Looking at labor, with a Latino lens

PCHR joined a host of social and civic agencies at the invitation of the Mexican Consulate to offer migrant workers and residents a broader understanding of rights and services available to them.

It came as part of a full-day presentation to close out Labor Rights Week 2014. The annual event targets the burgeoning Mexican population in the region, particularly in South Philadelphia, where the demographics are changing every year.

“The community is growing, but it’s scattered, and it’s hard to get to people unless it’s a festival. And a festival means a party, and it’s hard to get information to people if they’re focusing on having a good time,” said Nancy Rivera, a PCHR compliance supervisor.

“Some people are shy or afraid to seek information,” she said. “This event is a way that allows people who may normally come to the consulate for visa or other immigration issues to also get a sense of what other agencies and services may be available to them.”

PCHR bilingual staffers Nancy Rivera and Veronica Szymanski educate hundreds about civil rights and fair housing law at the Mexican Consulate during Labor Rights Week.

PCHR bilingual staffers Nancy Rivera and Veronica Szymanski educate hundreds about civil rights and fair housing law at the Mexican Consulate during Labor Rights Week.

Rivera teamed up with Veronica Szymanski, veteran PCHR community relations representative, to share details about the city’s civil rights and fair housing laws, as well as steps to take if someone thinks their rights may have been violated.

Neighborhood disputes often arise when immigrants and migrant workers move into a community, and many are too fearful to file complaints, Szymanski said.

“They stay quiet, even when they’re harassed,” she said. “When they talk to us, they’re still quiet at first, but then they warm up when we start speaking. After we give our presentation, then you’ll see one or two, and then more, come to the table with questions.”

Overall, some 200 people passed through the doors and participated.

“Being able to talk with them, in simple terms, in Spanish, letting them know they can call us and how to reach us, it meant a lot,” Rivera added.

(l-r) Marla L. Soffer of the Galfand and Berger Law Offices, Jorge Armando Tuddon Meza of the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia, Davis H. Schraeger of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development and PCHR’s Nancy Rivera and Veronica Szymanski.

(l-r) Marla L. Soffer of the Galfand and Berger Law Offices, Jorge Armando Tuddon Meza of the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia, Davis H. Schraeger of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development and PCHR’s Nancy Rivera and Veronica Szymanski.

Focusing on Ferguson

It’s hard to absolutely declare which was the most disturbing component of the unrest the world witnessed in Ferguson, Mo., a hamlet north of Saint Louis. That national tragedy served as the subtext for a digital town hall hosted Monday by Clear Channel Philadelphia, where an intimate gathering of some 30 people of various ages and backgrounds came to discuss Ferguson and its aftermath.

PCHR was among the participants, with a delegation including Commissioners Marshall E. Freeman and Saadiq Jabbar Garner and PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau.

Ferguson town hall panel

A set of activists and civic leaders gathered for a town hall meeting sponsored by Clear Channel Philadelphia. (l-r) Allison Pokras, executive director of Operation Understanding; author and journalist Solomon Jones; PCHR’s Rue Landau; educational consultant Andrea Lawful-Trainer; Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel; and the Rev. Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. Loraine Ballard Morrill moderated.

In addition to Landau, the panel opening the dialogue featured Allison Pokras, executive director of Operation Understanding; author and journalist Solomon Jones; educational consultant Andrea Lawful-Trainer; Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel; and the Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. Veteran public affairs director Loraine Ballard Morrill moderated the hour-long discussion that drew insights not just from panelists, but also an array of students, parents, law enforcement officers, educators and activists.

“What we saw in Ferguson is not indicative of what we see in policing,” said Bethel, who came to the discussion flanked with a multi-hued set of officers. “What has to happen from this conversation is a continuous dialogue. We have a responsibility to get out in the community and touch people in a positive way.”

The town hall streamed live from 4 to 5 p.m. on three web sites – WDASFM.com, Power99.com and MixPhiladelphia.com. Excerpts also will be featured on all six Clear Channel Philadelphia stations on Sunday morning, beginning at 6 a.m.

Different events in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death under questionable circumstances have sparked anxieties. For some, the trigger was the prospect of an unarmed citizen being gunned down in the street and his body left to lay uncovered in a pool of his own blood. For others, it was the allegation that an unruly 18-year-old willingly charged an officer.

Still, for many Americans and those who look to this nation as a model democracy, visuals of police in tanks brandishing tear gas, rubber bullets and sound cannons against peaceful protestors coupled with those of people stripping area stores of their goods shook confidences.

