The Black Brilliance Research Project beginning to end, part 2

This is part two of a four-part series looking at the Black Brilliance Project from beginning to end and attempting to shine a light on what was going on behind the scenes, where things went wrong, and how the money was ultimately spent.

Part 1: the money and the contract

Part 2: the research and the break-up

Part 3: following the money

Part 4: accountability and other parting thoughts

Also, here is a page with a compilation of the key documents and records from the Black Brilliance Project.

Part II: The Research and the Break-up

Despite everyone breathing a sigh of relief when the contract with the city was finally signed, the problems were continuing to mount for the Black Brilliance Project. For one, it took until December 3 for the first payment – due upon signing of the contract, but not submitted until the signed contract was officially filed with the City Clerk on November 24 – to be processed by the city and wired into Freedom Project’s bank account, raising to an even higher decibel level the panic over KCEN’s (and now FP’s) cash-flow problems. Even then, the first payment was only $250,000, not even close enough to catch up on the substantial accrued amounts owed to FP, East African Community Services (who was billing $118,000 per month), and the other subcontractors – not to mention KCEN’s own staff of researchers working on the project. In the final days of contract negotiations in mid-November, Shaun Glaze and their research co-lead, LeTania Severe, were already hard at work on the project plan and schedule, and they delivered a first draft to the City on November 23.

The research project’s draft plan and schedule was still under review by Council and City Auditor staff when SCC Insight’s article posted on December 4 highlighting the issues with the Black Brilliance contract. That set off a frenzied effort within the Council to create a formal review process (or at least the appearance of a robust review process) for deliverables and the finances of the contract, and to beef up the reporting requirements for King County Equity Now and Freedom Project:

  • Councilmember Herbold asked the City Auditor’s office if it would be possible to conduct an “audit lite” of the contract, asked to join ongoing meetings on the project, and requested that a formal “control process” be put in place. Morales’s staff member in charge of the contract quickly moved from “what is a control process?” to informing other staff and press that it is a “standard practice.”
  • Council President Gonzalez (who officially must approve all consultant contracts and payments) directed Morales that she needed to direct Freedom Project to provide additional information as part of its reports and invoices, akin to the reports required for other city consulting contracts. Morales drafted and sent a letter to Freedom Project requesting the additional reporting; Gonzalez instructed Morales to re-draft the letter requiring Freedom Project sign and return it to acknowledge that it would comply with the new reporting requirements. Morales apologized and complied.
  • On December 16, Morales appeared to finally realize that she needed an actual contract-management process, and reached out to Claudia Gross-Schader, the Director of Research in the City Auditor’s office (and the lead negotiator with both the Casey Foundation and Freedom Project on the contract with the city) to enlist her help in managing the contract.
  • Gonzalez’s deputy chief of staff suggested providing additional technical assistance for Freedom Project to help it meet its contractual and reporting obligations.
  • Morales’ staff enlisted other Council staff members onto a panel to review and provide feedback on the project deliverables as part of a formal acceptance process.

Morales scheduled a first public presentation to the Council by the Black Brilliance team for December 14; the presentation ran far over the time allotted to it, as the project team tried to give airtime to all the research groups working on the project. That presentation also kicked off a larger conversation regarding what was to follow the research project: a $30 million participatory budgeting program in 2021. At the meeting, the Black Brilliance team first aired its recommendation that the city’s Department of Neighborhoods (DON) not be involved in the participatory budgeting exercise because the community lacked trust in the department, despite DON’s lead role in the city’s other (albeit smaller) PB programs. That comment appeared to catch DON Director Andres Mantilla by surprise, and he subsequently reached out to Morales’ staff to understand the basis of the concerns (which are never publicly explained). Following the presentation, Chazaro reiterated by email the request that the participatory budgeting program be run by a combination of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, the Office of Planning and Community Development, and the Office for Civil Rights, but not the Department of Neighborhoods.

Gonzalez approved the second invoice on December 18, the day after Freedom Project agreed to the new reporting requirement, and the second payment (for $1 million) was wired to Freedom Project before the end of the month. That significantly relieved the cash-flow issues for the project – though it left residual disenchantment with KCEN among the researchers for delays in making payroll.

Also on December 18 Glaze sent deliverable 3, the preliminary report, to the Council. Emails record that the initial version delivered that day was 429 pages, though because of the document’s size Glaze posted it on a website and sent the Council a pointer rather than the full document, so there are no public records of its contents. On December 20, Council Morales’ staff forwarded the report to the Council’s review panel, and suggested in email that given the holidays it would likely take 2-3 weeks to review it.

