When the scourge of discrimination rears its ugly head and a person or group is denied equal treatment because of their race, disability, or religious affiliation — or for no particular trait at all — victims in most cities know the best place to go is their city’s Human Relations Commission. They can plead their case, get help with advocacy or mediation, and get their complaint addressed without expensive litigation. Their grievance might even result in some needed reform in the city.
But not in Colorado Springs. In 1995, our HRC became a casualty of the culture wars. The need for an HRC remained, however, and a small group of citizens recently committed an act of faith and hope for a more harmonious and inclusive community by proposing to revive the Colorado Springs Human Relations Commission.
Many good people in our community may wonder why we need an HRC. It’s been 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement awakened the conscience of our nation and now most illegal discrimination finds little public support. However, despite all this and the fact that Colorado Springs is a diverse and welcoming community overall, discrimination and unequal treatment are still a fact of life for many residents. For example, local NAACP president Rosemary Harris Lytle reports that her organization receives about 40 complaints of discrimination each month.
Examples of how HRC’s work in other communities abound: A disabled man was helped by the Pueblo HRC after being banned from using public transportation following an incident. He had no other way to get to work and the HRC was able to mediate an agreement that allowed him back on the bus. Another example comes from the Aurora HRC, which helped a local shopping mall and youth advocacy groups mediate a conflict over young people loitering after school.
The HRC is not just for issues of discrimination based on race, disability, gender, age, sexual orientation and “the usual” list of people who have traditionally faced discrimination. It will serve the entire community: military families, people of faith, neighborhood residents (homeowners, renters, landlords), homeless families and their advocates, business owners and employees. Anyone who is treated unfairly can seek help from the HRC and it will listen.
The HRC is good for business, too. It promotes a vibrant economy because it demonstrates a welcoming, supportive environment for a diverse workforce. It will proactively set a tone of inclusivity and help bury for good our old reputation of intolerance.
Finally, the HRC is good for local government. It will help the City Council and public decision-makers be more responsive to the concerns of the community, and gain a greater understanding of how policies and funding affect the poor and less vocal minorities. The mayor and current council members have demonstrated again and again their willingness to listen and to work hard, often for little recognition. But they can’t constantly spend their time mediating individual disputes and doing community education, nor should they. The HRC can do that for them. It represents the best in government by utilizing skilled professionals as volunteers to help solve problems, and promoting public-private partnerships. The HRC will be another connection point between nonprofits and government agencies as they work to “promote the general welfare.”
Most cities have a Human Relations Commission. Colorado Springs is one of only three Colorado cities with populations over 50,000 that do not have an HRC. Eighty percent of the nations top 100 cities (Colorado Springs ranks 47th) have an HRC. This is clearly a best practice for cities and we’re missing out on the benefits.
It’s hard to imagine a good reason to oppose the HRC. It is budget-neutral and will consist of nine volunteer members, appointed by City Council (like most other boards and commissions) with backgrounds and expertise in mediation, cultural diversity, law, human services, and community leadership. It will hear all grievances, mediate when appropriate, and make referrals when necessary.
On Tuesday, June 8, the City Council has an opportunity to do the right thing and bring back the Human Relations Commission. It needs to hear from residents that our city needs an HRC, so please make your voice heard.
Van Hoy is the executive director of the Citizens Project.