2021 | Government

Navarro speaks out against IT workers overheard discussing her accent

Montgomery Community Media apologizes for Zoom operator’s behavior during meeting

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Montgomery County Council Member Nancy Navarro speaks at the council session on March 10, 2020.

File photo

Montgomery County Council Member Nancy Navarro has denounced comments two IT workers made about her Tuesday during a live virtual County Council meeting, with one calling her accent and pronunciation “cute.”

During the meeting, two voices can be heard in the background of the council’s discussion. One was a staff member with the council’s IT team. The other was a Zoom operator contracted through Montgomery Community Media to manage virtual meetings.

One of the IT workers could be heard saying, “I love how her accent comes out” and “and pronounces words that (sic) she thinks they’re pronounced.” The two workers then discuss her pronunciation of certain words, with the IT employee calling her pronunciation “so cute.”

The comments were made while Navarro, one of two Hispanic council members. was speaking about the equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

In a phone interview Tuesday night, Navarro said she found out about the comments during the meeting recess, when her staff members alerted her to them.

“They had received a couple of texts from folks who were listening and alerted them, so they started looking into it. … It just seemed odd and in some ways, poetic — that I was making comments about our need to understand who we are and issues of equity and social justice and how it affects the vaccine rollout, and it results from a lack of understanding of who we are.

“It’s very sad actually. I felt very sad. Not for me, personally, but for what it represents. I believe very strongly that we can’t tolerate this.”

In a letter to Navarro, Nannette Hobson, CEO of Montgomery Community Media, apologized for the incident.

“The behavior of the male MCM trainee involved is completely unacceptable and not reflective of our culture,” she wrote. “We are appropriately disgusted and disappointed.”

Hobson wrote that she took the microaggression seriously and that MCM does “not condone nor tolerate such behavior by our employees.”

“Appropriate measures have been and will be taken,” she wrote.

MCM could not be immediately reached for comment on Wednesday afternoon.

Navarro said Council President Tom Hucker, Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz, and Council Executive Director Marlene Michaelson began addressing the situation on Tuesday.

She said the issue was a personnel matter now and had to go through a process.

“I want to make sure that this is addressed and I have communicated that to Ms. Michaelson,” Navarro said. “It is important to have a staff that reflects the community. …. If they see what is happening to the elected official, that is something that is of concern.”

Hucker could not be immediately reached Wednesday afternoon.

Navarro, the first immigrant to serve on the council, sent a letter to fellow council members on Tuesday night, writing that the incident was one of “many racist micro-aggressions that community members and leaders of color stumble upon in our daily lives.”

“This sort of commentary is completely inappropriate and uncalled for,” she wrote in the letter. “It is a loud commentary on the toxicity and culture of disrespect directed at leaders and community members of color.”

A transcript of the comments from Navarro’s office:

After Councilmember Navarro says the word “hologram”:

Voice 1: “I love how her accent comes out … (giggles) … and pronounces words that she thinks they’re pronounced … (laughter) … like, she says ‘represents’ and ‘hologram.’”

Voice 2: “I heard hologram … (laughter) … and that was kinda interesting … (laughter).”

Voice 1: (laughter) … “so cute”

Navarro told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that she felt a “sense of shame” that county residents who are immigrants or first generation would hear the comments.

“In many ways, I think it’s also important to acknowledge it, and call it out, and work on making sure that the culture that we promote within our institutions is one that acknowledges that something like this is inappropriate, and seek to obviously do better,” she said. “You can’t sweep these things under the rug. That’s now how we move forward. I’m hoping this is dealt with.”

Navarro said many county staff members are immigrants or children of immigrants.

She said she was surprised by the comments because they seemed so “extraordinarily flippant,” but she has a thick skin because of backlash she has experienced as a person of color and a woman.

“When you start thinking about this being within the council staff, it concerns me,” she said. “Our goal should always be to lead by example. … Anyone with an accent should be so proud.”

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.