On December 21, Glaze and the Black Brilliance project leadership sent out an update to the community, complaining that the first payment by the city was insufficient to meet payroll, and that the new reporting requirements by the city were not in the original contract.  Throughout December there were persistent rumors of discontent among the ranks of the Black Brilliance researchers, connected to researchers not getting paid.

Glaze sent an updated version of the preliminary report on January 3, and based upon review panel feedback sent another update (the final version) on January 12. By the last update, the preliminary report had grown to 1,045 pages, mostly through the addition of appendices. One week later King County Equity Now submitted its invoice for deliverable 3 and the required financial report to accompany it (it resubmitted it two days later after city staff found errors in it). Gonzalez approved the invoice on January 27 – a $1.5 million payment.

Meanwhile Morales’ staff, King County Equity Now, and Glaze began preparing for a presentation of the preliminary report to the Council scheduled for February 1. The research team tried once again to invite a large contingent to the presentation, as did KCEN, but after the issues with the December presentation this time Council staff laid down the law: there would be only two presenters, one from KCEN (Emijah Smith) and one from the research project (Shaun Glaze).

But while on the surface the project seemed to be moving forward in early 2021, behind the scenes it was quickly falling apart. On January 11 rumors circulated that there had been a “split” between KCEN and the other members of the effort; Morales’ staff moved quickly to quash those rumors, asserting that “DeCrim and KCEN didn’t split.” But behind the scenes they knew that even if a formal split hadn’t yet occurred, one was coming. Earlier that month they had been informed that the researchers, led by Glaze, were agitating to move out from under KCEN and report directly to Freedom Project. According to notes from Morales’ weekly meeting with KCEN on January 13, Glaze had been asked for an update on the “perception of split among the coalition,” which they supplied on January 12 (the explanation was not recorded in the meeting notes, nor does Glaze’s response appear in public records provided by the city). Morales asked KCEN for their explanation of why the BBRP researchers wanted to move under Freedom Project (though KCEN’s response is also not recorded).

On February 3, Freedom Project quietly notified King County Equity Now that it had terminated their fiscal sponsorship agreement – technically a violation of the terms of the agreement, which allow either party to terminate but only with 30 days’ advance notice. Then on February 8, a coalition of the Black Brilliance researchers posted an “open letter to the community” explaining that they were cutting their ties with KCEN and intended to complete the project reporting directly to Freedom Project. The letter lays blame for the split squarely at the feet of KCEN:

As Fall 2020 began, KCEN chose to incorporate as a non-profit and began to move away from the coalition model. When KCEN represented a collective of Black community organizations, having KCEN facilitate the research made sense. However, once KCEN chose to incorporate, the community partnership dynamic changed, and this created obstacles and barriers to the research. At heart, this is what has led us away from having KCEN be charged with facilitating the research to the finish line…

We are dedicated to maintaining unity with our family at King County Equity Now with this project and beyond, as many of us have been doing since long before this current iteration of Black liberation work in Seattle. We know that our liberation is intertwined, and we will continue to build alongside all people invested in Black liberation. However, we do not have confidence in KCEN leadership’s current capacity and ability to bring this research project to the finish line in a way that meets the needs of our researchers and community and serves the best interests of the project’s vision and responsibility moving forward…

Doing this work alongside KCEN while holding on to these commitments has become untenable because the environment created by KCEN senior leadership no longer facilitates doing the work in an accountable, well-stewarded way.

This environment has included the following actions by KCEN leadership: locking research leads out of their KCEN e-mail accounts without warning during a key moment for the research; locking research leads out of access to the relevant online research files; unilaterally making major decisions that impact researchers — including decisions about contract renewal and decisions about hosting major public events — without consulting researchers in advance; cutting off communication when requests for transparency and accountability were made; abusive communication from KCEN leadership; unacceptable delays in paying people for their work that has seriously impacted researchers’ mental health and our ability to economically sustain; and dismissing the lived experiences of some Black community members, including Black people who live in but were not born in Seattle and trans and queer people. We have repeatedly sought to address these concerns with KCEN leadership, and we wish that these attempts had been met with repair. However, at this point, we find it necessary to separate from KCEN in order to complete this research.

That same day King County Equity Now held a press conference and confused matters far more by announcing a new research review panel and that they would continue forward and finish up the research project.

