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Human Rights Commission focus is education and advocacy

Anwar Peace chairs the SHRC.

By Catherine Ferguson, SNJM

The Spokane City Council established a Human Rights Commission (SHRC) in 1992 to promote the dignity of all people, to make recommendations to the City Council on human rights and discrimination, and to implement programs consistent with the needs of all city residents.

To that end, it actively participates in community events, facilitates public forums and conducts public outreach to drive awareness, education and advocacy around human rights issues affecting the community.

What does its mandate mean in day-to-day practice?

The SHRC receives complaints on three types of discrimination—equal opportunity in employment, housing practices and public accommodation. It then makes referrals to agencies authorized to respond to those types of discrimination. 

Each year the nine-person volunteer commission plans its priorities.

This year, Mayor Nadine Woodward appointed Anwar Peace, from the City of Spokane's Third District, as chair. He is now going into his second term.

An activist who moved from Seattle about eight years ago, he has a background in advocating for police accountability, especially for families touched by police violence.

His passion in working for human rights originated from his personal experiences growing up in Seattle. When kids made fun of his name because they found it hard to pronounce, his parents assigned him a book report on his namesake, Anwar Sadat, the Nobel Peace Laureate from Egypt.

"I learned about the work of human rights from book reports they made me do on others like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X," he explained.

He also experienced discrimination firsthand in other ways. Early on, he was a lone black youth in an all-white school in a well-to-do suburb of Seattle. As a young black man, he lived in the ghetto of central Seattle after his family had to move there during an economic downturn.

Anwar explained his perspective on being chair of the SHRC.

"I look on this as I would look on a full-time job," he said, describing the importance of the commission to respond to complaints of people suffering discrimination.

In years past, the city had a civil rights officer who was able to assist the commission with investigating human rights complaints. When that person left, the position was not refilled. The commission can now only handle complaints by making referrals to other offices. 

"The commission should be an investigative body," he said. "Without the ability to carry out investigations, some of its effectiveness has been stripped away."

Anwar described other commission priorities as "giving voice to our communities' homeless issues and bringing a wider awareness to the issues of human trafficking."

To this end, he has been inviting the leaders of service providers who work with homeless people—like Jewels Helping Hands at Camp Hope and the Salvation Army at the Trent Homeless Shelter—to make presentations at SHRC monthly meetings.

Anwar has also been communicating with service providers on trafficking victims and with the Spokane Police to provide information to the commission on human trafficking in Spokane.

For Anwar, public safety is a primary concern as he compares Spokane's police department with other cities.

He is collaborating with the police ombudsman and the chair of the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission. He hopes they can work together to enhance public safety.

"Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl has told City Council at several Public Safety Committee meetings that his department needs at least 140 more officers for a city of our size according to national-best-police-practices," Anwar stated. "However, the chief is asking for only 70 more officers currently."

Spokane, with a population of 229,513, is the second largest city in Washington and currently has 341 officers.  With 219,346 people, Tacoma, the third largest city, has 334 officers. With 747,300 people, Seattle, the largest city, has 1,400 officers.

Anwar is concerned about the mental health of police officers with the stress caused by the shortage of staffing in the face of crime in Spokane.

During the COVID restrictions, the previous chair, Lance Kissler, an associate vice president of university relations at Eastern Washington University, sought to professionalize the commission. He developed protocols for operating, rebranding with a new logo and doing community outreach.

Among the materials he developed for community outreach is a wheel of rights designed to teach the public about their rights and ways the commission can support them. He also worked to make the commission better known.

When he was chair, Lance was pleased that the commission SHRC collaborated with Gonzaga University to research the design of an Office of Civil Rights for Spokane and then collaborated with 50 local organizations to develop a proposal for an Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion (OCREI) that was accepted with some modifications. He is disappointed they were not able to hire a director to make the office a reality during his term.

Furthering the OCREI is a priority for Anwar.

In a guest opinion published Dec. 5, 2021, in the Spokesman Review, Lance, Pui-Yan Lam of APIC Spokane, Kurtis Robinson of NAACP Spokane and Katy Sheehan of the Community Building wrote on behalf of a coalition of community organizations that envisioned and worked to create the OCREI.

They wrote: "An OCREI would provide much-needed structure to help realize our city's commitment to promoting justice, equity and an inclusive environment for all, by recognizing the dignity and worth of all human beings, regardless of identity…. Creating an OCREI is how our city will take action to guarantee the law's promise."

The City Council and Mayor have accepted forming the OCREI, albeit with a smaller staff. The search for a director has not yet been successful nor has the space for a new office been identified, Anwar said.

In early April, a second search process began, and he hopes a director will be appointed in June.

"I'm looking forward to the startup of the Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion. Until it is up and running, the SHRC will continue working to advance the rights of all," Anwar said.

In January, SHRC meetings moved back to the City Council Chambers for the first time since COVID. They meet at 5:30 p.m., first Thursdays, and are also livestreamed.

Anwar sees public participation as key to the success of the SHRC's work.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, May 2023