PCHR urges introspection and action following racially-charged responses to officer-involved deaths

The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations issued the following statement responding to the ongoing discord following grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y.

Officer-involved slayings of civilians should always provoke alarm, introspection and considered action, because if mishandled, the repercussions and damage to public credibility stand to be great. Likewise, the great American right to peaceably assemble and petition grievances is a sacred one that should be respected.

In recent weeks, two highly publicized cases involving police and the deaths of young, unarmed African-American men concluded with results that have threatened the sense of fairness and harmony among many, locally and nationally. Equally troubling is the twinned and expressed level of indifference and sometimes hostility toward those upset by these decisions. Together, they dampen the feel of racial progress and justice, even 50 years after major civil rights battles were waged and won.

In order for true progress to continue, we must recognize and work to correct conditions that undercut our long held values such as equal protection under the law. Ignoring or dismissing these concerns does little but to foment resentment and frustration, which often devolves into violent outbursts, advancing little. This is the time that we need to come together, to both actively listen and collectively work on solutions.

Everyone has a role to play, be it in confronting our own biases, speaking out with respectful defense of others or pushing to change institutional policies and practices that perpetuate inequality – ranging from lopsided resources for public schools to using criminal records or credit scores as barriers to jobs or housing. We cannot truly thrive until every aspect of our society is afforded equal opportunity – and that includes treatment by public safety officers and our criminal justice system. That is work to which this commission is committed.

We must show the people of this city, of this nation – particularly young people – that their lives matter, that all lives matter. Our actions must reflect a belief that there is hope for the future. Because there is.

Established in 1951, PCHR enforces civil rights laws and helps to diffuse inter-group conflict within the city.

Bringing African Americans to the table to talk about race

NewCORE – New Conversations on Race and Ethnicity – came together six years ago with a broad but essential mandate: use faith leaders as guides for Philadelphians wading through and seeking to strengthen race relations.

Yesterday, at Prince of Peace Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, NewCORE launched We Need to Talk, a series of neighborhood sessions where African Americans can examine their experiences with race in intimate dialogue with neighbors and strangers. The group laid a framework for this series last month, when Mayor Michael A. Nutter and a host of other prominent African Americans offered intimate glimpses through their lens of race  and become unofficial ambassadors for the movement.

The talks are designed to explore issues of pain, challenges and hopes in a neutral space, without the pressure of the latest news cycle pressing buttons and pressure points.

That good intention fell aside somewhat in the wake of the Ferguson decision, though, when a mostly white grand jury opted not to indict a white police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager in the St. Louis suburb.

Officer Darren Wilson claimed Michael Brown Jr. had attacked him and that he feared for his life; some witness accounts said Brown had his hands up and was shot anyway.

The chain of ensuing events, from leaving the teenager’s bleeding body in the street uncovered for hours to the reaction by police officials in the early days of the summer shooting sparked unrest in Ferguson and solidarity protests across the United States, including in Philadelphia, before and after the grand jury decision.

The officer since has resigned and President Obama just created a task force to delve into the persistent issue of mistrust between area police and communities of color, as well as the increased militarization of police departments. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey will serve as co-lead of that task force.

Images of officers in Missouri in full-on battle gear and weaponry ignited widespread condemnation, foreign and domestic.

More than anything, Ferguson reignited urgent questions about racial perceptions and realities, in some instances creating bright lines that seem intractable. NewCORE seeks to play a role in easing people toward greater understanding, with an eye to the long view on race and intergroup harmony.table

Still, engaging any conversation about race, regardless of the participants, can be a tricky enterprise, which is why NewCORE organizers want to cultivate organic, thoughtful and personal exchanges.

Rather than big summits and television cameras, they’re opting to spur intimate “storytelling table conversation,” said the Rev. Steven Lawrence, a minister at White Rock Baptist Church and a leader in the NewCORE movement.

We Need to Talk will pick back up Wednesday, Dec. 10, at Caanan Baptist Church in Northwest Philadelphia, with the series continuing across the city through December 17. Attendees are to center their discussions on personal experiences with pain, challenge and hope as they relate to race relations.

“We want the conversations in each location to be vital and relevant for those neighbors, so we expect there will be a great variety of topics discussed,” Lawrence said.

That has been the case since he and other faith leaders responded to came shortly after the inspiring 2008 address by then-candidate Barack Obama, A More Perfect Union. In the heady days after the frank and critically acclaimed treatise on the persistent American dilemma of race, the mayor challenged local leaders to keep the energy alive by establishing safe spaces for open, honest dialogue.