Had the officer in question simply had been arrested after the shooting incident, there would be less room to question the motives or actions afterwards, said the Rev. Jacobus Nomdoe, a pastor visiting from South Africa. He said perceptions of a justice system stacked against black people is a familiar topic, and it was disappointing to see America follow a path that he and people in his country proved years ago had no good end.

“If he had been arrested, there would have been some kind of peace,” Nomdoe said. “If the process had started, on that day. It didn’t.”

Scenes from Ferguson, MO. Photo courtesy: Michael B. Thomas, Agency France Presse.

Scenes from Ferguson, MO. Photo courtesy: Michael B. Thomas, Agency France Presse.

That was at the heart of the frustration and disgust high school students in the audience expressed.

Some recounted daily brushes with prejudice and racism, especially those who live and attend school in predominantly white areas. They said they now feel less confident that justice would prevail if they found themselves in similar circumstances as Michael Brown – citing incidents such as the Trayvon Martin slaying, the death of Eric Garner in New York City and other reports of deaths involving unarmed black men and police.

Chiquilla M. Holt, a mother of two teens, said she understood their apprehensions.

“The fear that they are expressing is real,” Holt said. “As black people, we have to prove we’re OK. You have to prove you’re not a thug, that you’re not a threat. We can’t escape it.

“So there’s a fear of excessive force, that any kind of interaction with the police can lead to being killed,” she said. “White people don’t have that fear because they will be given the benefit of the doubt.”

They were all cautioned by the panelists against hopelessness and bitterness. Instead, they were told to seek allies, white and otherwise.  Lawful-Trainer, for instance, said she joined in public conversations with young people, their parents and police in Abington, all of whom had concerns in wake of the Brown shooting. Alongside fellow civic leaders such as Jana Mallis of the Willow Grove NAACP, insightful exchanges are beginning.

“A lot of times you have allies in the room, but they are not sure what to say, so they stay quietly in the corner, not sure how they will be perceived,” Lawful-Trainer said. “You have to think about how you can get support. And we have to find a solution that will make young people feel safe.”

Philadelphia, with its history of being first-in-the-nation on so many fronts, could lead that charge and that change, Commissioner Garner told the assembled.

But that will require uncomfortable conversations to ensue, beyond the latest tragedy, the panel said.

Scary scenes from Ferguson. Photo courtesy Agency France Presse.

Scary scenes from Ferguson. Photo courtesy Agency France Presse.

Ferguson has sparked a series of public and private musings on race-based fears, economic inequality, responsible citizenship and law enforcement.  Sustained change means unpacking the hows and whys behind the distrust and dissatisfaction that could lead to such civil disturbance. And that requires honest introspection and preventative investment, Waller said. He paraphrased an observation of writer and philosopher Victor Hugo:

Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing instruction for all, and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.

“If brave people in power made the right decisions on the day of that event,” Waller said, “we may not have seen the violence that we saw.

“If we are going to fix this, we all in this community are going to have to take pieces of it, because we are all guilty of a Ferguson or the potential of a Ferguson, in an Abington or in a Lower Merion,” he said.

And active participation of white men in such action is critical, Waller added. Recent polling about the Brown incident shows a considerable chasm in opinion, breaking down largely on racial lines.

Rue Landau echoed the call for fuller engagement.

Getting to the heart of this matter would mean creating models for preventing negative interactions with other groups – whether stemming from bias based on language, disability – especially among the deaf and those struggling with seizures – or gender identity.

Commissioner Freeman shares closing thoughts with Loraine Ballard Morrill.

Commissioner Freeman shares closing thoughts with Loraine Ballard Morrill.

While any group could fill in the blank of the persecuted or abused, the Ferguson case reflects a Ground Zero. At its heart was an all-too familiar and unresolved American binary antagonism of black vs. white, she said.

“I’d like to call on people for individual accountability, that white people have to speak up, to stand up, to call out people on their racism and to actually use their power to make change as well,” Landau said. “Nothing is going to change until we all take steps moving forward. It’s been 50 years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

“We should be further than we are now. We’ve made great moves and great strides, but we still have so much farther to go.”

Taney Dragons: Providing welcome relief for a city in need, at 70 m.p.h.

The Little Team that Could. Real-Life Rockies. Philly’s Best.

The monikers for the Taney Dragons and their star pitcher, Mo’ne Davis, continue to mount along with the spotlight at the 2014 Little League World Series.

After all, they are making history as the first team from Philadelphia ever to compete in the Little League World Series, featuring the first female pitcher to deliver a shutout game – able to sling balls at 70 mph.

