Saturday, December 3, 2016

Elephants and Racism

Howard County is billed as a bastion of diversity. One of its taglines is “Choose Civility”. But behind the veil is an elephant. And that elephant is racism. Hate speech and other repercussions of our recent election have cropped up here as of late…most notably in our schools. Social media posts by students at River Hill High School, Atholton High School and Oakland Mills High School have occurred within our Columbia community. And notably these incidents occurred after the presidential election. But the county has seen issues arise within our schools even before the election at Glenelg High School and Mt. Hebron High School And then there was that unfortunate incident of our now former Sheriff being exposed as a rabid racist who made racially inappropriate comments about African-Americans, ethnically inappropriate comments about Jewish people, including our former county executive Ken Ulman, as well as sexist comments pertaining to women.

So how does this happen? How does a community that is consistently voted one of the most desirable communities in America abide a “veiled identity” of racism? Well, as anything else, accountability and responsibility lie at the top. The Howard County school superintendent needs to take a much more active and consistent approach to the issues that have occurred in our schools, from the raising of Confederate flags at Glenelg High School to the racist social media posts by students at the other schools I have mentioned. There is no blanket right to free speech in a school environment. Both students and parents should be assured that the learning environment of their children is safe and welcoming for all children. And school administrators do have the ability to greatly restrict that right in a public school environment and for obvious reasons. The Howard County, Maryland government also needs to take a proactive and visibly vocal position regarding its schools and county employees. The diversity coordinator position within the school system that was created in response to the Mt. Hebron incident that mysteriously disappeared before it was ever staffed, should be reactivated and actually staffed. Recently it has come to my attention that the human rights commissioner that replaced me on the county Human Rights Commission resigned less than a year into his 5 year appointed term. Apparently, among other things, he had caused a commotion on the Commission by repeatedly using the racially laden “N” word during Commission meetings, causing the Commission to have to hold a sensitivity training for the Commission as a result. You read that correctly…the county government Human Rights Commission had to hold a SENSITIVITY TRAINING because one of its county executive appointed Commissioners, Ivan Betancourt, was repeatedly using a racial epithet during Commission meetings. Betancourt then spewed the same racially laden language, including the “N” word at the meeting, claiming the word is in the dictionary and he has a right to say it. So a Howard County Human Rights Commissioner that was vigorously backed by our county executive to replace an African-American woman, myself, on the Commission, resigned less than a year into his 5 year appointed term after using racial epithets such as the racially charged “N” word during Commission meetings.

 Then there is the issue of our former county sheriff in the summer of 2015 with the complaint alleged by the deputy who filed a human rights violation complaint, among other things, alleging that our former county sheriff routinely made racist, sexist and anti-Semitic remarks. Dr. Sands, the head of the Howard County Office of Human Rights personally contacted me, as the then chair of the Human Rights Commission and adamantly requested that I help her “resolve” the complaint without addressing the matter before the full Commission, a clear and blatant violation of Howard County, MD human rights policy and procedure for reviewing complaints. I told her that the deputy should have a right to file his complaint with her office, like any other county employee and that I would not assist her in hiding the matter in violation of not only the deputy’s civil rights, but county law. Not surprisingly, the next month I received a certificate from the county government thanking me for my service, a de facto notice that I was officially not to be reappointed to the Human Rights Commission. And then that same month Ivan Betancourt was appointed to replace me on the Commission. So there you have it. This is how racism lives and thrives. We feed it by hiding it and explaining it away with catchy phrases like “teachable moments”. If we are truly ever going to be #OneHoward, we need to expose the elephant in the room and tell it is no longer welcome in Howard County. And then we need to take measurable, open and honest steps to make sure it knows to never return.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Why I Volunteer

It seems that suburban Howard County, MD is turning into a mini-Washington, D.C.

I volunteer on the Howard County Human Rights Commission (HRC), for which I am currently the chairperson. The HRC was established in 1969 and serves to protect and advocate for the human rights of citizens and employees of businesses and organizations throughout the county. In particular, we serve in an adjudicatory capacity regarding allegations of discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodation, etc.

In December, I was elected chairperson after having served on the HRC since 2010. (I also serve on the Howard County Board of Appeals.) And it was in late December/early January that County Executive Kittleman not only called me to personally congratulate me on being elected chairperson and to hear my thoughts on improving the HRC, but also embarked on proposing CB4-2015, which sought to vastly reorganize both the HRC and the Office of Human Rights, which is the liaison office to the HRC. However, despite the best efforts of my fellow commission members, as well as myself, we never did get an explanation from the County Executive's office as to how and why CB4-2015 came about.  In our collective opinion, this was directly contrary to the platform of "transparency and disclosure" that the County Executive based his political campaign that culminated in his election in November of 2014. (Kittleman, a Republican, won the election and followed Ken Ulman, a Democrat.) Needless to say, the HRC, under my leadership, unanimously opposed CB4-2015, which was essentially defeated as a result.

Fast forward to July 6th and the legislative session of the Howard County Council...unbeknownst to me, according to my review of the recording, , a resolution was before the council to appoint a person to replace me on the HRC. (That appointment, resolution 89-2015, was summarily tabled by the county council, as were several others that were to replace still serving board members and commissioners.)  However, as recently as June, the HRC had asked for clarification as to the reappointment of certain commissioners, including myself. At no point was I told I was not to be reappointed, despite the customary policy of reappointment of volunteers throughout county Boards and Commissions, without regard to political affiliation after party changes post-election. As such, I can only think that the failure to reappoint me is retaliatory for my leadership on the HRC as the Commission vehemently opposed CB4-2015.

Now, I get it..."Elections have consequences." But this is not a paid position or employment. It is a VOLUNTEER I took on when I was still a federal employee and thus prohibited from participating in most pro bono activities. In Maryland, pro bono activities are voluntary and not compulsory. Just the same, I have always tried to honor the legal profession's commitment to pro bono services. Nevertheless, as a volunteer, I am giving of my free time and valued talents. When I walk out the door to an HRC meeting or to testify at a council session, as a VOLUNTEER, I am taking valuable time away from my family, my law practice and my free time. When my 4 year old cries because Mommy is going to a meeting, I tell her I'm going to "help people", because that's in essence what I believe I am doing. And this type of service to community is what I'm trying to teach my daughter...that it is important to give of our time and help people. I'm sacrificing my personal time to help people throughout Howard help make our community just a little bit better. And when volunteers are appointed to county Boards and Commissions, it is with the expectation that our time and opinions will be valued for their unvarnished objectivity...and that we will not suffer retaliatory consequences as a result. As a community that values diversity of race, thought and opinion, we should all be aware, as a community, the chilling effect and message this type of response sends, not only throughout our community, but also beyond its borders, when volunteers are mistreated and dismissed for attempting to objectively give back to our community. Let's "Choose Civility" in Howard County, Maryland, and let it mean something more than a bumper sticker slogan.