While this latest series is geared toward African Americans, the work of NewCORE typically has had wide and diverse reach, having held events at the National Museum of American Jewish History and a mosque in Villanova, as examples.

Rather than try to engineer outcomes, NewCORE remains focused on starting and cultivating safe conversations.

“We have found that people are tired of settings based on talking, but not listening,” Lawrence said. “People are hungering for sincere conversation. Once that happens, people want more.

“Ongoing conversation is a great way to discover what a community can do together. We want to encourage the conversation.”

We Need to Talk: Our Pain, Our Challenges, Our Hopes
Upcoming neighborhood sessions. Registration is requested.

Northwest Philadelphia
Wednesday, Dec. 10
6-8:30 p.m.
Canaan Baptist Church
5430 Pulaski Ave.

West Philadelphia
Saturday, Dec. 13
12-2:30 p.m.
White Rock Baptist Church
5240 Chestnut St.

Wednesday, Dec. 17
6-8:30 p.m.
Quba Masjid
4637 Lancaster Ave.

South Philadelphia
Monday, Dec. 15
6-8:30 p.m.
Church of the Redeemer Baptist
1440 S. 24th St.

Southwest Philadelphia
Tuesday, Dec. 16
6-8:30 p.m.
St. Paul AME Church
8398 Lindbergh Blvd.

PCHR responds to President Obama’s immigration reform speech

Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations Chair Thomas H. Earle today offered this reaction to the immigration reform address President Obama presented to the nation last night on behalf of PCHR:

“The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations applauds the courageous and prudent action President Obama proposed concerning immigration reform. He offered a rational, thoughtful and achievable set of steps that would lessen anxiety among hundreds of thousands of families in the United States, support law enforcement as well as provide a road map toward a more comprehensive path for the long-term solutions that so many desire.

“As we approach the holiday season, President Obama could provide no better gift than piece of mind for parents and children as well as solid leadership on a complex issue that reverberates in nearly every community in this country, with Philadelphia being no exception.

“As the city’s investigators of national origin and language discrimination claims, our commission sees first-hand the impact actual reform stands to have, and we look forward to the strengthening the rich diversity of our city and nation. For this, we are grateful for the president’s strong leadership on this important interim step in much needed immigration reform.”

PCHR is the agency charged with diffusing inter-group conflict within the city and ensure fair dealings in employment, housing, public accommodations and real estate, as outlined in the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, Philadelphia’s guiding civil rights legislation.

Learn more by calling (215) 686-4670 or visiting www.phila.gov/humanrelations.

Being Our Brother’s Keeper in Philly

When President Barack Obama issued a national challenge in September for cities to become My Brother’s Keeper communities, Philadelphia seized upon it.


After all, with blacks and Latinos making up 57 percent of the city’s population, a wicked violence rate and sagging academic achievement among this large segment of our city, the president’s charge arrived like an SOS – one powered by neighbors to help save their neighbors.

It was with that sense of urgency that Mayor Michael A. Nutter convened the My Brother’s Keeper Philly summit, gathering thinkers, advocates, academics and advocates from the public and private sector together to start shaping how this initiative would look and what it would achieve. PCHR was among them.

Mayor Nutter opened the morning and set the stage for what lies ahead, describing the initiative as some of the most important work in which the city could engage, and should engage.

With dismal high school graduation and lackluster employment rates among Philadelphia’s black and brown males, failure to intervene would equate to draining the city of a valuable resource by failing to capture and convert talent.

The Center for American Progress just released a study noting that were the educational achievement gap experienced by black and brown children closed, the nation’s gross domestic product would rise by the trillions, and state and local tax receipts would increase in the billions annually. For economically struggling urban centers like Philadelphia, whose 12.2 percent poverty rate ranks it the poorest of the country’s big cities, that type of change would amount to considerable improvement.

Just the night before, he spoke about one of the deepest pains he experiences daily as mayor – the daily briefings from Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey that detail the murder and mayhem of the night before. Too often, the names of victims – and perpetrators – share commonalities: young, black, male and many times undereducated if not unemployed.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx helped put the challenge ahead in context, giving personal testimony from his own family. Hard work is half of the battle; having support along the way can carry you across the goal line.

But it begins with a mindset, Foxx said, quoting the legendary lawmaker Adam Clayton Powell Jr.:  “Freedom is an internal achievement rather than an external adjustment.”