This assortment of students, coming from all walks of life and from across the city, has gifted Philadelphia with more than thrilling baseball games. That can be seen in the attendees at the City Hall pep rallies hosted by Mayor Nutter, in the banter at SEPTA stops, in bars, in barbershops and nail salons.

Taney Dragons fans

Fans in this pop-up “Dragons’ Lair” in City Hall are as reflective of the team they cheer.

With every pitch and every hit, the city’s new favorite franchise has helped bring this town together. And Philly has returned the favor, wrapping its arms around these kids, and squeezing tightly.

Flag Lady to Dragon Lady

Brenda Exton — aka the Partners for Civic Pride’s “Philly Pride Lady” — is among the many on the “Dragon Wagon.”

“We’re talking about an inter-gender, interracial, inter-class team. They come from South Philly, Mount Airy, West Philly, all over, all kinds of backgrounds. It’s a real Philadelphia team,” said PCHR Commissioner Rebecca T. Alpert.  A Temple University professor and a rabbi, Alpert also is the author of Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball and a longtime fan of the sport.

“We have such deep, painful divides in Philadelphia. But watching these kids really gives you hope for the future. It gives you a sense that everything isn’t horrible,” she said. “They have brought us some relief, because it’s been a tough summer.”

There was the July 4th holiday inferno in Southwest Philadelphia that stole four Liberian-American babies and ushered in days of grief-stricken unrest.

Then there were the FBI arrests of members of Philadelphia Police Department’s elite narcotics squad on corruption charges. And the shooting death of a 3-year-old girl while she sat on a neighbor’s porch getting her hair braided in South Philly.

Plus, the ever-present cloud that has been the day-to-day drama of the School District of Philadelphia’s fate and fall opening has kept emotions topsy-turvy, students through principals.

And that’s just locally.

The slaying of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Missouri and the chokehold-induced death of unarmed Eric Garner in New York City also have helped heighten anxieties and darken moods this summer as some have come to question the application of law, let alone finding justice within it.

Enter the purity of amateur sport. Enter Little League.

It long has been symbolic of Americana, of community and possibility. Still, Little League imagery tends to conjure small towns, not bustling cities with all the deep and systemic problems found within them. But with their camaraderie, sportsmanship, determination and demeanor, the Taney Dragons have breathed more than fire on the baseball diamond. They have breathed renewed hope into a city wracked by weeks of devastating news.

Despite an early decisive win in the series, the Dragons dropped a game Wednesday night, leaving them less in control of their future. Now it’s play-or-go home as they gear up for their next game, facing another inspiring team, the all-African-American squad from Chicago – the Jackie Robinson West team.

The Dragons and Robinson West will meet on the baseball diamond in a double-elimination game Thursday night.  The winner advances to the U.S. championship game. The loser gets to cheer from the stands.

Mo'me Davis, star pitcher for the Taney Dragons, has inspired girls, boys, and adults alike with her talent and poise.

Mo’me Davis, star pitcher for the Taney Dragons, has inspired girls, boys, and adults alike with her talent and poise.

Whenever, wherever the ride ends, the journey this summer has been pure, unifying magic at a time and space when it sorely has been needed.

This Crayola assortment of students has offered a meaningful distraction, a chance to re-imagine what life could be like if everyone strove to live up to those Little League ideals of respect and fair play.

It is a team that has arisen from a city history forged as much by the scrappy Anderson Monarchs as by the dazzling Philadelphia Stars and the full scope of the Philadelphia Phillies, from the one of the last team in the majors to integrate to the rainbow squad that captured the 2008 World Series.

If anything, the Taney Dragons reflect the best of all of that, and some, Alpert said.

“They really seem like nice kids, and then they have this girl, who’s incredible,” she said. “They are really living out what I wish Philadelphia were like. Watching people watch them, how they’re interacting with each other, this is totally about human relations, how we treat one another.”

That makes this latest round of Philly sports fever that much more special, that much sweeter.

Getting set for school

PCHR helped train hundreds of principals on bullying and harassment issues as part of back-to-school prep offered by the School District of Philadelphia, held at Benjamin Franklin High School on Friday.

The U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the Anti-Defamation League joined PCHR at the principals’ summit.

Classes are set to begin in September, but recent funding woes has curtailed certainty on the opening date.

Deputy Director Randy Duque presents before 300 principals at the School District of Philadelphia's annual get-set prep.