The two announcements set off another frenzy of meetings and discussions within the City Council as Councilmembers and staff tried to understand where things stood, both legally and with regard to finishing up their $3 million project. Councilmembers and staff, after consulting with the City Attorney’s Office, quickly concluded that their best plan of action was to take the side of Freedom Project and the researchers, supporting them in their efforts to oust KCEN from the project, under the logic that the city’s contract was solely with Freedom Project, who was responsible for all subcontractors. That decision was made more complicated on February 10, when the King County Board Chair, former state Rep. Dawn Mason, sent a letter to Council President Gonzalez  with its own explanation of the situation and accusations against Freedom Project:

In an effort to keep the project moving forward and expand participation, we have made a needed update to our processes to include a community steward panel, which reviews all historic and new project proposals before KCEN enters into a contract for research. Groups may elect to receive funding via either KCEN or Freedom Project depending on their preference and governance, so long as they are approved via the multi-input community review and stewardship process. This shift will allow for added oversight and much broader community research group participation in the City Council’s investment in the project. Very importantly, this step will improve the project’s overall accountability to the community it serves.

As we made this change in welcoming more community voices, and particularly our Elders who have sat on the sidelines in the initial phase, we have experienced challenges in dealing with Freedom Project’s understanding of their role in administering the project and their power to disburse funds without KCEN’s approval. On February 3, 2021, Freedom Project unilaterally terminated its fiscal sponsorship agreement with KCEN. On February 8, it informed KCEN that none of the funds disbursed by the City to Freedom Project as funding for the Research Project will be transferred to KCEN and that it intends to use those funds as it sees fit moving forward. Freedom Project has now frozen all access to KCEN’s funding (including to grants provided to KCEN outside the context of the Research Project) leaving KCEN unable to pay invoices submitted by researchers in furtherance of the project or other administrative expenses. KCEN has not been provided any information regarding if and when the City has disbursed the remaining funding for the project.

In the interest of gaining clarity about the roles of each organization as the City understands them and the City Council’s intentions for the funds it invested in this project, we ask that your office direct Freedom Project to immediately freeze any spending that KCEN has not authorized in writing. We also ask that your office coordinate and lead a meeting with KCEN’s leadership and leadership at Freedom Project as soon as possible to discuss where the organizations can find common ground and how best to disentangle finances without compromising either organization’s reputation or tax-exempt status.

Also on February 10, Freedom Project sent a letter to Gonzalez disputing Mason’s claims.

The Council’s public reply to Mason was silence. Only after KCEN renewed its request one week later did Gonzalez’s chief of staff, Brianna Thomas, formally acknowledge receipt of Mason’s letter. On February 26, Mason sent another message to Gonzalez, specifically asking her to freeze the payments under the contract and initiative arbitration proceedings to resolve the ongoing conflict.

But while Gonzalez, Morales, Herbold and their staff were giving KCEN the silent treatment in public, in private they were speaking with all three parties (KCEN, FP and the researchers) to try to understand how to patch things up at least enough to finish out the last few weeks of the project. The heart of the disagreement was that the researchers wanted their subcontracts, which had run out in late 2020 as the research work completed, extended out into 2021 so they could continue to be paid to conduct research. KCEN was unwilling to do so, preferring instead to try to broaden the diversity of researchers to include community elders and other constituencies outside of the first cohort. The February 8 “open letter” from the researchers hid this disagreement in plain sight, burying it among the other grievances; Dawn Mason’s letter was more oblique, mentioning instead a new review panel to make decisions on research contracts, and raising issues with Freedom Project’s desire to make contracting decisions on its own (its contract with KCEN clearly stated that all spending was to be approved by KCEN). In a statement to SCC Insight, King County Equity Now reiterated its focus on broadening the representation of researchers in the project by delegating research contract decisions to a review panel: “In an effort to welcome many more important community voices into the decision-making fold, KCEN brought on community stewards to help determine, among other things, research contract allocations.”

Understandably, the Councilmembers and their staff had no desire to intervene in this argument: it would be a lose-lose-lose affair, and would bring greater attention to an unflattering fight within the Black community over money. Instead, they decided to freeze out KCEN while collaborating with Freedom Project leadership to restructure the contract just enough to limp over the finish line – the delivery and presentation of the final report. Morales’ staff had already set expectations that the final report should be delivered by February 19 and presented to the Council on February 26, despite the fact that the contract didn’t require the final report until March 31. The Council could have taken an extra month to sort things out, but instead stuck to the plan to wrap it all up by the 26th. The chat records from a Teams meeting that Brianna Thomas and Alexis Turla, chiefs-of-staff for Gonzalez and Morales respectively, held with Glaze, her co-lead LeTania Severe, FP head Dave Heppard, and other BBRP researchers make clear that Council staff were doing more than simply focusing on their contractual relationship with Freedom Project: they were collaborating on a strategy to undermine KCEN’s continued participation.

