LIMA — Alisha Moss always strove to be twice as good. But she never had a choice.
Moss watched as her mother, Alfreda Vaughn, filed a discrimination lawsuit just to receive the promotion she felt she’d already earned. She watched her father, William “Bill” Vaughn Jr., rise through the ranks at the Ford Lima Engine Plant, only to be met with racial slurs and sabotage from his colleagues.
And when Moss entered the workforce herself, she found a more subtle but equally persistent version of the systemic racism her parents encountered years earlier.
“They both would say, ‘If you’re going to do something, you have to do it right, otherwise you might as well not do it,” Moss said. “We don’t want our name associated with poor performance. We can’t afford it because we don’t get second chances.
“They told me going in that I had to always perform three times better than the white person that sat beside me, because if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to be there.”
A lonely fight
Alfreda “Freda” Vaughn was meticulous, a trait that drove her career in the finance and accounting departments at the Lima Engine Plant and ultimately secured her a position overseeing budgets for NASA.
But it wasn’t enough.
Vaughn outperformed her colleagues at the engine plant regularly, Moss recalls, but was still denied a promotion. The official reason: Vaughn had no college degree.
The Vaughns found that explanation dubious. There were other women within Freda Vaughn’s department who felt they were unfairly evaluated as well, Moss recalls. They too, like Freda Vaughn, were hesitant to challenge the culture.
“My father pushed on her and said, ‘No, no, no. That’s not right,’” Moss said.
So Freda Vaughn eventually filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, initiating a stressful, years-long process to claim what she believed was rightfully hers: a promotion.
For nearly two years, Freda Vaughn reported to work each day knowing that the supervisors she accused of discrimination would continue evaluating and supervising her. And even after she won, Moss recalls, the hostile environment just became more subtle.
Freda Vaughn still returned to school a short time later, earning her bachelor’s degree in finance while working full-time and raising three children.
Bill Vaughn started his career at the Lima Engine Plant in the 1970s as a plumber and pipefitter and was eventually recruited into management as a maintenance general foreman, while Ford was attempting to diversify its ranks. He worked 12-hours shifts, seven days each week, and had no tolerance for mediocrity, as Moss recalls.
But Vaughn was still taunted with racial slurs. Colleagues, maintenance employees and even superiors sabotaged jobs he was supervising.
The stress was so extreme that Vaughn suffered three major heart attacks, prompting him to take medical retirement three years early. The usual suspects — high blood pressure, severe diabetes — were partly to blame.
But the constant stress of long hours and racism took their toll too, a common experience for people living with chronic stress.
“The theory is that it increases what’s called the body’s allostatic load, which is basically a sign of multi-system dysregulation,” said Dr. Natalie DiPietro-Mager, a professor of pharmacy practice at Ohio Northern University. “Basically, increased wear and tear on the body. The high levels of stress hormones that circulate through the body over time lead to this increased wear and tear, and then that makes it harder for an individual to be able to regulate their body in the same way as if they didn’t have these stress hormones going through their blood stream.”
Bill and Freda Vaughn left Lima for Florida, hoping the mild winter would allow Vaughn to be more active and regain his health.
But one night, Freda Vaughn, 67, didn’t wake up. The family only then learned of Vaughn’s undetectable heart condition, which claimed her life years earlier than expected.
New generation, same challenges
Fresh out of the University of Notre Dame, Alisha Moss followed her parents into a career with the Lima Engine Plant, where she was supervising men several decades her senior. She carried her father’s disdain for mediocrity with her.
But Moss quickly encountered what she described as a “club of exclusivity.” Decades of lawsuits and diversity training, she said, only served to make the exclusion more discreet.
“And all that did was piss white people off, because they didn’t want to hear the word diversity,” she said. “They equated diversity to affirmative action … They don’t want to be inclusive. They don’t want to be surrounded with people who don’t look like them. And they certainly don’t want to be led by someone that they believe is inferior.”
In June, a small crowd gathered outside the Lima Engine Plant to protest what they described as systemic racism at the plant.
Protesters decried the lack of Black managers, supervisors and human resources personnel. They described a series of alleged racist incidents and a culture in which alleged misconduct is ignored or tolerated.
Days before the protest, Ford Motor Company CEO Jim Hackett and Executive Chairman Bill Ford sent a letter to employees lamenting systemic racism and the death of George Floyd. The executives promised company-wide dialogues “to understand how people are feeling and discuss how we can get better together.”
The company is now planning a global audit of its hourly and salaried workers to measure attitudes on diversity and racism.
Similar efforts are underway at the Lima Engine Plant, a spokesperson for Ford told The Lima News via email, including regular meetings between plant leaders and groups of employees, as well as plant walk-throughs designed to identify concerns and training for employees to be more involved when they notice issues.
Whether those efforts result in meaningful change remains to be seen.
Kristin Harper, a Black business leader in Columbus and the founder of brand consulting firm Driven to Succeed, heard similar concerns when she hosted focus groups of Black and white professionals in July to talk about racism in the workplace.
While both groups were equally ambitious in their careers, Harper said, participants in the Black focus group complained that they often hold themselves back for fear of intimidating their white colleagues.
“They want action, not rhetoric,” Harper said. “They want equity; diversity at every level, including the c-suite and board rooms. They want money spent on minority businesses. … They want to sponsor and identify people who should move up within the organization. (They want) a critical mass of Black executives; one isn’t enough.”
Going it alone
Moss left the Lima Engine Plant for Detroit in 2005, still bright and ambitious.
But even in Detroit, where she finally had a supervisor who told her how to advance within the company, Moss felt she wasn’t afforded equal opportunity to do so—an experience she has encountered throughout her career, which ultimately led Moss to found her own consulting firm six years ago.
“I suffered through early,” she said. “That gave me the opportunity to start my own business, drive my own bus when it was time.”
She gives her son the same advice her parents once gave her, hoping he won’t have to carry the weight of generations before him.