Deputy Director Randy Duque presents before 300 principals at the School District of Philadelphia’s annual get-set prep.

That didn’t stop Deputy Director Randy Duque from reviewing the type of support PCHR can offer principals when they resume their desks. That might be matching them with the right resources to diffuse or even help in preventing conflicts between groups. And the audience leaned in to grab every word.

“PCHR has a history working with the school district, with good results,” Duque said. “And we’re always ready to assist schools in promoting peace and restoring safety when called upon.”

Last school year, there were 660 assaults reported in Philadelphia public schools, according to district figures. With funding uncertainty looming, many in the city fear that such incidents could tick upward.

Recent history has shown that arguments – between students, parents, or other adults in a community – that begin at the neighborhood level sometimes can spill into the school, jeopardizing safety and harming student-to-student relations.

Helping to stem school violence at times may start outside of the school, but with insight from principals, disputes can be nipped at the source, Duque said.

“This time with the principals helps advance the Community Relation Division’s mission, getting out there and letting people know what we have done and can do,” he said. “Many of the principals in the district may be new and not as familiar with us and our work. This was a great opportunity to introduce ourselves to them, and to re-introduce ourselves to their more seasoned peers.

“It’s all about building relationships in the community. That’s why the CRD team will be out this fall, visiting schools and seeing how we can strengthen those community ties,” Duque added.

Securing LGBT employment rights

WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Barack Obama took a strong step today to end discrimination against the nation’s LGBTQ workforce – and PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau was among those in the room at the White House to witness it.

“This is an incredibly exciting moment, an inspiring moment for equality for all,” Landau said. “This sets an important standard, because too often, people can still lose their jobs simply because of whom they love or how they identify themselves. By affirming these as fundamental human expressions, the president has helped to define what ‘equality for all’ truly means.”

President Obama signs executive orders to protect federal LGBTQ employees from workplace discrimination.

President Obama signs executive orders to protect federal LGBTQ employees from workplace discrimination.

President Obama issued an update to both Executive Order 11246 and Executive Order 11478, bolstering the rights of federal LGBTQ employees.

The first order originally was issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and prohibits federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin and now, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Religiously-affiliated contractors are allowed certain exemptions.

The update covers federal contractors and federally-assisted construction contractors and subcontractors doing more than $10,000 in government business annually. The U.S. Dept. of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs will oversee and enforce the law.

The second order, initially issued by President Nixon, bans discrimination against federal employees based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or age. President Clinton updated the order to include sexual orientation, and now President Obama has added gender identity.

The executive orders fill a legislative gap. There are no current federal laws that clearly protect LGBTQ workers from employment discrimination.

While Philadelphia has some of the best LGBTQ protection laws in the nation, Pennsylvania does not.

Just 18 states and the District of Columbia explicit have laws that protect LGBTQ workers from losing their jobs due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. This is in spite of the fact that some 9 in 10 Forbes 500 companies ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and 6 in 10 prohibit gender identity discrimination.

A simple photograph on a desk can be enough to cost someone a job in some cases.

“Our economy grows best not from the top-down, but from the middle-out.  We do better when the middle class does better,” President Obama said during his most recent weekly address to the nation. “We have to make sure our economy works for every working American. Across lots of areas – energy, manufacturing, technology – our businesses and workers are leading again.”

With his actions on Monday, he intends for those ranks to include LGBTQ workers as well.

Celebrating diversity: Ramadan 2014 in Philadelphia

PCHR Commissioner Saadiq Garner juggles a lot as a civic-minded entrepreneur, and has been particularly busy on another front as of late – helping to strengthen ties between the city’s Muslim population and the broader public.

Councilman Jones and Saadiq Garner

City Council Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. shares a word with PCHR Commissioner Saadiq Garner during the 2nd Annual Philadelphia City Hall Iftar.

This week, he did so by participating in a public Iftar – or, breaking of fast – hosted by City Council Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr.  This is the midway point of Ramadan, the annual time of prayer, fasting, and personal reflection observed by Muslims throughout the world.

The Iftar usually occurs privately among family and friends in homes, but this public event helped to offer yet another example of the city’s commitment to its roots of religious and cultural tolerance, Garner said.

“Philadelphia is a place where building community means encompassing everybody, and the engagement of Muslims at such an event in City Hall shows that the presence is strong and respected,” he said.

At Tuesday’s Iftar, Mayor Michael A. Nutter and City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown were among the many elected officials in attendance, where dozens of people of all faiths gathered. Meanwhile, Al-Aqsa Islamic Society hosted an interfaith Iftar, featuring Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders — with plenty of discussion about world affairs, such as events in Syria and Gaza, and a lot of good food.

