Gilbert Human Relations Commission

The old Gilbert Human Relations Commission, seen here at one of its last meetings, produced mixed results in the eyes of some members.

Gilbert wants to create a commission to tackle race, diversity and other societal ills in town but how aggressively it will pursue that mission is an open question.

Council first discussed the proposal in a September meeting as weekly protests between Black Lives Matter and pro-police supporters continue just up the street from Town Hall. 

“We will be trying to define a scope of work and forming the commission over the next couple of months,” Mayor Scott Anderson told the Gilbert Sun News in an email.

 “We are hoping they would be looking to address some of the issues that came from our listening sessions and other social issues in town,” he said.

The town in June hosted Listening Space, a three-day event where the community could give input about racism and police reform.

Anderson said he doesn’t see the commission as a formal standing body, like the Planning Commission, but rather like the ad hoc Transportation Advisory Committee, which meets when needed.

“It’s just too early to clearly explain the structure of the commission or their responsibilities,” Anderson said.

 

Origins two decades ago

Gilbert has been down this road before, forming a commission to specifically address racism when it rears its ugly head in town.

Shortly after the 1999 well-publicized beating of a teenager by a white supremacist group of high schoolers called the Devil Dogs, then-Mayor Cynthia Dunham convened a Diversity Task Force. The victim suffered disfiguring injuries in the attack.

In July 2000, Dunham appointed 46 residents and tasked them with addressing social issues confronting the town. 

The task force made two major recommendations – organize dialogue circles where people could gather in small groups and share personal stories on topics such as racism, violence and police-community relations and create a Human Relations Commission or HRC.

According to minutes, the HRC held its first monthly meeting in November 2001 and the first community dialog circle kicked off in September 2003. The dialog circles didn’t seem to accomplish much and were not well-attended, according to meeting minutes.

The HRC’s accomplishments included creating events like the Global Village Festival, a multicultural celebration that still takes place. But the commission never seemed to find its foothold and over the years underwent a number of transformations.

In 2008, the town merged HRC with the Arts Advisory Board to form the Human Relations, Cultural and Arts Promotion Commission.

In 2011, the HRCAP formed a Human Relations Subcommittee and two years later it split, separating the Human Relations Commission and the Arts, Cultural and Tourism Commission. 

Finally in January 2017, Council voted to make HRC an ad hoc committee, which would meet when needed.

It never did.

Laura Barnes, who served on the HRC from June 2010 until March 2014, said members did what they could to promote human relations in town but her experience was “somewhat frustrating.”

“The reason I said that is because the HRC had zero budget,” said Barnes, who also served a stint as chair. “Zero budget meant we could not have any materials to communicate with the community. We felt we were given zero effort.

“And the support they got was pretty minimal from the town. Town members were there to take minutes and there were town liaisons but in terms of communication between the HRC and the Council, it was always somewhat limited, even with the liaison” from Council.

Barnes said the commission asked Council to create a diversity office but it never got to a vote.

“We wanted to be aligned with our neighbors, jurisdictions like Mesa, Chandler and Tempe,” she said.

 

Neighbors do it differently

Mesa and Chandler both have diversity offices and Tempe has a Strategic Management and Diversity director to promote equality and inclusion in the community.

Barnes said her biggest frustration was with the HRC’s Martin Luther King Jr. Life Celebration event that the town took over in 2014.

She said the MLK event was thriving “but as soon as the town took it over, it immediately diminished with lower turn-outs.”

Today, Gilbert doesn’t have an event to commemorate the slain civil rights leader, she said. 

“We have nothing that is town-owned and town-driven,” Barnes said. 

Elaine Kessler, who served two years on the commission right before it dissolved, said the group had a number of ideas but town officials would not provide the funds to bring them to fruition.

“We focused on diversity and inclusiveness and events that offered opportunities for people of different backgrounds to come together,” Kessler said. “We tried to bring other festivals here to Gilbert and eventually they gave us a couple of directions that we thought we knocked it out of the park. 

“One had to do with policing. We worked very closely with Council and whoever (was the Council liaison) to come up with some ideas to create Coffee with a Cop.”

Kessler also disagreed with Councilwoman Kathy Tilque’s comment at the September meeting that the HRC did not have the direction it needed to be successful.

“I don’t think it lacked direction,” Kessler said. “It lacked authority. We put forth several ideas on things and the Council didn’t like any of them.”

In the Oct. 12, 2016, minutes, Kessler, then chair, reported to commissioners that she attended the regional HRC meeting and that human relations commissions in other communities “were very active with diversity dialogues, LGBTQ events, domestic violence and bullying.” 

It was disheartening that the Gilbert HRC was not involved in those areas of the community, Kessler said at the time, noting there was a lot of work still to be done in town. 

The Gilbert Sun News reached out to other former commissioners for comment but they did not respond.

Gilbert Honeycutt, who served for 10 years, two as chair on the commission, had a different view of the HRC. 

“We were very effective, especially with putting on the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration,” Honeycutt said. “The last time we had it, there were some 3,000 or better people.”

He also said the commission received support from Council and was able to reach out to the community with its events like Global Village.

