• Izzy Stroobandt
    OCT 07, 2021

    Human relations commission chair shares plans for racial reckoning as aldermen as press for budget expansion

    The Chicago Human Relations Commission investigates claims of discrimination, including housing discrimination. [Facebook]

    Chicago’s Commission on Human Relations is an immensely important and often undervalued resource that needs sustained funding — possibly more than is allocated under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2022 spending plan — to continue its grassroots mediation and fight against ignorance and racism, aldermen told the commission’s chair during a budget hearing Wednesday.

    Calling the commission a “hidden gem that people don’t know to use,” Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20) said the department needs “more money to do more work.”

    Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33) said seeing the commission’s approximately $3 million budget made her sad. Echoing Taylor’s comment, she said “this resource should be more prevalent. People should think about the commission of human relations as a really important tool when we are trying to solve intra-community violence.”

    The commission is in line for about a $165,000 boost to its budget next year, mostly due to an uptick in federal funding, but its staff headcount will stay level at 19 full-time positions. The body is charged with investigating and adjudicating complaints of discrimination and using nontraditional methods like “peace circles” to mend conflicts.

    Ald. Andre Vasquez (40) stressed the city’s need for community-level intervention. “We're anticipating an influx of Afghan immigrants coming into the city,” he said, asking what the commission is doing proactively to ensure folks feel welcome. 

    Comm. Nancy Andrade said the Commission on Human Relations is “working closely with the Office of New Americans to show newcomers “from the get-go that we are here for them.” 

    Additionally, the commission is working on a vignette project that consists of “short but powerful [videos] that send a message” of welcoming immigrants, Andrade said.  

    Vasquez asked how the commission can also address hate speech in the form of graffiti.

    “We can talk with [the Department of] Streets and Sanitation to clean that but it's not addressing the root of the issue in the community,” he said, advocating for “a space where we can have really honest dialog [because] the only way to combat ignorance is by exposure and education.” 

    Ald. Leslie Hairston (5) also asked if there are plans for outreach programming that focus on racial unity and healing. Andrade said part of the commission's mediation work involves hosting peace circles.

    “We actually had a peace circle virtually when I joined the commission,” she said. “It provides healing, a space to connect and to become grounded.”

    Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25) added to the calls for increased funding for the commission and asked what can be done to strengthen the commission's investigations and broaden their reach to cover more cases. Andrade said the easiest way for her team to gain support is “by having different parts of the city understand the work that we do.”

    Concerned specifically about exploitation of undocumented workers, Sicho-Lopez said, “I hear you on the sense of just spreading the word, but I would like to make a comment to my colleagues to expand and spread your budget.” 

    Budget committee chair Ald. Pat Dowell (3) asked if the commission is continuing work on fair housing, to which First Deputy Comm. Kenneth Gunn responded yes. The commission received 68 housing complaints this year, slightly more than last year’s total, which Gunn says was impacted by pandemic-related office closures. 

    Hairston asked if any of the investigations are initiated by the commision, or if they’re all complaint-based. Andrade said it’s the latter, to which Hariston made “a public request for [the commission] to look into bank lending, and the discrimination here in Chicago against people of color [...] and specifically the blatant discrimination in lending practices.” 

    Saying he had been aware that the human rights commission deals with housing complaints, Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30) asked if and how those complaints are resolved. 

    “People come in and file claims with us and we have hearings, just like court,” Gunn explained. Alternatively, they can fax their claim, email, and “with COVID we were even taking complaints over the phone,” he said. 

    Gunn added that the commission is also trying to prevent Section 8 housing descrimination.

    “If we get wind of a building that might be turning people away, we will send them a letter that says, ‘Are you aware of the Chicago Fair Housing Agreement? Because you’ve been violating it,” to give the landlord a chance to fix their behavior before the council moves forward with action. 

    Downtick in recorded hate crimes

    In her opening statement, Andrade said Chicago has seen an overall decrease in hate crimes, currently with 43 this year compared to 54 last year. 

    Breaking down the data, Andrade specified that this year the commission has counted 17 hate crimes related to sexual orientation, 19 related to race, three related to religion, and four anti-trans-related hate crimes. In 2020, however, the commission cited 14 related to sexual orientation, 24 related to race, 10 related to religion, and five anti-trans-related crimes. 

    Ald. Harry Osterman (48) said “just given the world it feels like we're living in, the numbers seem low.” He asked if it were the fault of COVID that the data might be skewed, or if Andrade thought that people are scared. 

    “It’s a combination of fear and the community not knowing how to report hate crimes, so we are doing robust efforts to connect with the different communities and aldermanic offices on how to identify and report a hate crime,” Andrade said, explaining there are certain trigger words that have to be used in a police report in order for an incident to be identified and sent to her office. 

    The most recent of the recorded racially-motivated hate crimes happened Aug. 15 in Osterman’s ward at the Argyle CTA Red Line stop and resulted in the FBI’s involvement, she said. After reporting the assault to the Chicago Police Department, the victim reached out directly to the human rights commission and provided additional information.

    “Together, [my office and Chicago police] were able to get more momentum on that case,” Andrade said.  

    Moving forward, the human rights commission plans to develop an online filing system for complaints to make the process “easier and allow underserved communities to have increased access to the discrimination complaint process,” according to budget documents. 

    Looking for clarification, Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38) asked a series of consecutive questions: “Can you somewhat give me the definition of a hate crime? Is it a slur? Do you have to physically harm someone? Is discrimination a hate crime? Is redlining, or lending a hate crime? Or discrimination?”

    “A crime must actually be committed,” Andrade replied. “They tend to be physical assault, but not only is it a crime, it’s a crime in conjunction with hate.” Following up, Sposato referenced a specific 2018 viral-video-turned-hate-crime-conviction in which a woman was berated in a Cook County Forest Preserve for wearing a shirt with the Puerto Rican flag by a white man. 

    Sospato said he was initially confused by the hate crime conviction, and felt the man “didn’t do anything other than being a drunken, ignorant idiot.” 

    Gunn clarified, saying under the hate crime ordinance “when you mention a threat, it has to raise to the level of an assault.”

    “Only certain misdemeanors can become a hate crime — assault is one of them,” Gunn said. “Assault is fear of a battery, so if someone believes they’re really going to be attacked, that can be enough.”

    Aldermen worry commission is underutilized, understaffed 

    Hairston asked how the office recruits their hearing officers. Gunn answered that when the pool does open, they reach out to bar associations and put advertisements in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, but “people tend to stay on for quite a while.” He added that most of the commission’s staff is “seasoned,” and they’re each assigned a region to cover, so “some may have 30-40 mediations going a year, and some may have less.”  

    Despite these concerns, the commission’s full-time equivalent employee count is set to sit at 19, according to the budget documents. As requested by Hairston, Andrade specified there are five hearing officers (one white man, one white woman and three Black women), who make $85 an hour, and eight mediators (three white men, one white woman, two Black women, one Latinx man and one Latinx woman), who make $70 an hour. 

    Taylor advocated for the commission to focus on diversifying its staff.

    “While you have somebody in your staff that I can talk to, Latinx folks — if you’re not Latinx — they won’t tell you the issues,” she said. “Same thing with Nigerian or Ghanian community members, they’re not going to talk to people who don't look or represent them.”

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