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At VisionQuest youth agency in Philly, board chairman demands: ‘Stop speaking Spanish’

“I felt like I was at Geno’s — ‘Please speak English,’ ” case manager Carmen Pagan said, referencing the South Philadelphia cheesesteak king’s infamous “This is America” counter sign.

Carmen Pagan walked out of VisionQuest, the youth-services agency that plans to hold immigrant children in Philadelphia, after a supervisor told her colleagues not to speak Spanish.
Carmen Pagan walked out of VisionQuest, the youth-services agency that plans to hold immigrant children in Philadelphia, after a supervisor told her colleagues not to speak Spanish.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Toward the end of a rigorous day of training for new VisionQuest employees in North Philadelphia, Carmen Pagan recalled, the board chairman of the youth services agency, Bob Burton, interrupted a conversation between two of her Latino co-workers.

“Stop speaking Spanish,” he told them.

Pagan, hired as a bilingual case manager, said Burton had made similar comments all week. This time, she walked out.

“I felt like I was at Geno’s — ‘Please speak English,’ ” Pagan said, referencing the South Philadelphia cheesesteak store’s infamous “This is America” counter sign.

The incident occurred last month as Pagan and other new hires prepared for the arrival of about 60 Spanish-speaking, undocumented immigrant boys, to be housed at the Logan Plaza property of the Arizona-based agency. The children, ages 12 to 17, are among thousands of “unaccompanied minors” who turned up alone at the southern border, fleeing violence and poverty in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.

The for-profit company, under contract with the federal government, now seeks local zoning approvals to begin accepting children.

Burton, who founded VisionQuest in 1973, did not respond to an email and phone message left for him at the agency. VisionQuest would not make Burton available to answer questions, and instead provided a statement from him.

“It was not my intention to dishonor or offend anyone, and I apologize for any confusion I may have caused,” Burton said. “My intention was simply to encourage a work environment that promotes open communication and understanding among everyone.”

VisionQuest operates in six states to provide housing and therapies to hundreds of juvenile offenders and other at-risk youth.

A VisionQuest program at the same Philadelphia site closed in 2017 after state inspectors found that staffers had struck and choked children. At least three VisionQuest employees were fired between 2011 and 2017 after hitting or physically handling children, state records show.

Some local government officials, union leaders, and activists harbor deep doubts about VisionQuest’s plans, and question why the “sanctuary city” of Philadelphia should allow the confinement of immigrant children within its borders.

A spokesperson for Mayor Kenney earlier called VisionQuest’s proposal “highly disturbing,” and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan declared that “incarcerating children who have crossed the border seeking freedom and safety is morally bankrupt.”

In October, about 40 people staged an emotional protest outside the VisionQuest property, on Old York Road two blocks south of Einstein Medical Center. City Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker, who represents the area, has set a community meeting for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Pagan, 41, is known as an outspoken single mother who has confronted drug dealers near her home in the Fairhill section. She grew up on the same streets, and landed in prison for drug offenses. Released in 2011, she has since earned a college degree and become a vocal activist against drugs and the gun violence that killed her brother in 2016.

Pagan left her job at Forget Me Knot Youth Services, which offers housing, crisis intervention, and counseling, after seeing a VisionQuest advertisement. The pay was higher, and she thought that as a native Spanish speaker of Puerto Rican heritage, she could support and encourage immigrant youths.

“I wanted to do the work and help the kids,” she said.

Instead, she walked out after four days and, on March 3, filed a complaint with VisionQuest. In an email to the company, she said she was “very insulted by the way my co-workers were addressed by Mr. Bob Burton. … How do you hire bilingual case managers and youth attendants and then tell them that they can’t speak Spanish amongst themselves?”

Two days later, on March 5, VisionQuest president Mark Contento replied, telling Pagan he had investigated and found Burton’s comments were “unauthorized and inappropriate.”

“Bob did say those things, and he was wrong in doing so,” Contento wrote in a follow-up email.

As a result, he wrote to Pagan, VisionQuest would review its language policies with all administrative staff.

The agency has no “English only” requirement, nor a ban against employees speaking Spanish in the workplace, he said. Agency leaders sometimes encourage the use of English for work discussions because not all staffers speak Spanish. The federal government expects the agency to try to teach English to the migrant youths, he said.

Pagan answered, “Bob Burton directly stated to numerous employees in my presence, ‘Speak English!’ … I already feel bad for the children.”

In his statement, Burton said, “I made statements regarding speaking English in the workplace because, although most of our staff are bilingual, we have some employees … who only speak English.”

He noted that the federal government expects the agency to teach English, and said he would adhere to VisionQuest policies that allow staffers to communicate in their native language, except in very limited circumstances based on business necessity.

Burton, who is about 77, founded VisionQuest in Arizona, incorporating what he says are Native American teachings he learned as a VISTA volunteer with the Crow Tribe of Indians in Montana. The VisionQuest name refers to a native rite of passage undertaken by some young men entering adulthood.

Pagan said that in the last week of February, she and 40 to 50 co-workers began a two-week training program.

They were expected to gather in what was called a “medicine circle” by 9 a.m. each day. Burton would move around the circle and touch each person with a feather, she said.

Pagan said some colleagues were bilingual, others mainly spoke Spanish — and Burton became displeased when they communicated in that language.

“Every conversation, ‘Don’t speak Spanish. You can’t speak Spanish,’” Pagan recounted.

She said nothing at first, Pagan said, not wanting to risk her job.

Then, on what she recalls as Feb. 28, she and several colleagues were talking to one another near the end of the day. Some people were standing, others sitting.

Burton, seeing her seated, approached and told her that she wasn’t doing any work, Pagan said. She answered that she’d been working all day, since before he arrived.

“He looks at my two coworkers who are speaking Spanish,” she said, “and said, ‘Stop speaking Spanish.’”

At that point, she left.

“I regret the way I just walked out,” Pagan said. “I should have handled it another way. I don’t regret speaking up for my coworkers. That’s my native language. What’s going to happen when these children come in, they speak only Spanish?”