Back to All Migrated Pages

Central New York Chapter — Statement on the Onondaga County/Syracuse Human Rights Commission

NYCLU Statement to Onondaga County Legislature Hearing on the Onondaga County/Syracuse Human Rights Commission

October 8, 2009 My name is Barrie Gewanter and I represent the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York State affiliate of the ACLU. I come before you today to urge you to preserve the Onondaga County/Syracuse Human Rights Commission. The work of this organization is unique, essential and necessary in our community. It would be a tremendous loss and a striking embarrassment if the County Legislature acted to close the Human Rights Commission’s office. In the 13 years that I have served in staff and lay leadership roles for human rights and civil rights organizations, I have always considered the staff of the Human Rights Commission key allies and colleagues. These professionals fill a unique and essential niche. Organizations like mine receive numerous requests for assistance in matters pertaining to discrimination and other violations of human and civil rights. Some of those requests merit litigation. Most are referred to other private or governmental agencies such as Legal Services, the Fair Housing Council, clinics at the Syracuse University School of Law or the New York State Division of Human Rights. However, when a matter calls out strongly for investigation, advocacy or intervention — when it does not require a lawsuit -– the Human Rights Commission is the only governmental agency to call. There is no other agency devoted to promoting tolerance, sensitivity and acceptance without the threat of litigation. The Human Rights Commission is the only agency which will approach a business or employer, or even another agency, and educate it about its obligation to provide a bias-free environment and create a dialogue so that a solution can be found that is agreeable to all parties and harms none. The New York State Division of Human Rights does receive discrimination complaints, and it adjudicates these complaints through an administrative process that is similar to litigation. However, if a matter does not merit a clear discrimination complaint, or involves only willful ignorance or insensitivity, the Division does not address the problem. This is where the Human Rights Commission comes in. It is the only body empowered to investigate, educate and facilitate mutually agreeable solutions. The staff of the Human Rights Commission also enhances diversity and fairness in our community. In collaboration with the County Department of Personnel, the Commission provides diversity training for City and County employees. These trainings are professionally conducted, non-threatening and effective. The Commission has also assisted the Syracuse City School District by co-facilitating dialogues after serious concerns were raised about the conduct of police within the schools. The Commission also ensures that contractors hired by the County reflect the diversity of our community. And the Commission serves the critical function of receiving and investigating the human rights complaints of everyday people, giving aggrieved individuals somewhere to go to voice their concerns, to be heard and understood, get direction or referral, begin to seek redress… begin to heal. I cannot overstate the importance of this function. In addition to providing essential information, the Commission serves as a kind of safety valve for people who perceive that they have been harmed, especially for those who are held in and work in the tense environment of our County jail. I do not understand how you think that our community can be healthy or move forward without a professionally staffed Human Rights Commission ready and able to fulfill these essential functions. I do not understand why you would consider preserving a fish hatchery while eliminating the center for diversity education and advocacy for this City and County. I do not understand how you could even consider dismissing the Commission within just 18 months after a County maintenance worker discovered a noose in his locker and a City firefighter trainee displayed a noose to his fellow students; when both City and County law enforcement agencies are dealing with questions about Taser misuse; when our DA’s office just successfully prosecuted the first murder in our County to be designated a hate crime. We need the Human Rights Commission here. We cannot do without it. If you eliminate the office of the Human Rights Commission, the quality of life in this City and this County will be seriously degraded and perhaps endangered. I urge you to reconsider this proposal, to preserve this office and retain the professional staff of the Human Rights Commission. Barrie Gewanter Director – Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) NY State Affiliate of the ACLU

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union