Glimpsing a diverse world via German eyes

As one of the oldest municipal civil rights agencies in the United States, PCHR often is a magnet for international visitors who also are in public service. Last Friday, a delegation from Germany joined a long list of scholars that have popped by the offices to get a better sense of how this agency works in balancing protection of the rights of all in such a diverse society.

The German visitors – whose positions range from university settings to halls of government – spent a couple of hours exchanging insights with PCHR staff and commissioners last Friday. It was a diverse assembly, indeed.

Turkish-born Muhterem Aras, one of the first elected officials in Germany of an immigrant background, is the first Muslim woman in the state parliament of Baden-Wurttemberg. Homaira Mansury, an Afghani immigrant, is a city council member in Wurzburg and an official in the German Social Democratic Party. Serkan Salman, born to Turkish parents, is a law enforcement official and dispute resolution expert from Berlin who also lectures on intercultural competency at the Berlin Academy of Public Administration. Sebastian Johna is a project manager and trainer at the renowned Goethe Institut, where educators and others from abroad study the German language, culture and heritage.

Having toured Washington, D.C., the visitors soaked up insights and experiences in Philadelphia before heading to New York.

“It’s always exhilarating to hear from people who are engaged in this same kind of work elsewhere, especially as they seek to learn from us and give us greater perspective on what is happening on the ground in their own countries, in ways that are far deeper than what we typically read or see in the news,” said PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau. “It was a great way to cap the week.”

Gaining a global perspective (back row, l-r) PCHR Commissioner Alfredo Calderon, Deputy Director Pamela Gwaltney, Homaira Mansury of Wurzburg, Germany, Deputy Director Randy Duque, Commissioners Rebecca T. Alpert, Wei Chen, Regina Austin and Marshall E. Freeman and Sebastian Johna of the Goethe Institut. (front row, l-r) PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau, Muhterem Aras of the German Green Party, and Serkan Salman, an officer in Berlin’s Central Office for the Prevention Landeskriminalamt.

Gaining a global perspective (back row, l-r) PCHR Commissioner Alfredo Calderon, Deputy Director Pamela Gwaltney, Homaira Mansury of Wurzburg, Germany, Deputy Director Randy Duque, Commissioners Rebecca T. Alpert, Wei Chen, Regina Austin and Marshall E. Freeman and Sebastian Johna of the Goethe Institut.
(front row, l-r) PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau, Muhterem Aras, German Green Party member of the Baden-Wurttemberg Parliament, and Serkan Salman, detective chief superintendent for the Office of Intercultural Issues, State Criminal Investigations Office in Berlin.

PCHR reacts to court ruling on anti-Muslim ads on SEPTA buses

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations reacted with disappointment in the ruling against SEPTA in its quest to bar an anti-Muslim organization from placing objectionable ads on its buses.

“We appreciated SEPTA’s efforts to uphold their anti-disparagement policy,” said Rue Landau, PCHR executive director. “We also respect the judge’s decision to uphold the First Amendment in this case, and recognize the tension this case elicited.

The New Hampshire-based American Freedom Defense Initiative has systematically been running a campaign of provocative ads disparaging Muslims and Islam throughout the United States, using transit systems. Yesterday’s ruling in U.S. District Court will add Philadelphia to a list that includes places such as Seattle and New York.

“As the city agency that protects the civil rights of all of Philadelphia’s residents and visitors, it is our job to ensure that no one feels this city is hostile toward them because of their religion, race, national origin, sexual orientation, ability, gender or gender identity. Ads like these make our job harder. They clearly violate our values, even if the judge ruled they don’t violate the law.”

An ecumenical group of leaders led by the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia is planning measures to counter the messages coming out of New Hampshire, and PCHR will be helpful in those efforts, said Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert, who serves on the commission and teaches at Temple University.

Greater Philadelphia is home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Americans who practice Islam, with Philadelphia’s Muslim population ranking fourth among the top 10 U.S. cities. But as an organization established to promote peace, PCHR will intensify its efforts to soften any possible blow by this campaign, commissioners said.

“This is the city where American democracy was born, and there were many arguments about how it would be shaped and what it would say,” said Commissioner Saadiq Jabbar Garner. “Sometimes, speech meant to hurt other people is still considered in the boundaries. But Allah commands us to love our neighbors, and to be faithful. That calling is true for all of us, whether you’re Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, whatever.

“This is Philadelphia. And we won’t let outsiders divide us by using hateful tactics.”

Martin Luther King Day of Service 2015

Team PCHR fanned across the city during the 2015 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at events large and small – from engaging in neighborhood service projects to celebrating the ongoing commitment of others to helping the broader community focus on and advance King’s message.

“This is a day, a time, when this city not only comes together, but shows its continued leadership when it comes to protecting civil rights and cultivating harmony,” said Rue Landau, PCHR executive director. “It’s nothing short of inspiring to see the many personal and public expressions to that end – people of every age, color, gender, religion.

“Dr. King indeed would be proud.”

Eli Landau and Eli and Uthman Jabbar Garner work side-by-side on a service project at Girard College, building a flower box for an area school.

Eli Smith-Landau and Uthman Jabbar Garner work side-by-side on a service project at Girard College, building a flower box for an area school.