The Greater Philadelphia area is home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Americans who practice Islam, with Philadelphia ranking fourth among the top 10 U.S. cities with highest Muslim populations.

During Ramadan, Muslims are called to engage in acts of charity, and many heeded that call last Saturday as the Council on American-Islamic Relations powered a produce drive in conjunction with Philabundance and the Masjidullah Center for Human Excellence. Organizers wanted to encourage participants to be more thoughtful than just grabbing a dented can or an old bag of beans from the pantry, asking instead for cabbage, carrots, apples, oranges, sweet potatoes and oranges.

Masjids — houses of worship — across the city responded, donating some 3,850 pounds of fruits and vegetables.

Amatullah Brown (l.), a 15-year-old Central High School student, joins her friend Noor Borwman (r.), a 13-year-old PA Cyber Charter School student, in hoisting some of the produce donations amassed by area Muslims as part of Ramadan.

Amatullah Brown (l.), a 15-year-old Central High School student, joins her friend Noor Borwman (r.), a 13-year-old PA Cyber Charter School student, in hoisting some of the produce donations amassed by area Muslims as part of Ramadan.

The donations went to Upper Room Mission in the Ogontz section of town. Hundreds of people received meals made from the food as well as others who took bags of produce home.

“This is God’s work, showing what Islam is all about,” said Dr. Katera Y. Moore of CAIR-Philadelphia. “We’re Muslims, but we raised money for food that was donated to a church. Hunger is a social issue, a political issue, one that hits everybody – Muslim, Christian, Jew, atheist, everybody.”

These kinds of acts, standard in observances of Ramadan, seldom get mainstream attention, allowing caricatures and stereotypes to pervade, Garner said. But this season, area Muslims made a concerted effort to increase the visibility of their contributions among their neighbors, to increase understanding.

“Sometimes you hear so many negative things about Islam, and people in areas where there isn’t as strong of a Muslim presence go by what they hear,” Garner said. “But an event like this kills off the negativity and highlights the diversity among Muslims and their way of life.

“It’s not about terrorists, or right-wing thinkers or left-wing thinkers. It’s about people who understand Islam properly and are benefiting from it and sharing that positivity.”

Global scholars learn from PCHR

On Monday, PCHR laid out how diversity and inclusion plays a significant, and legally protected, role in Philadelphia government for some two dozen visiting college students from the Middle East touring the United States.

PCHR represented one of three city agencies participating in the Dialogue Institute’s 2014 Study of the U.S. Institute for Student Leaders on Religious Pluralism and Democracy in the United States. The attending students hailed from Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey, among other nations. Philadelphia was among one of several stops in their program, which included checking in with policy makers in New York and Washington D.C.

PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau, Deputy Directors Reynelle Brown Staley and Randy Duque shared the mission and role of PCHR, while Patricia Coyne, veteran community relations representative, offered a review of past PCHR cases.

PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau chats with one of the two dozen visiting scholars participating in the Dialogue Institute's municipal education program.

PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau chats with one of the two dozen visiting scholars participating in the Dialogue Institute’s municipal education program.

The visit was coordinated by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs and also featured a presentation from the city’s Commerce Department.

Deputy Director Randy Duque leans in to share insights about PCHR's role in the city -- and the lives of immigrants living here.

Deputy Director Randy Duque leans in to share insights about PCHR’s role in the city — and the lives of immigrants living here.

Each agency offered insight into how they assist new Philadelphians get settled and integrated into the city, from the basics to the legal side of things – and personal reflections on life as an immigrant as well.

“I had worked for city government for a while, but when I saw the Mexican flag raised over City Hall,” said Fernando Treviño, MOIMA deputy executive director, “I was proud, proud, proud. And we’re looking for ways to share that feeling with other communities.”

In fact, a similar flag-raising for Liberia is in the works, a gesture of symbolic healing, considering the sizable population of Liberians here and recent tragedies that have beset it.

The fact that 12 percent of the city’s population is foreign-born and the outsized impact immigrants here have on founding flourishing enterprises piqued attention. Questions from students sought to glean opinions on the current immigration reform debate raging across the nation, as well as the steps needed to become U.S. citizens. Their majors ranged from medicine to business management.

“I didn’t know what we were going to find out when we came,” said Jad Saheb, a 19-year-old Lebonese business management major at American University. “ But I learned a lot. I am looking forward to learning more.”