Nearly all of the communications between Council staff and city attorneys are redacted from public records requests (including one 50-page document that is entirely redacted), but one still gets the sense of the rushed effort to sort out the Council’s best legal options to emerge from the conflict relatively unscathed. There were two main issues: whether Freedom Project would need to sign new contracts with the research groups that KCEN had originally contracted with; and whether the city and Freedom Project would need to rewrite their contract given the numerous, explicit references to King County Equity Now in the agreement. On the former question, the conclusion was yes, new contracts would need to be signed – something Freedom Project was happy to do as part of extending researchers’ contracts (and pay). On the latter question, the consensus seemed to be “not necessarily,” except for one wrinkle: according to the contract terms, the city had the right to approve (or disapprove) any subcontractors that Freedom Project brought in. At minimum, Gonzalez would need to give written approval for any new subcontracts that Freedom Project wanted to sign.

Freedom Project wasted no time: on February 12 they sent their list of proposed subcontractors off to Council staff seeking approval. The list closely matches those who signed on to the February 8 “open letter,” though in a few instances it included individuals rather than the organizations they previously worked for. The list also included Shaun Glaze (in the form of Glaze’s company, Inclusive Data LLC), which is surprising given that Glaze originally signed on as a volunteer for KCEN (Glaze was a city employee, working for the Department of Education and Early Learning, from early 2020 until October 14, 2020), and as recently as the February 8 “open letter” had referred to themself as a “volunteer” on the project.

While there is no public record of Freedom Project receiving written approval prior to a formal letter from Gonzalez sent on February 26, by that date it had already signed thirteen new subcontracts totaling $823,000 – nearly all of them back-dated to either October 2020 or January 1, 2021. The message was clear: Freedom Project’s new contracts weren’t for work that still needed to be done going forward: they were for work that the researchers had supposedly already done (of note, however: Freedom Project did not continue to pay its own research team after taking over the contract from King County Equity Now). As an aside, Freedom Project did apply one important lesson from the fall: its subcontracts required the researchers to acknowledge and accept that “City delays will delay payment.” When asked why it signed the new contracts, Freedom Project said (via email), “In February, we signed contracts (with a detailed attached scope of work); again this was in connection with the termination of the fiscal sponsorship agreement. Research teams’ prior contracts had expired, but the work was continuing, so we back-dated contracts to account for that.”

The peculiarity of this arrangement is made even more clear by how little work was left to be done on the project. After the Feb. 1st Council meeting, the Council members and their staff collected questions about the preliminary report and forwarded them to Glaze and the rest of the reconstituted research team. On February 22, just a few days after FP signed its new contracts, Glaze delivered the final report and an accompanying document responding to the Councilmembers’ questions. On February 26 (the same day Gonzalez approved FP’s new list of contractors, and the day that Dawn Mason renewed her request for the Gonzalez to intervene), Glaze and three other members of the Black Brilliance team presented their final report to the Council, thus completing the terms of the contract.

Earlier that week, Glaze had sent both Morales’ office and the Mayor’s Office a proposed budget for implementing the $30 million participatory budgeting program – a budget proposal so unrealistic (it proposed dozens of new staff, setting up a new private cellphone network, and spending over $8 million of the $30 million on overhead and administration) that both branches of city government made extra efforts to withhold it from the press so as not to bring ridicule to the effort and damage their fragile relationship with the research team.

It took another week after the final presentation for Gonzalez to finally reply to Mason and King County Equity Now. In that letter dated March 5, Gonzalez claimed that the city’s contract is solely with Freedom Project and thus they have no power to intervene in conflicts between it and its subcontractors. Besides, she argued, the contract is complete and any issues are therefore moot.

First, Gonzalez was simply wrong: as SCC Insight has previously written, there are multiple provisions in the city’s contract with Freedom Project that give it ample rights to intervene and investigate potential improprieties. Second, the contract was not over; in fact, Freedom Project didn’t submit its final financial report to the city and close the books on the project until June 15. Third, it’s important to acknowledge the truth of what Gonzalez, Morales and their colleagues did: in the face of credible accusations that demanded investigation, they rushed to complete the project and ran out the clock, not even bothering to give King County Equity Now the courtesy of a substantive reply for over three full weeks – an abdication of their responsibilities to properly oversee a contract they signed. They did this because they already knew what an investigation would find: a fight over money that would just focus further criticism on an already troubled project that the Council had mismanaged from the beginning and on Black-led organizations who had contributed to the project.

Next: Following the Money

I hope you found this article valuable. If you did, please take a moment to make a contribution to support my ongoing work. Thanks!