Given the fact that there are more African-American men behind bars than were held in bondage at the height of slavery, it is clear that modern freedom requires greater inward work, Foxx said. It’s work that needs external support – from family, friends, neighbors, educators and employers, driving at the heart of this gathering and this national initiative.

“The good news is that the mayor’s office is dedicated to focusing its resources on this project,” PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau said. “We can lay the groundwork for a long-term initiative in the city.

“We are all responsible for the circumstances currently facing African-American and Latino boys and men, and we must all play a role in dismantling the current structure and creating new avenues for success. “

There were plenty invested in creating such avenues. Attendees grouped themselves thematically along the major goals of the initiative to ensure:

  • All children enter school cognitively, physically, socially and emotionally ready
  • All children read at grade level by 3rd grade
  • A 100 percent high school graduation rate
  • All young people complete post-secondary education or training
  • All young people out of school are working
  • All young people remain safe from violent crime

Inside the West Philadelphia Community Center in Mantua, the room was abuzz as education, employment, social and public safety considerations rose at every table.

The conversations around the tables were thoughtful, as well as frank, assessing what initiatives already are in place, what players need to be involved in these discussions moving forward and establishing concrete to-do’s, beginning in bite-sized chunks. From these discussions, the mayor’s team will establish a work plan, expected shortly.

The PCHR contribution will involve boosting violence prevention programs as well as enhancing employment prospects through broader education and cultural shifts such as through awareness of the city’s Ban the Box law.

“In order for My Brother’s Keeper Philly to be successful, the momentum needs to continue,” said Randy Duque, PCHR deputy director. “The leaders who attended must not only continue to collaborate, but also invigorate their respective agencies and organizations with the MBK initiative so that each can work fully in tandem at achieving the various goals generated.”

Long after the folding chairs are stacked in their closets at the community center, many will remember the words and story of Juan Jefferies.

Like many young men in this city, his life took a wrong turn, to the deep anguish of his parents who worked to steer him on a better road. But he gathered himself together with the help of programs such as PowerCORP PHL.

Now he’s an intern with the Philadelphia Water Department and a student at Community College of Philadelphia, a success like many people able to combine their desire for a second chance and initiatives such as PowerCORP PHL and Ban the Box.

“I never saw myself as a college student, and if you had asked me a few years ago, I would have never thought I would be where I am now,” he told the audience. “I’m grateful. They weren’t worried about my past. They just saw my potential.”

His is a story worth repeating – and replicating, citywide. MBK Philly can help make it happen.

Sharing the word: “Ban the Box” and job hunting at Esperanza College

With unemployment rates among the city’s Latino population more than twice the city’s average, La Mega 1310’s job fair at Esperanza College — complete with recruiters that had actual openings — came right on time.

PCHR's Monica Gonzalez explains how the city's 'Ban the Box" law can help level the playing field for job seekers during the first job fair sponsored by La Mega 1310AM.

PCHR’s Monica Gonzalez explains how the city’s ‘Ban the Box” law can help level the playing field for job seekers during the first job fair sponsored by La Mega 1310AM.

But for those Latinos, males and females, who have criminal records, the prospect of employment always seems shakier.

PCHR was on hand to insist that it doesn’t have to be, that the “Ban the Box” law is intended to help them get an even shot at competing for work.

PCHR's Naarah Crawley answers questions about the city's "Ban the Box" law at La Mega 1310 AM's first job fair, held at Esperanza College.

PCHR’s Naarah Crawley answers questions about the city’s “Ban the Box” law at La Mega 1310 AM’s first job fair, held at Esperanza College.

It’s why the agency partnered with La Mega to help deliver this important message — and job fair attendees flocked to the PCHR table to listen to Monica Gonzalez and Naarah Crawley tell them more, about the law, how to use it and what to do if things don’t go according to plan.

There were as many women as men stopping by the table, of all ages, securing information for themselves and loved ones.

“We keep putting out information and setting out the brochures, and people are picking them up,” Gonzalez said. “They definitely want to know more.”

PCHR's Monica Gonzalez and Naarah Crawley get encouragement and thanks from Managing Director Rich Negrin at La Mega's first job fair, held at Esperanza College

PCHR’s Monica Gonzalez and Naarah Crawley get encouragement and thanks from Managing Director Rich Negrin at La Mega’s first job fair, held at Esperanza College

Spreading the word against “Fearbola”

PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau took to the airwaves to help dispel myths about Ebola and West African immigrants, many of whom are facing increased instances of discrimination based on their national origin since the deadly outbreak began capturing global attention. Acting against someone because of his or her national origin violates the city’s civil rights laws, codified as the Fair Practices Ordinance.

