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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Pui-Yan Lam, Lance Kissler, Kurtis Robinson and Katy Sheehan: Spokane needs a fully staffed office of civil rights

By Pui-Yan Lam, Lance Kissler, Kurtis Robinson and Katy Sheehan

By Pui-Yan Lam, Lance Kissler, Kurtis Robinson and Katy Sheehan

As Spokane grows and becomes more diverse, our institutions must grow and change to meet the moment. That is why a coalition of community organizations worked together for years to envision and create a proposal for a multifaceted Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion (OCREI). Last Monday, the Spokane Human Rights Commission (SHRC) submitted the community’s proposal, supported by over 50 organizations, to Spokane’s City Council and our mayor, requesting a fully staffed OCREI for next year’s budget.

An OCREI would provide much-needed structure to help realize our city’s commitment to promoting justice, equity and an inclusive environment for all, by recognizing the dignity and worth of all human beings, regardless of identity. These ideals are written in the Spokane Municipal Code’s Law Against Discrimination, Title 18. Creating an OCREI is how our city will take action to guarantee the law’s promise.

Spokane has organized to against discrimination for years. The Temple Beth Shalom Spokane (2014, 2021), the MLK Center (2016), Morning Star Baptist Church (2016), the Salish School (2017), and The Black Live Matter Mural (2020) were all tagged with hate graffiti. City leaders made powerful statements that Spokane does not tolerate acts of hate. Yet after the graffiti was painted over and news trucks left, no outreach or education programs followed. These events made national news, but what about the person of color whose job pays him less than everyone else? What about the tenant whose landlord hands her an apartment key while commenting on her body? Right now, there is no agency to turn to that can enforce Spokane’s Human Rights Law.

In 2018, it was reported that Washington was the second-highest state in the U.S. for reported hate crime offenses. That year, a group of community organizations including the Spokane NAACP, Asian Pacific Islander Coalition Spokane, Spokane Community Against Racism, Greater Spokane Progress, and others, made creating an OCREI a community priority because Washington’s second biggest city should have anti-discrimination infrastructure. In 2019, the SHRC formed an Exploratory Task Force to research what Spokane needed from an OCREI.

Spokane does not currently invest in protecting civil rights, equity and inclusion like other cities. Des Moines, Iowa, a city about the same size and composition as Spokane, spends $801,928 annually on a six-person OCR. Tacoma, Washington, a slightly smaller city, staffs 14 people with a $4,564,664 annual budget. Meanwhile, our only equivalent body, the SHRC, has an annual budget of $8,000, and a 0.25 FTE staff person.

Through the early pandemic and summer of Black Lives Matter marches, the OCR Task Force and Community Work Group researched Spokane’s history of discrimination, while observing in real time the effects of systemic racism and oppression on our city and our country. That summer, white, armed vigilantes roamed our streets downtown. A letter penned by city leaders condemned their actions, but offered no way forward. Hate crimes against people of Asian descent increased by 76% during the pandemic. With each incident, the vacuum where an OCREI with the power to proactively enforce an equity mandate grows. With each event that makes the news, we wonder how many injustices go unreported, unexamined, unchecked.

Spokane is making progress. This fall, Mayor Woodward hired Jerrall Haynes as the city’s civil rights coordinator, a position budgeted for by City Council. This initial step toward an OCREI was an exciting and hopeful moment. Yet our community’s demonstrated needs require more work than one person can do. This position is only the beginning.

Last Monday, after years of study and community collaboration, the SHRC issued a resolution supporting the community’s proposal for an OCREI modeled after Des Moines’ office of six staff. The SHRC and community proposed that a fully-staffed and independent OCREI would meet four key needs including: 1) Reducing discrimination and hate crimes; 2) improving community engagement and leadership opportunities with historically marginalized and underrepresented communities; 3) improving equity through training and education of city government staff and community organizations; and 4) ensuring accountability throughout city government.

The city of Spokane’s laws denounce hate, intolerance and bias in all forms and recognize equity and inclusion as the cornerstone of excellence in effective public service. Committing resources to creating an OCREI will build the culture of equity and inclusion our community deserves. On Dec. 13, 2021 the City Council will vote on the 2022 budget. Please let them know that you stand against discrimination, and for equity and inclusion in Spokane. Join us in asking them to commit resources to a fully staffed Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion.

Email your city council members at citycouncil2@spokanecity.org and Mayor Woodward at nwoodward@spokanecity.org.

Pui-Yan Lam – Greater Spokane Progress (GSP) OCREI Community Work Group Co-Chair and Board Member, Asian Pacific Islander Coalition Spoken Chapter Board VP, Spokane Community Against Racism Steering Committee Member

Lance Kissler – OCR Task Force Chair, Spokane Human Rights Commission Chair

Kurtis Robinson – OCR Task Force Member, I Did the Time Executive Director, Spokane NAACP 1st VP

Katy Sheehan – OCR Task Force Member, GSP Board Co-Chair.

For a full list of supporters and the proposal, visit: www.spokaneprogress.org (link at the bottom of the page)

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