversity Committee with outside professional guidance in 2020. The new DEI statement, which can be found on the Arboretum website, is as follows:

The Dallas Arboretum & Botanical Garden cultivates a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility by providing a safe and beautiful space that welcomes all to enjoy. We inspire people of all backgrounds by creating an open, positive and impactful environment. We continue to build sustainable relationships with people from diverse communities, organizations, and businesses to further our commitment to these principles;

3. Employee Training – The Arboretum hired the HR Consultant to conduct for all employees in English and Spanish a mandatory in-person training course called “Our Respectful Workplace.” The HR Consultant will also conduct two additional training sessions for specific employees, including: “Hiring the Right Talent and the Value of Diversity,” and “How to Interview and Identify Possible Applicants.”

Although the Arboretum has not announced these changes to the press, the Arboretum has notified the City Council, the Department of Parks and Recreation and the members of the Park Board of these changes.

Additionally, the Arboretum held a Pride in Bloom celebration on June 11. This event was small in scope, but is a precursor to a weekend-long Pride in Bloom event in June 2023.

Earlier this month, the Arboretum retained the HR Consultant to conduct a deeper dive into the Arboretum’s HR functions. The new engagement will include the following matters:

1. Feedback and guidance on HR Best Practices such as complaint procedures, leave policies and practices, and equity pay structures;

2. Review of hiring policies and practices with an emphasis on diversity;

3. Targeted support for leaders regarding the current state of DEI efforts at the Arboretum, areas of opportunity moving forward, and the implementation of DEI programs;

4. Consultative support regarding drivers of employee turnover and efforts to develop employee retention programs for the Arboretum; and

5. A Work Culture Assessment for the Arboretum.

With respect to the specific requests set forth in the June 21 Letter:

1. Counsel to the Arboretum has completed its investigation of the allegations in two of the EEOC claims and those investigations did not result in a finding that the Arboretum engages in employment practices in violation of Dallas City Code provisions that prohibit discrimination. If counsel to the Arboretum investigating EEOC claims or any other person identifies discrimination that has occurred, the Arboretum will take steps to put the correct practices in place and hold those responsible accountable;

2. In addition to the employee training discussed above, he Arboretum expects that in connection with the Second Engagement, the HR Consultant will recommend additional training programs that address race, color, sex, age, disability, national origin, citizenship status, genetic information, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression;

3. As noted above, the employee manual has been updated to:

– include language reflecting diversity and inclusion of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression among employees; and

– allow the use of pronouns on email signatures.1

4. The Arboretum will explore costs and availability of obtaining gender affirming healthcare coverage; and

5. The Arboretum will discuss with the City Department of Parks and Recreation the Department’s expectations regarding transparent communications and reporting with respect to cultural change and other matters at the Arboretum.

I hope that this is helpful, and look forward to a dialogue with you to discuss moving forward.

Very truly yours,

James S. Ryan, III

Arboretum Board Chair

1 The Arboretum’s neutral dress code policy does not permit wearing a pin of any kind, regardless of the nature of the pin. The dress code policy specifically prohibits “any logos or written embellishments or words outside of a small discrete manufacturer’s logo.” The Arboretum is simply trying to maintain a neutral and fair dress code policy that encourages visitors to appreciate the natural surroundings. This policy is legal, and, from the Arboretum’s perspective, reasonable. There are many well-intentioned messages that could be included on a pin or sticker that are simply not permitted by the Arboretum’s neutral dress code policy.

— David Taffet