Union May Seek Class-Action SuitGroups Merge to Help HomelessPlatt's in the FamilyYouth Project Builds Art, Character Union May Seek Class-Action Suit Charging racial discrimination, a group of black employees at Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Medical Hospital plans to launch a public campaign this week to raise money and support for a class-action lawsuit against the hospital. With the support of their union, the 77 employees who allege discrimination hope to pump up their legal fund by adding current and former employees to their complaint. They plan to run ads on local radio stations and in newspapers starting Thursday. An attorney has recommended that the group raise at least $100,000. "We need to get that war chest of $100,000 paid up," says Jennifer D. Marshall, the union's vice president and EEO/fair practice coordinator, who is organizing the effort. A McGuire official denies charges of discrimination. "Any employee action is based on the facts of the situation and not race," says McGuire spokeswoman Darlene Edwards. Plus, she says, an array of safeguards helps protect against unfair treatment. The hospital encourages employees to use the built-in mechanisms for investigating complaints, Edwards says. But, she adds, "An employee's personal motives may differ in how they choose to utilize the numerous protections available to them." Union President Frances Duval agrees that "there are a variety of avenues available to address these issues." Still, she says, "our union supports the rights of its employees to file class-action discrimination suits if they feel they have been discriminated against as a class." Apparently, some of them do. "African-Americans are treated in a more disparaging manner, as far as promotions and disciplinary actions, in comparison to the white employees and any other race of employee," says Marshall, who is white. Referring to a period from 1996 to 2000, Marshall alleges that 66 percent of firings, 91 percent of suspensions and 94 percent of "last-chance agreements" have been aimed at black employees. She also contends that blacks are underrepresented among staff physicians and upper managers. According to the most recent figures from McGuire, 53 percent of the hospital's 1,805 employees are black. Of 171 supervisors, 61 are black. And during 1999, two-thirds of promotions were for minority employees. The union's pursuit of legal action began this summer, when it submitted a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In October, an attorney retained by the union concluded that although "reasonable grounds" existed for a complaint, the union should try an informal negotiation approach. Next month, the union plans to decide whether to commit $30,000 to hire that attorney and pursue the class-action complaint. Jason Roop Groups Merge to Help Homeless Two organizations that help Richmond's homeless find permanent housing have merged. First Homes Inc. and Virginia Supportive Housing, both outreach projects of Freedom House, recently combined resources in an effort to cut costs and improve services. The separate programs previously offered will continue, but now under Virginia Supportive Housing management. The 32 employees of the merged staff now work from offices at 5 S. Adams St. Combined, the two programs serve 10 percent of the homeless in Richmond. "What this does is add a home-ownership component to [VSH]," says Alice Tousignant, the nonprofit organization's executive director. "It really complements what we do." Begun in 1988, VSH helps the chronically homeless move from the streets, shelters or transitional housing into permanent supportive housing. It operates two residences for 86 homeless single men and women. In addition to finding permanent housing, VSH assists with everything from public benefits to recovery from substance abuse. In 1997, with support from Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia Hospitals, VSH reopened Bliley Manor and Stratford House, two group homes for single men and women with HIV/AIDS. This year, it opened a residence for homeless families at 200 Minor St. Likewise, the focus of First Homes has always been on families. Since 1994, it's helped 13 families find sponsors like religious groups, civic associations and businesses to support them through a five-year process that ends in homeownership. VSH assists families in renting a home until they are stable enough to buy it from VSH. Currently, 12 previously homeless families are participating in the First Homes program. Funding comes from sponsors and, often, more than money is given. "The sponsor walks with the family and works with the family," says Tousignant. "It's a long commitment." Brandon Walters Platt's in the Family After just five episodes, NBC has pulled the plug on rookie newspaper drama "Deadline." What's more, Richmonder Geoffrey Platt is taking it personally. Most folks here know Platt as the executive director of Maymont, but he's also uncle to the famous and now out-of-work actor, Oliver Platt. The thespian Platt played the show's leading character, Wallace Benton, the savvy Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. "Of course we were all very disappointed," says Geoffrey Platt about the recent yank from Monday night's TV lineup. Platt says he knew early-on that despite the cachet of "Law & Order" producer Dick Wolf his nephew's show's competition would be tough to beat: "Monday Night Football" and "Ally McBeal." Still, Platt says his nephew's got what it takes to bounce back. After all, he was offered the part of Bobby Donnell on David E. Kelly's Emmy Award-winning drama, "The Practice," a role that Platt turned down and Dylan McDermott made sexy and indestructible. "It's been fun watching Oliver over the years," says Platt. "Some of his [movies] have been better than others," he says, recalling "Married to the Mob," "Flatliners" and "Simon Birch." After graduating from Tufts University in the '80s, Platt performed in various Shakespearean productions in Boston. There, Platt won praise from an unlikely admirer. "Bill Murray was one who recognized Oliver's talent early-on," says Platt. Now that his nephew is on a forced hiatus, Platt says maybe his family will venture south from New York. They made a trip to Richmond three years ago and spent an afternoon at Maymont. "We went and had breakfast at Friendly's, and people recognized him from the movies," says Platt. "It really is a thrill. I still have that reaction like, good grief, that's Oliver!" B.W. Youth Project Builds Art, Character For eight weeks, a dozen kids, ages 9 to 13, have worked to create a piece of public art they're thrilled to show off. On Nov. 20, the "Spirit of Gilpin," an 8-foot clay totem pole that tells the story of Gilpin Court, was unveiled at the Calhoun Center at 436 Calhoun St. A totem pole was chosen because it symbolizes a culture's heritage its struggles and its dreams and inspires growth from it. The project is a collaboration among the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, Friends Association for Children and ART 180, an arts organization that places artists in shelters, community centers and public housing neighborhoods to help teach children to express themselves through art. During the project, the young artists explored the past, present and future of the Gilpin Court neighborhood. "For each section they really looked at their cultural history," says Marlene Paul, an organizer for ART 180. The children then made clay tiles and pictures that have been built on top of one another to tell a growing history. One tile shows local actor Charles Gilpin, the neighborhood's namesake, another spells out: "No more killing." The totem pole, says Paul, recognizes the community's struggles, dreams, joys and sorrows. And it celebrates everything from its African heritage to the legacy of Charles Gilpin. The kids crafted the three-tiered totem with help from sculptor Constance Bowden and potter and architect Lisa Taranto. It's the first time public art has been installed at the Gilpin Court neighborhood's community center. "It's really a hub," says Paul. From here, she says, the totem pole "looks out at the community." It makes kids excited to get involved in cultural activities, says Paul. "They ask themselves, 'What can we do to make things better?'" B.W.