 

Early concerns 

  Concerns with the commission’s ability to be successful were voiced early on.  

Two members of Diversity Task Force, Pamela Smith and Penny Willrich, as part of their college thesis studied the commission’s effectiveness to resolve eight diversity issues the task force identified such as race, individuals with disabilities, violence and religious intolerance.

Their 2001 joint thesis included findings of an anonymous survey of the task force members’ take on the newly formed Human Relations Commission.

They said many of the respondents believed that the commission had no power to act because it was merely advisory to Council.

Some of the comments included, “The Human Relations Commission is set up to be a gutless wonder. It has not been empowered to resolve any of the eight issues.” 

Another was, “I feel that by design the Town Council did not want the commission to have any true power.”

Still another said, “I think the commission can do a lot to help educate the community. I don’t think it will have sufficient enough power to make actual changes.”

The thesis also stated there was an element of doubt about the commission’s long-range success and a clear mistrust of Town Council and staff on the panel’s part.

 In minutes from 2005, Councilman Dave Crozier, the liaison to the commission, expressed concerns there was the appearance of strife between Council and the HRC.

And, in the Oct. 5, 2011, minutes, Commissioner William Jefferson, who is black, voiced his exasperation.

 “Each month we sit in this group and intellectualize our responsibilities to this commission, we allow ourselves to be mired in process that hinder individual commitment and the group’s duty to actually meet the demands of a genuine Human Relations Commission,” he said, adding:

 “We put on events that attract less than one half of 1 percent of our population. We continue to behave as if all is well, when the very existence of a Human Relations Commission is to observe, listen and respond to all facets of the community so that minor tears in the social fabric receive attention and are not allowed to turn into major issues.

“We pretend ours is a community of inclusion. That is a lie. Biases and prejudices are as strong in Gilbert as they are in any other part of our country.”

He questioned if individuals who did not meet the stereotype of the so-called average Gilbert citizen actually felt comfortable in the community. 

Jefferson also said while the town has the annual Global Village Festival, numerous cities and towns “nurture the global nature of their community every day.”

 

Hoping for more teeth

Three years after the HRC dissolved because Council felt there was no need for it, race relations remain a problem in Gilbert.

At the September meeting, several residents who have participated in the Thursday protests, admonished the Council for not taking a public stand against racism. 

They pointed to the hate-filled messages spewed from the pro-police supporters at Gilbert and Warner roads.

“How do you not condemn white supremacy, get called out and maintain your silence on something so uncontroversial?” Alysiana Clark asked the Council.

She also singled out Vice Mayor Yung Koprowski, the only minority on Council. 

“Yung don’t even start with me how you posted a statement in June on your personal Facebook or how I’m not seeing what is going on behind the scene as you put it.

“You, Yung, stood there telling me that the Council can’t make a statement on the white supremacists because it’s ‘too political.’ “When I asked about the publicly facilitated forum for me to use, you said it should be around by the end of the year. Let that sink in, by the end of the year.”

Koprowski did not respond to requests for comments on Clark’s statement and for her input on what she would envision for the proposed commission.

Two days after that Council meeting, Anderson without fanfare issued a lengthy statement on the town website that included, “we condemn racism and discrimination of any kind, and we strongly believe in the opportunity to engage in constructive and respectful dialogue, no matter the topic.”

Councilman Jared Taylor, who was the liaison to the HRC until it disbanded, said direction was given to the commission.

It was asked to focus on tasks, including taking the lead on the MLK community celebration, getting involved with inter-faith groups and representing the town at regional Human Relations groups.

He admitted there was limited funding at the time for the HRC but added that had the commission brought forth proposals that were justified, Council probably could have funded them.

He said the town will use feedback from the listening sessions, and look at what worked and what didn’t work with the former HRC in forming the new commission.

Taylor also doesn’t believe there is a race issue in town, which has the official moniker Kindness, USA. 

He said the weekly protests at Gilbert and Warner roads started as peaceful gatherings in June by some housewives who wanted to show their support for police. 

But publicity of the pro-police rally drew in BLM supporters and other groups that escalated into heated protests and prompted the original group to move elsewhere. 

 “They are just coming in from out of town to agitate because the other side was there,” he said.

 Barnes said in order for the new group to be successful, it should come out from the Police Department.

“I feel if it came from community police rather than a Human Relations Commission with just volunteers, it would be taken more seriously by the town and Council,” she said. “It would give some credibility police brings to it in terms of it being considered any kind of importance.”

Kessler is somewhat dubious how effective a new commission will be. 

She said she and her daughter attended one of the Listening Space sessions in June and walked out disappointed.

“We felt we were not heard, we didn’t feel acknowledged,” she said. “It was three white people and I identify as a woman of color and my daughter is mixed. It seemed like they were more interested in sharing their opinions and not (listen to) ours.”

But with a new council in place, things may be different this time, Kessler said.

She said she felt that when she was on the HRC, Council “didn’t want us to do anything or want us to acknowledge problems of diversity and inclusion in town.”

If the new commission does form, Kessler advised Council to give it “some sort of authority, some room to actually do something.”