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


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

As Spokane grows and diversifies, our institutions must grow and change to respond to the present moment. That’s why a coalition of community organizations have worked together for years to imagine and create a proposal for a multi-faceted Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion (OCREI). Last Monday, the Spokane Human Rights Commission (SHRC) submitted the community’s proposal, supported by more than 50 organizations, to Spokane City Council and our mayor, calling for a fully staffed OCREI to next year’s budget.

An OCREI would provide an indispensable structure to help realize our city’s commitment to promote justice, equity and an inclusive environment for all, recognizing the dignity and worth of all human beings, regardless of their identity. These ideals are enshrined in the Spokane City Code Anti-Discrimination Act, Title 18. The creation of an OCREI is how our city will take action to uphold the promise of the law.

Spokane has organized against discrimination for years. Beth Shalom Spokane Temple (2014, 2021), MLK Center (2016), Morning Star Baptist Church (2016), Salish School (2017), and Black Live Matter Mural (2020) have all been tagged with hateful graffiti. City leaders have emphatically stated that Spokane does not tolerate acts of hate. Yet after the graffiti was repainted and the press trucks left, no awareness or education program followed. These events made national news, but what about the person of color whose job pays her less than everyone else? What about the tenant whose owner gives him an apartment key while commenting on his body? Currently, there is no agency to turn to to enforce Spokane’s human rights law.

In 2018, Washington was reported to be the second state in the United States for reported hate crimes. That year, a group of community organizations including Spokane NAACP, Asian Pacific Islander Coalition Spokane, Spokane Community Against Racism, Greater Spokane Progress and others made the creation of an OCREI a community priority. because Washington’s second largest city should have anti-discrimination infrastructure. In 2019, the SHRC formed an exploratory working group to research what Spokane needed from an OCREI.

Spokane does not currently invest in the protection of civil rights, equity and inclusion like other cities. Des Moines, Iowa, a city roughly the same size and makeup as Spokane, spends $ 801,928 per year on a six-person OCR. Tacoma, Washington, a slightly smaller city, employs 14 people with an annual budget of $ 4,564,664. Meanwhile, our only equivalent organization, the SHRC, has an annual budget of $ 8,000 and a staff of 0.25 FTEs.

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

Spokane is progressing. This fall, Mayor Woodward hired Jerrall Haynes as the city’s civil rights coordinator, a position budgeted by city council. This first step towards an OCREI has been an exciting and hopeful moment. Yet the demonstrated needs of our community require more work than one person can do. This position is just the beginning.

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

The laws of the city of Spokane denounce hatred, intolerance and prejudice in all its forms and recognize equity and inclusion as the cornerstone of excellence in effective public service. Committing resources to create an OCREI will strengthen the culture of equity and inclusion that our community deserves. On December 13, 2021, City Council will vote on the 2022 budget. Let them know you are against discrimination, and for equity and inclusion in Spokane. Join us in asking them to allocate resources to a fully staffed Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion.

Email members of your city council at [email protected] and Mayor Woodward at [email protected]

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

Lance Kissler – Chairman of the OCR Working Group, Chairman of the Spokane Human Rights Commission

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

Katy Sheehan – OCR working group 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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