Five members of Dialogue on Race resign, citing "interpersonal squabbles" and inaction

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City Council’s decision to put off the creation of a human rights commission, and tension within the Dialogue on Race leadership has spurred five members to resign. According to a letter obtained by C-VILLE, the members of the Dialogue’s steering committee resigned last week because they felt their commitment “would no longer be a prudent use of our time.” While they “remain committed” to the mission of the initiative, the former members point to “interpersonal squabbles” among the leadership as one of the most evident reasons for the committee’s ineffectiveness. Additionally, the Government Policy Action Team responsible for the proposal of the Charlottesville Commission on Human Rights, Diversity, and Race Relations dissolved itself.

Walter Heinecke, a vocal supporter of a human righs commission, resigned from the Dialogue on Race Steering Committee after City Council voted to study the “level of need” for the commission. The five resignations, he said, are an “indication that the Dialogue on Race has run its course.” (Photo by John Robinson)

“For me personally, it was a little frustrating to see really, really good ideas and see them not necessarily translated into progress or action,” said Dean L’hospital, local attorney and one of the five members who resigned. “Group dynamics make things like that hard, agreeing on a principle and then getting lost going forward.” L’hospital said as soon as he realized the steering committee was unsuccessful at implementing those ideas, he looked elsewhere “to see where I could help more.”

Bob Gross, the committee’s co-chair along with Gertrude Ivory, called the members’ resignations “unfortunate.”

“I think that in any group of passionate, committed people there is going to be disagreement and different ways of seeing things,” he said. “I think we all have, and we continue to have, including the people who have resigned, a common purpose and that is to make some positive, long-lasting, systemic change in our city, and I think that’s still true.”

Walter Heinecke, vocal human rights commission supporter and one of the steering committee members who resigned, said that his and his fellow members’ resignations are a reflection of the need for the Dialogue on Race to evolve and that the commission was a logical progression.

“We felt that when we proposed the commission, that we proposed an organic evolution of the Dialogue on Race into a permanent, effective entity and I think that the problem with the resignations is that they are an indication that the Dialogue on Race has run its course,” he said.

According to the letter, the Dialogue’s steering committee voted to “endorse” the proposal for the human rights commission, but because of “objections by a few in the leadership team,” the commission was never actively supported.

City Council voted to create a 11-member task force that will spend the next 10 months studying data and preparing an interim report after the five-month mark. The proposal called for City Council to approve an initial investment of $300,000 and an annual $200,000 allocation for the commission’s executive director, an investigator and administrative help.
Charlene Green, program coordinator for the Dialogue on Race, said the committee supported the proposal “in its spirit.”

“Folks were in agreement that we need something in place to address discrimination,” she said. However, as the discussion that ensued among City Councilors demonstrated, Green believes the immediate creation of the commission based on a 25-page report with the request for funding “was not in the best interest of the citizens of Charlottesville.”

“Discrimination happens, we know it happens, but if you are going to create a commission to deal with the discrimination, you want to have a really solid process in place,” said Green.
For Gross, hard data is fundamental.

“We need real data. It’s tempting, but we cannot rely on anecdotal information and we have to gather real, hard information,” he said.

Data obtained by Heinecke from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows that in the past year 49 charges were filed against respondents in Charlottesville, up from 42 in 2010.

In the two years since the steering committee has been active, there have been 10 resignations, said Green.

Cindy Stratton, an activist and former co-chair of the committee who resigned last year, said the dialogue was productive at first, but “got bogged down” by bureaucracy.

“This was not the first time this type of organization has been proposed and at some point, there has to be a demonstrative commitment on the part of the city to see a change within the social and economic fabric of this community,” she said.

In the meantime, the City of Charlottesville has begun the task of recruiting members for the task force to study the feasibility of a human rights commission. Residents have until March 1 to submit an application for consideration.

For Green, this is an opportunity for residents to come together and actively participate in civic discourse and start doing things around the issue of discrimination. “It’s about creating a town where we are considered one of the best places to live and we want that to be for everyone, not just certain segments,” she said.

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