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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Guest opinion: Protect community safety by fully funding the Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion

Robert Huitt, Pui-Yan Lam and Justice Forral

By Robert Huitt, Pui-Yan Lam and Justice Forral

A city motto of “We All Belong” doesn’t magically make members of our historically marginalized communities feel belonging overnight. Without real actions, resolutions and public statements against racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia don’t make it safer for us.

Safety must be felt before “belonging” can be claimed. We need the commitment from our elected officials reflected in the 2024 city of Spokane Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion budget. Our city budget is the ultimate value statement, demonstrating the true priorities of our elected officials. So, will they show us their motto is more than empty words?

Public safety was the hot topic in our local elections – almost every candidate claimed that they would prioritize public safety if elected. Disappointingly, most of them possess very narrow views on what public safety entails. We hope that our current and newly elected officials for the city of Spokane will be open to a broader vision of public safety, and we look forward to having ongoing conversations with them on this topic.

Spokane residents from communities like the BIPOC, LGBTQ+, Muslim, Jewish and immigrant communities don’t feel safe simply because of who we are. From the recent ongoing vandalism in Perry District to a local pastor calling for the killings of parents of transgender children, we are reminded of this reality. Many other hate crimes haven’t received public attention because Spokane residents don’t feel safe reporting them. This highlights the urgency for our elected officials to show a strong stance behind the Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion. We need a well-resourced and adequately staffed office to engage in active outreach and build trusted relationships with our communities.

With cases of police killings of people by local law enforcement – for example, Marshallese man Peterson Kamo – more policing doesn’t make us feel safe. If we were the target of a hate crime, we’d have to weigh the risks and likelihood of being harmed by the perpetrator versus the responding officer, due to our skin color or our fluency (or the lack of) in English.

Prejudice and discrimination don’t have to rise to the level of physical assaults to have deadly consequences. Research studies – including locally conducted ones – have shown that exposure to environmental hazards like deadly heat waves is unequally distributed across neighborhoods. A 2022 WSU study published shows that BIPOC people are more likely to die prematurely. In 2020, the Washington State Public Health Association and Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health declared that racism is a statewide public health problem and in Spokane County, respectively.

Language access is one of our civil rights protected by federal laws. As of today, Spokane still lacks a well-designed system that ensures legal requirements are met, putting our city at risk of legal liability. The recent Gray and Oregon Road fires, along with their resulting hazardous air, shows that language access is tied to public safety. The recent passing of the long overdue Language Access Ordinance by the Spokane City Council tasks the Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion with the implementation and oversight of the Language Access Ordinance. Without adequate funding and staffing, it will become yet another well-intentioned but toothless ordinance, doing nothing to improve our lives. A full-time language access coordinator is needed to work internally to ensure city employees are well-trained and understand the nuances in translation and interpretation and externally to ensure that our immigrants and refugees know their language access rights.

We don’t feel we belong in Spokane when our ideas are only taken seriously only if we speak the “right” language with the “right” accents. We don’t feel we belong in Spokane when our ideas are taken seriously only if we conform to the narrowly defined cultural norms of “respectability.”

Despite our modest community vision for the Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion, the budget allocated since its creation falls short of what our community coalition expected. The starting budget for the office is minuscule compared to the Spokane Police Department budget. However, it has been cut by 30.6% in the mayor’s proposed 2024 budget while the budget for SPD has increased by 16.8%. The cut in the Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion budget is problematic in light of the current wave of hate-motivated vandalism in the Perry District and recent concerns about the rise of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

We want our elected officials to show that the safety of our communities matters by advocating for the full funding of the Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion. That will show us we truly belong in Spokane.

Robert Huitt is the equity and network manager of Greater Spokane Progress; Pui-Yan Lam is the vice president of Asians for Collective Liberation in Spokane’s Executive Board; Justice Forral is the director of operations of Spokane Community Against Racism. They all reside in Spokane.