The level of outrage over racist behavior in Everett grew to a boiling point this spring: hundreds of high school students walked out of school to hold a rally at City Hall. It lasted well into the evening as dozens of other residents from across the city joined the protest. Residents say they are no longer willing to stay silent.

“I think it's anger. I think it's frustration because nobody's listening,” said Everett resident Janice Lark. “That's why you have the protest, that's why the students protested. ... Nobody's listening.”

Feeling ignored is a common theme among Everett’s residents of color, where the government remains largely white even as the city's population has grown more racially diverse.

A cascade of events forced residents into action: The city's first superintendent of color filed a discrimination complaint against the mayor; a city councilor shared a racist meme with other officials; and city officials traded racist remarks during a Zoom meeting later made public. The racist incidents also drew the attention of the U.S. Attorney Rachel Rollins, who in early June notified the mayor she launched an investigation into possible civil rights violations by the city government.

Standing firmly in the middle of this storm is Cathy Draine, who last November was hired as the city’s first diversity, equity and inclusion director. Her tasks include setting up community discussions, strengthening standards for government employees' behavior, and helping to increase diversity among government hires.

Once predominantly white, Everett is now a city where the majority of residents speak a language other than English at home and where the school population is 80 percent students of color. But the government and institutions from the police force to the library committee remain largely white. Draine, who is Black, acknowledged there is plenty of work to be done to support residents of color, but she points to the challenge of confronting racism in a public space.

“There’s a narrative — a dangerous one — a single narrative that Everett is a racist city and that anyone that sort of becomes a part of the administration has to in some way be a part of that machine of racism,” she said.

Draine said that perspective offers an incomplete picture, furthering false perceptions about people and deepening distrust.

“No matter what we say, what we do, it’s being seen as a Band-Aid or a lie, or just for the media, rather than it being a true, heartfelt moment of introspection,” said Draine.

Severall hundred Everett High School students protested racism in the city and called for more diversity in local government in a walkout on Monday, May 22, 2022.
Liz Neisloss GBH News

A quiet approach to a visible role

Draine holds what’s arguably one of the most visible DEI roles in the state. She works in a city where emotions are running high after the string of high-profile racist incidents, and she works alongside mayor Carlo DeMaria, a polarizing figure who was narrowly re-elected in November.

She's heard complaints that she is incompetent in her position and that she was "bought by the administration." She chalks those up to the city's political climate.

“I was certainly told that this [job] could ruin my reputation, that this could be the end of my career,” said Draine. ”But I think of it in terms of how can I help, and how can I be of assistance, and do I have something to offer in a way that makes me the right person for the moment?”

Draine said she has the support of the mayor. But her quiet approach has angered residents who accuse her of being a mouthpiece for DeMaria.

Guerline Alcy, a community organizer who is running for state representative, called Draine a “political hire” brought on to improve DeMaria’s image after his narrow win. She wondered why Draine wasn’t more outspoken about Anthony DiPierro, the city councilor who shared a racist meme.

“While the community was hurting and dealing with the racism that is going on here, she stood by the mayor and assured him everything was going to be OK,” said Alcy.

Cathy Draine at Everett City Hall
Cathy Draine, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the City of Everett, Mass. poses for a photo at Everett City Hall on June 27, 2022.
Meredith Nierman GBH News

But Draine insisted she is working quietly to produce results.

“My silence has not been about complicity to any wrongdoing or because I’ve been muzzled,” said Draine.

Draine said she avoids the spotlight, preferring to work behind the scenes. In an email first made public by the Boston Globe, she warned the mayor that racist incidents by city officials could trigger a formal federal complaint with “a strong possibility that the City of Everett would be found at fault.” Several days later, the mayor announced the resignations of DiPerro and Deanna Deveney, the mayor's spokesperson who made racist remarks during the recorded Zoom meeting.

Draine sees herself as a “social activist.” Her background is in nonprofit work, including the Children’s Defense Fund and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. And although she may be new to government, she’s determined to stay above the political fray.

“I think that I was easy fodder,” said Draine. “But I refuse to participate in the way that would hurt people that eventually I would want to sit at the table with.”

"I was certainly told that this [job] could ruin my reputation, that this could be the end of my career. But I think of it in terms of how can I help?"
Cathy Draine, Everett DEI director

Draine’s DEI budget of more than $536,000 for 2023 is relatively large compared to other municipalities of its size. The budget will fund a second diversity officer, community forums and support DEI training for city employees, which is already being rolled out.

Working with Everett’s human resources and legal team, Draine helped rewrite the city’s human resources policy. It now specifies “behavior in virtual spaces, such as culturally insensitive conversations on Zoom meetings,” and the “forwarding of offensive 'humor'” as potentially fireable offenses.

“When we have more people who feel comfortable just to say that they live in Everett, I think I know that we are successful,” said Draine.

But Draine will not be able to reshape the Everett City Council, a largely white body where former councilor DiPierro sat, and where an anti-racism statement failed to pass.

Balancing credibility and action

In the past few years, more than a dozen cities and towns in Massachusetts have hired their first DEI officers. The roles often come with high expectations and high turnover rates.

“DEI is kind of a buzzword now, and for a lot of us practitioners, it’s not about the buzzword, it’s about the work,” said Ferdousi Faruque, the former chief DEI officer for the city of Lowell and currently works for the state as a DEI officer.

Farouque quit her job in April, citing lack of resources and buy-in from city officials. The world Draine operates in, she said, is one where you’re asked to prove yourself to the community but can be shut out by bosses for saying “too much, too soon.”

“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” Faruque said, “As much as we might want to come out and say what our constituents want, want answers about, at times we’re not able to.”

James Page, chief global DEI officer at The Nature Conservancy and a former DEI coach, said DEI officers lose public credibility if they speak out at every crisis.

“The DEI officer cannot be the voice every time something happens that’s DEI related and jump up and down and say, ‘that’s wrong and that’s wrong.’” Page said. “That's setting that individual up to not succeed.”

Everett Residents with Protest signs
Everett residents listen to speakers at a protest against racism outside city hall on May 23.
Liz Neisloss GBH News

Her journey to Everett

Draine said her approach to her work fostering diversity, equity and inclusion is formed in large part by her own life journey.

One of eight children born in Tennessee, she recalled an absent father and an abusive mother addicted to drugs. She described homelessness, living in a car, and eating food out of trash cans. She lived in a series of foster homes. And at the age of 36 she became a single mother; her daughter is now 8 years old.

“I’m all of the things that represent vulnerable populations in a lot of ways, and being a part of not belonging, and the voiceless,” said Draine. “So my heart and my intention and my professional goal in this role is to make sure that we do this work, and we do it well.”

Some DEI officers of color say it can be tough to work on racial trauma while also living through it, but Draine offered a different perspective.

“So it informs my work, but at the same time I am able to leave it at the door when I go home because I embrace my full humanity,” she said. “I’m also a mama, and I also get to live and find joy and peace in the world. And I get to feel proud, honey, because I’m helping to shape it.”