More than seven months, two community forums, and several field trips later, Charlottesville’s Human Rights Task Force is approaching a deadline. In December, the 10-member Task Force will make a recommendation to the City Council on whether Charlottesville needs a permanent Human Rights Commission to combat discrimination, and just what such a commission should look like.
Task Force co-chair Jesse Ellis seems largely convinced on the first point. A Philadelphia native who moved to Charlottesville in 2011, Ellis said he applied to join the Task Force because he wanted to give back to his new community. These days, he sounds a little wearied by the feedback gathering of the last half-year, but he’s hopeful the efforts to study residents’ opinions will pay off in the long run.
The public forums the Task Force held—most recently at First Baptist Church on West Main Street September 13—brought out a lot of residents who feel passionately that the city has to take steps against discrimination, he said. “People want to have their stories told,” said Ellis. “They want to hear, and they want to be heard from.”
But despite concerted efforts to drive the public conversation toward specifics—what an ideal commission would look like, and what powers it should have—a lot of the input has come in the form of general anger, especially from the African-American community, over systemic racism. Some of that nebulous frustration is due to the fact that previous efforts to formally combat discrimination have failed, Ellis said.
“Some people are in the mode that if you’re not going to do anything, don’t have these forums, and don’t waste the people’s time,” he said. But he believes the public input has been valuable. He’s heard many times the conviction that to affect change, Charlottesville needs a commission with enforcement powers that can actually resolve complaints through a quasi-judicial process. In short: real results.
“We’ve seen it work in Fairfax County and Prince William County,” Ellis said, both of which have commissions with enforcement components.
Members of the local business community have objected to a commission because they fear it will result in a small group of people being granted the power to make legally binding decisions on discrimination disputes. “I think there is a fear that people will be called on the carpet,” said Ellis. But a commission doesn’t have to pit stakeholders against each other, he said. It can help both sides, offering training and guidance in addition to conflict resolution.
Alex Gulotta, executive director of Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center, was more blunt. “We’ve had enough talk,” said Gulotta, whose LAJC colleague, Abigail Turner, serves on the Task Force. “It’s time for action. It’s that simple. I think there’s a small but vocal minority of people here that doesn’t want a commission with any enforcement power, and their strategy is to talk the subject to death.”
Right now, he said, there might be laws against discrimination, but the avenues for redress are difficult to navigate, and it takes a long time to get results. A lot of people just give up, he said.
Gulotta acknowledged that not every complaint is going to get a judgement. “There are many people who feel like they were discriminated against and weren’t,” he said, but a commission can help with that, too, through education efforts. Whatever the outcome, “we’re better off if these kinds of issues are dealt with right away,” he said.
But when the Task Force members gathered in City Hall last week for their monthly meeting, it was clear there’s still no consensus. Even as Ellis talked through draft organizational charts for possible future Commission, some members seemed unconvinced.
“You feel the evidence is in,” said member Harvey Finkel. But, he pointed out, there’s still work to be done—public comments to be reviewed, local complaint data from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to pore over—before the Task Foce makes its recommendation to City Council in December.
Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce President Timothy Hulbert reiterated concerns he had raised in the past: If people already have recourse for discrimination complaints, he said, “why do we need a commission?”
Task Force co-chair Dorenda Johnson, silent for most of the meeting, weighed in then, frustration evident in her voice.
“It’s really hard for people to understand that it’s a lot more than charts and points on this graph here until it’s happened to you,” she said, gesturing to the PowerPoint slide projected on the wall behind her. “So trust me when I tell you, we need a commission to stop this from going on. We need something to help these people.”