Landau, along with Commissioners Regina Austin, Marshall Freeman and Saadiq Jabbar Garner joined Mayor Michael A. Nutter and Todd Bernstein, lead organizer for the Greater Philadelphia MLK Day of Service at Girard College to open the day.

The setting was apt in that it celebrated the 50th anniversary of King’s visit to the then all-white private boarding school for boys that sits in the heart of a predominantly black North Philadelphia neighborhood. He joined an ongoing campaign waged by the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP to open up the school. Protesters marched day and night in the summer of 1965, demanding admittance for all.

Ensuing court cases — filed at the urging of then-PCHR Chair Sadie T. M. Alexander — finally led to integration, with black students entering the school in 1968 and girls enrolling in 1984.

Just as protesters marched at that time for equal access to education, people should have equal passion today to ensure that all students receive equal education, beginning with fair funding for the city’s public schools, Nutter told the crowd at Girard College. Pushing that agenda requires an engaged citizenry – a voting citizenry.

“In the birthplace of freedom and democracy, voting is the one thing that folks should be able to do in Philadelphia in a peaceful manner,” the mayor said.

To help erase some of those obstacles during this 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, volunteers constructed “Vote Here” bilingual signs in a dozen languages where data has reflected lower than average turnout. Advocates have argued that in a city where nearly 1 in 10 residents are born outside of the United States, small public accommodations such as these will help prevent inadvertent Election Day discrimination.

The signage assembly was one of several projects taking place at the campus. Students and adults alike busied themselves in activities to improve the lives of their neighbors – from building flower boxes for local schools to sorting clothing donations to area shelters to fixing computers to distribute to public housing residents to packing meals to deliver to seniors in need. The hundreds who gathered at Girard College were among a reported 135,000 volunteering at some 1,800 projects throughout the Delaware Valley.

Mayor Michael A. Nutter powers up with Team PCHR before they dive into their service projects. (l-r PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau, Mayor Nutter, PCHR Commissioners Regina Austin, Marsall Freeman and Saadiq Jabbar Garner.)

Mayor Michael A. Nutter powers up with Team PCHR before they dive into their service projects. (l-r PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau, Mayor Nutter, PCHR Commissioners Regina Austin, Marsall Freeman and Saadiq Jabbar Garner.)

At Girard, an on-site jobs and opportunity fair offered not only possible posts, but also strategies to land them, including for job seekers that have criminal records. PCHR’s Karen Forman and Monica Gonzalez guided dozens through the city’s “Ban the Box” law and how the agency investigates discrimination claims in employment, housing and public accommodation dealings.

“We had a steady stream of people coming through and getting information,” Gonzalez said. “They were impressed with the information and just hearing more about who we are and what we do.”

Monica Gonzalez informs job seekers how PCHR defends against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation during the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service at Girard College.

Monica Gonzalez informs job seekers how PCHR defends against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation during the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service at Girard College.

By the afternoon, commissioners and staff had gathered at the School District of Philadelphia’s headquarters, launch site for the MLK Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment march. The event, sponsored by Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER), was one of several held nationwide calling to reclaim the more confrontational aspects of King’s push for equality.

In the light of increased nationwide attention on slayings of unarmed black men at the hands of police and urban public education funding among other social inequities, march organizers declared the moment an opportunity to reclaim King’s fuller legacy. Thousands mobilized in Philadelphia and headed to Independence Mall, where ecumenical prayers and public commitments to equality for all took place.

“The march signaled a new way of thinking about MLK Day,” said Commissioner Rebecca T. Alpert, who along with PCHR Chair Thomas Earle, Landau and Deputy Director Randy Duque were on the scene.

“As a man on the train said to me, ‘King wasn’t about cleaning up neighborhoods.’ I agree,” Alpert said. “King, to me, was about bringing us all together to work for a better society. POWER’s message of ‘justice, jobs and education’ resonates.”

Calls for equitable policing, education funding, a living wage and more were issued at the MLK Day of  Action, Resistance, and Empowerment march.

Calls for equitable policing, education funding, a living wage and more were issued at the MLK Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment march.

Earle echoed that sentiment, saying this event was just as legitimate and necessary as the many service projects throughout the city and region.

It was 20 years ago that Philadelphia led the nation in hosting the first MLK Day of Service, thanks in great measure to legislation dedicating the holiday co-authored by civil rights lion U.S. Rep. John Lewis and then-U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford, a Philadelphia-area resident and King confidant.

Thousands gathered to participate in the MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment march in  Center City

Thousands gathered to participate in the MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment march in Center City

As much as King understood that building unity among neighbors was an essential part of building and maintaining peace, he recognized that convincing others of the merits of this call to action would be difficult. That case remains today amid challenging circumstances. But the rainbow coalition working shoulder-to-shoulder is affirming – and underscores the work of PCHR, Earle said.

A host of constituencies gathered to raise their voices for justice and equality at the MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment.

A host of constituencies gathered to raise their voices for justice and equality at the MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment.

“It was an incredible turnout and a very diverse crowd participating for many different reasons . . . and for many good causes,” he added.

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 city as 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.