FOX29's Alex Holley and Mike Jerrick listen to PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau outline that despite Ebola concerns, national original discrimination violates the Fair Practices Ordinance.

FOX29’s Alex Holley and Mike Jerrick listen to PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau outline that despite Ebola concerns, national original discrimination violates the city’s civil rights laws, codified as the Fair Practices Ordinance.

Local and regional anecdotal reports about harassment of people from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Liberia — Philadelphia has one of the highest Liberian-American populations in the United States — prompted Landau to issue a simple message: Caution, not discrimination. She also urged people to report instances of discrimination or harassment to the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations so they can be investigated.

Click here to watch her interview on FOX29’s Good Day Philadelphia with anchors Mike Jerrick and Alex Holley.

Helping Temple imagine — and embrace — diversity

Figuring out the best way to approach someone different than you, find common ground and work toward a common goal can be difficult work. Thankfully, it’s a process with which the PCHR Community Relations Division has deep expertise – and the team lent its many years of insights and experience to hundreds Temple University students.

Temple’s 2014 Imagining and Re-Imagining Diversity symposium was a full-day event examining strategies to create a more inclusive and empathetic climate, on and off campus.

The community relations team served as volunteer facilitators as students and faculty joined to probe big-picture issues ranging from retention factors among people of color to the impact of gentrification on both the campus and its North Philadelphia neighbors. The reality of changing neighborhoods in this section of North Philadelphia has bubbled to the surface often as of late, with deep passions on both sides of the debate.

PCHR Commissioner Rebecca T. Alpert (c.) was among the many on hand sharing thoughtful dialogue on diversity at Temple.

PCHR Commissioner Rebecca T. Alpert (c.) was among the many on hand sharing thoughtful dialogue on diversity at Temple.

(l-r) PCHR's Veronica Szymanski, Patricia Coyne, Bunrath Math and Tierra Thompson display results of hundreds of Temple student and faculty interactions at the symposium.

(l-r) PCHR’s Veronica Szymanzki, Patricia Coyne, Bunrath Math and Tierra Thompson display results of hundreds of Temple student and faculty interactions at the symposium.

That segment of the day’s discussion lent to the strength of the community relations team, which helps neighbors navigate these rocky waters across the city. A development boom and an influx of new residents have added to tensions and even flare-ups that need deft hands to douse, from Mayfair to Cedar Park to Yorktown.

“Some of the students come from the suburbs and have no real concept of what urban life is about, and figure that life would be great if only Temple would help get rid of those ‘irritating’ neighbors, that the campus is benefitting them more, economically,” said PCHR’s Tierra Thompson.

“Other students took another look, from the view of the residents, saying, ‘Hey, they were there first. We’re in their ‘hood. Now they are paying higher property taxes, maybe sometimes even being forced out because they can’t afford their homes anymore.’ There are a lot of thoughtful opinions,” Thompson added.

Attendees spent time visiting “listening booths” and thinking through their concept of diversity at Temple. They jotted down responses to questions such as improving faculty and student diversity as well as connections to the surrounding neighborhood. They defined issues and offered suggestions on resolving them in group discussions.

Mayor Michael A. Nutter and PCHR Commissioner Rebecca T. Alpert were among those who came to share thoughts on what was hailed – and trended on social media – as “TUnity Day.”

Some of the suggestions were concrete to-dos whereas others focused on shifting mindsets. The collected data will be analyzed and an action plan is expected among next steps, but even this level of engagement raised awareness, said PCHR Deputy Director Randy Duque. 

“Many of the students felt that a lot of the issues between them and their neighbors could be alleviated if they only got to know each other,” Duque said.  

“When students were talking about how their classmates sometimes, trash up neighborhoods, one student said that if those students took the time to get to know their neighbors — and were friendly with their children — they would think twice before throwing trash onto their property. That’s true – and a major complaint we often hear.

“If these young people start thinking more about how their actions affect other people, the people who will be there long after they graduate,” Duque said, “maybe we’ll be on the path to greater harmony and understanding.”

Of course, if any campus-neighborhood misunderstandings arise in the meantime, Team PCHR will be ready to help calm the waters.

Student feedback at Temple's 2014 "Imagining and Re-imagining Diversity" symposium.

Student feedback at Temple’s 2014 “Imagining and Re-imagining Diversity” symposium.