City gathers feedback on Human Relations Department

by Eric Ginsburg

In the wake of Greensboro Human Relations Director Anthony Wade’s retirement last month, the city is hosting community forums to gather feedback on what the department should start, stop and continue doing. After two small community meetings earlier in the month, the city held a more public meeting at the Kathleen Clay branch library on Oct. 24. While attendees had no trouble naming things they wanted to see start or continue, there were almost no suggestions for things that should stop.

“We know that the department has a big job,” Sandy Neerman, the assistant city manager who is overseeing the department until Wade’s replacement is hired, told the attendees. Neerman said the meetings were geared towards stakeholders but that more public feedback would be sought in the future.

Around 15 people attended the meeting, which began during normal work hours on the west side of the city, including four city council members and many people who had served on the human relations commission. The meetings were originally discussed in the spring with Wade Neerman said, adding that it was even more relevant as the city looks to replace him. It is similar to the process the police department is going through now and that the library and parks and recreation will go through in November, she said.

The only feedback about what should “stop” wasn’t aimed at the department’s work, instead focused on the criticism it receives or outside pressure it faces. Several people, including District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, acknowledged that council has pressured the commission or the department head not to take up certain issues, with Bellamy-Small naming the truth and reconciliation process on the Klan- Nazi shootings and the White Street landfill as two examples.

“Do you want the truth?” said Bellamy-Small, when asked by Neerman to weigh in on the discussion. “In my time on the council there have been points in time that the director was given issues by the city council not to touch.”

She said there was “serious political backlash” after she pushed for a report from the department about the truth and reconciliation process which Bellamy-Small said former Mayor Keith Holliday had tried to put off indefinitely. Part of the problem, she said, was that all of the funding comes from the city, and “he who has the gold makes the rules.”

A number of attendees who had served on the human relations commission said they remember feeling that pressure.

“The [department] head was under a lot of pressure to keep certain things under the rug,” said Gary Palmer, a former commissioner. “You knew there were certain things [or people] saying, ‘Don’t go in that direction.’” Several people focused on ways the department could bolster existing activity, such as putting employment issues on par with housing, granting subpoena power to the complaint review committee to review claims against police and increasing outreach, specifically to non-English-speaking immigrant and refugee communities.

“Without real legal status like subpoena power… they can’t necessarily get all the information,” retired Guilford College professor Claire Morse said. Her husband Larry, a retired NC A&T University professor, said there are business interests that oppose giving more employment powers to the department.

“I would like to see the employmentreview side be active and have all the power to mediate… and be a meaningful reviewer [similar to housing],” Larry Morse said.

Yet unless the department pursued addressing conflicts that arose and eliminating the causes, there would always continue to be problems to address, he said. Requiring people on the complaint-review committee to undergo anti-racism training to understand the systemic roots of injustice could be part of the solution, Morse offered.

Mark Sills, the former executive director of FaithAction International House, said the city needed more staff with language skills, which would allow the department to help remove barriers for people. Sills said a Spanish-speaking staff member in the department was able to help street vendors get the proper permitting to avoid being shut down, and said that proactive approach could be expanded. He added that when he was at FaithAction, they received calls very regularly about wages being stolen and other workplace violations, especially in restaurants. He said the city and state currently do little for such vulnerable workers, and encouraged the department to do more.

Refugee and Immigrant Network of Guilford Co-Chair Stephen Sills said property owners have come to his trainings about housing discrimination to learn how to avoid getting caught as they intentionally circumvent fair-housing laws. Sills, who is Mark’s son, said the department’s work to educate tenants of their rights has been important, but said policing property owners who routinely discriminate in housing needs to be increased.

Part of the issue with housing, Bellamy-Small said, was the removal of RUCO, which enabled proactive housing inspections.

“Y’all need to help us get RUCO back,” she said. “That was a local initia tive that got taken back and it was the best tool that we had to deal with a certain type of issue.”

Interactive Resource Center Executive Director Liz Seymour said the department should regularly set the community priorities for human relations and that the most affected populations should drive the process. More specifically, Seymour said, the department should take an “asset-based approach and build on strengths” of communities rather than focusing on problems.

Several people applauded the department’s work to help the Triad International Soccer League, which is made up of teams primarily representing immigrants and refugees from a wide array of countries. Narayan Khadka presented a letter at the meeting from the league thanking the department for its assistance and expressing the league’s strong support for the department’s work.

“The one office that has been very receptive is human relations,” said Andrew Young, who has been active in helping the league and invited people to its Nov. 10-11 tournament. “Having soccer fields would be really great for these communities.”

David Moff of the HR Group and several other attendees said there needed to be more marketing and outreach of the department, including for feedback sessions like this one, as people noted background of attendees, which was predominantly white, middle- or upper-class, English-speaking and more than half male. Neerman invited people who can’t attend meetings or who have comments to call her directly, and Seymour suggested the next forum be held at the Interactive Resource Center.

Moff noted the only “action” word in the department’s mission was “promote,” suggesting it should include words like “review” and “enforce.” Attendees agreed that the department needs a strong and well qualified leader like Wade, and encouraged the department to identify its priorities before hiring a replacement. Neerman said that city officials were also taking a trip to Charlotte on Monday to learn about a different model and said the city was studying best practices elsewhere as attendees encouraged.