PCHR helps train youth leaders, with SPIRIT

Spotting potential powder kegs and giving people the tools to diffuse them ahead of time long has been the hallmark of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations – but that work isn’t limited to adults.

That’s why PCHR has continued its partnership with the U.S. Dept. of Justice, the FBI and the Philadelphia Police Department in bringing SPIRIT to Philadelphia high schools, helping to bring necessary change by cultivating youth leaders.

Ben Franklin SPIRIT

PCHR Deputy Director Randy Duque (l.) and Bunrath Math, PCHR community relations representative (r.), facilitate a SPIRIT discussion at Ben Franklin High School.

SPIRIT – the Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together – initiative is a hallmark program for the community relations end of the Justice Department, led locally by Knight Sor. The initiative convenes students, administrators, teachers and parents for group brainstorming to identify problems, develop solutions and take action to lessen conflicts within their schools.

In May, it was students at Ben Franklin High School that stepped up to the challenge to tackle concerns they face in their hallways daily – with violence and racial intimidation ranking highest among them.

“It’s powerful in the sense that constructive community building takes the effort of knowing what the issues are, and the administration often doesn’t know that,” said Randy Duque, PCHR deputy director in charge of community relations. “Bullying, for instance, tends to occur in vacuum spaces. The problems aren’t necessarily being seen by the adults. The youth see it from a different level. So here, the students get to identify what they see as the issues, as well as serve as the thrust for the possible solutions to the possible.”


PCHR Deputy Director Randy Duque listens to the concerns of a Ben Franklin High School student during the SPIRIT initiative.

Over two days, a cross-section of students – freshmen through juniors, males and females, native –born and international, academic stars and strugglers – split into groups to candidly speak their minds about the state of their school and how it could operate better. They then assembled a list of steps that could get them there.

Many praised their teachers and programs at Franklin, but most fretted about personal safety and a prevailing sense of disconnect among their peers. They shared stories about being randomly assaulted in hallways, thefts and harassment, as well as snubs from kids of different groups. Some indicated that ethnic intimidation is a motivating factor, while others saw it as weaker students being exploited.

The school is 83 percent African American, while Latinos make up 11 percent and Asian students compose 4 percent of the student body, with white students and others making up the rest.

Natosha R. Warner, an FBI community outreach specialist and a 1989 Franklin graduate, said the stories were familiar.

“Some things have not changed at all, just the date,” Warner said. “The students are essentially dealing with many of the same problems we encountered as students. Often we see that we are all dealing with the same issues and that it is often just not taking that next step, to truly communicate our feelings and our needs.”

PCHR has intensified its school outreach efforts after tensions boiled over at South Philadelphia High School in 2009, when Asian immigrants were bullied and beaten by their African-American classmates. The ensuing protests and community dialogues opened a new front in intergroup conflict, for schools and the city.

While SPIRIT is a national initiative, PCHR serves as a lead local organizer for the Justice Department.

“When you get the right kids and the right support from the school, this program can be absolutely fantastic,” said Rue Landau, PCHR executive director. “And this not only takes our mission to the ground level, but it also helps to encourage trained, thoughtful young people to take a first cut at real problem solving and conflict resolution, with adult support and guidance. It makes for a richer school experience.”

PCHR reacts to Whitewood v. Wolf ruling

PHILADELPHIA, May 20, 2014 – A federal court today issued a definitive ruling that upholds marriage equality in Pennsylvania, ushering in a critical step for full equality for all residents.

In Whitewood v. Wolf, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III stated “. . . same-sex couples who seek to marry in Pennsylvania may do so, and already married same-sex couples will be recognized as such in the Commonwealth.”

The case centered on same-sex couples who either wanted their out-of-state marriages to be recognized in Pennsylvania or wanted to marry in Pennsylvania. PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau offered the following comments on today’s ruling:

“This is an historic day for everyone across Pennsylvania and  – and for this city in particular.   Since 1951, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations has been charged with enforcing civil rights and upholding equality under the law for every Philadelphian.  It’s incredible to know we can add to our national – and international – reputation for being a welcoming place to live, work, play and raise a family for all.

“As the birthplace of American democracy, it’s essential that we live up to the standards of liberty, freedom and equality.”

Some 18 states and the District of Columbia grant full marriage equality rights to all citizens, with Pennsylvania having been the lone state in the Northeast that had not.

The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations enforces the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, which protects residents and visitors from discriminatory practices in employment, housing and public accommodations. LGBT populations are among those who often file cases investigated by PCHR.

Since 1998, PCHR also has administered the city’s life partnership program, geared toward same-sex couples wishing to demonstrate their commitment to each other for purposes of securing some of the legal and financial protections married couples enjoy.

The program has stood as a stop-gap measure in lieu of full marriage equality. To date, nearly 900 couples have registered with PCHR. The future of that program in light of today’s ruling is now under review. As of Tuesday, the office of the Register of Wills began processing applications for marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Landau and her partner, Kerry Smith, were the first same-sex couple to receive a license.


Making history

Kerry Smith (l.) and PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau (r.) display their marriage license with Register of Wills Ron Donatucci. The pair received the first such license in the city’s history for a same-sex couple, as a result of Whitewood v. Wolf.


Brush with fame and culture at Mexican Week Philly’s close

How lucky was PCHR's Belinda Holguin, noted intake and outreach specialist and frenzied football fan, in running into the latest addition to the Philadelphia Eagles, QB Mark Sanchez?

How lucky was PCHR’s Belinda Holguin — noted intake and outreach specialist and frenzied football fan — in running into incoming QB Mark Sanchez, during closing activities for Philadelphia’s Mexican Week at City Hall? She’s someone who can definitely spell E-A-G-L-E-S!

Local reflections on Brown v. Board of Education

The Philadelphia Bar Association and the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia debuted a joint project at the historic Mother Bethel AME Church: putting  a new lens on the lessons, legacy and unfulfilled promise of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education. Some 60 years after legal segregation in American public schools ended, questions remain as to whether actual integration and equitable resource sharing ever took root — or it has simply receded to a point where in some areas such as Philadelphia, outcomes remain bleak.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell offered remarks and perspective, as did William P. Fedullo and Amber Racine, who respectively head PBA and the Barristers. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and opinion page editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Harold Jackson, also gave a heartfelt presentation on coming of age in the shadow of Brown in segregated Alabama, and the comparisons and contrasts he sees in public education today.

Inquirer's Harold Jackson

Harold Jackson, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial pages, recounts how he and others were, and continue to be, impacted by Brown v. Board.

On May 17, 1954, the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court spoke in one voice and declared that “separate but equal” would no longer be an acceptable approach public education, demanding that integration — and full access to quality education — be instituted “with all deliberate speed.”

The Friday event at Mother Bethel included a screening of a new short film featuring area attorneys and legal minds who lived through those early days of school desegregation, and their interpretation of what “all deliberate speed” meant in real terms. In recounting their recollections, resilience and hopes for the future, they also offered another page in the ever-evolving chapter in the quest for full equality and pursuit of happiness in these United States, for all its citizens.

Watch the film for more.