By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor
Uplifting advocates and focusing on matters of equity
The aftermath of the presidential election has seen more than 700 acts of hate across the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an organization “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.”
Located in Alabama, the SPLC monitors hate groups, teaches tolerance and works to advance the rights of all.
Here in San Diego, we have our own SPLC: the Human Relations Commission.
Founded in 1991 under Article 6, Division 9 of the San Diego municipal code, the mission of SDHRC is to “conduct and promote activities that foster mutual respect and understanding; protect basic human and civil rights; and create an atmosphere that promotes amicable relations” throughout the city of San Diego.
“I think that the work that the Human Relations Commission does is more relevant than ever,” said Dr. Joel Day, who took over as executive director in September. “In an age where we are unsure about the protections coming from the federal government in all three branches — executive, judicial and legislative — it means that the work that we do in our neighborhood on equity and diversity and inclusion is not only about our neighborhoods, but it is about modeling for the rest of the country what those issues look like.”
Day, who also oversees the International Affairs Board in his position, has a two-person staff and a core group of 15 (currently 17) city commissioners serving the city. Some commissioners were appointed by the (current or previous) mayor, while others were appointed by the city councilmembers directly from the communities they serve. All commissioners are confirmed by the City Council as a whole and serve in four-year terms.
“Diversity is one of San Diego’s greatest strengths, which is why this commission is important for our community,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said. “We appreciate the work of commissioners to foster mutual respect, promote individual liberty and create a city where we can all succeed.”
Three of the current commissioners — Joel Trambley, its chair; Nicole Murray Ramirez, chairman emeritus; and Dion Brown — are from the LGBT community, and two of them are people of color.
Other commissioners come from various communities throughout the city. The entire list with bios can be found at tinyurl.com/j633xp3.
“We are the front lines, we are the offense and the defense now,” Day said. “So when I talk to folks in the community about the work of the Human Relations Commission, it is just us. It is about us defending each other’s rights and basic human rights.”
Holding public meetings every third Wednesday of the month, the commissioners meet to discuss issues of importance to every community in San Diego — white, black, Latino, LGBT, Asian-Pacific, Muslim, etc. — and advocate for equity for all. They also get their hands into social justice issues including police relationships; undocumented workers; human trafficking; homelessness; and they receive training on various disciplines to assist them in their advocacy.
They advise the mayor and the City Council on ways the city does business, assuring local residents are given equal access to political, economic and educational opportunities and are accommodated for across all agencies.
The commissioners also work within their communities to educate on methods of inclusiveness and provide intercultural understanding.
“What makes the commission so unique is that it brings people together from different faiths, ethnicities and cultures and we learn so much from each other,” Murray Ramirez said. “It is a life-changing experience for many, because for some of us, it is the first time we have had the opportunity to get to know people from our other communities.”
In addition to their tireless advocacy and time spent educating the community, the commission also offers those within the city limits who’ve been discriminated against, an outlet for resolution.
Especially now in this post-election atmosphere, having the city of San Diego as an ally in this manner is extremely important.
“What we are seeing nationwide is a spike in hate-related crimes from all sorts of folks on the ideological spectrum and what the commission can do beyond anything else is raise awareness about the importance of loving your neighbor, inclusion, respect and respect for diversity within the city of San Diego,” Day said.
Once a discrimination complaint is submitted — through the use of an online form provided on their website — the commission will contact both parties, investigate the matter thoroughly and offer mediation, of which both parties must agree to.
“What we are seeking to do through the mediation process is to educate and to heal divisions that exist,” Day explained. “Often times folks don’t understand that the language that they use or the attitude that they take in day-to-day life can be hurtful to others within their community or the community at large.
“So when we bring people together, it is about education it’s about folks owning up to the aggression or offenses they may have caused and moving forward together as a community of allies,” he said.
Honoring those who promote equality
Ramirez, the first openly gay commissioner, was originally appointed by Mayor Dick Murphy. He served four four-year terms under Murphy and Mayor Jerry Sanders, including several as chair, before being reappointed to the commission several years ago by Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
Ramirez noted one of the more heartwarming stories of his time on the commission was the unlikely friendship he developed with Keith Turnhman, a former commissioner and the namesake of the commission’s highest community award.
“Keith was a World War II veteran and a prisoner of war and he’d written a book about it,” Ramirez explained. “He was an ultra-conservative Republican and not at all supportive of the rights of LGBT. They sat me next to him — he said I was the first homosexual he’d ever met — and just because he got to know me, he became very understanding, compassionate and supportive.”
Years later, when Turnhman’s health began to fail, Ramirez said that knowing how he had suffered for our nation, he wanted to honor this hero within our midst before his death. In 2005, the commission established the Keith M. Turnham Humanitarian Award.
This year, Bob Lehman, executive director of the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus and a Marine Corps veteran, received the commission’s eighth annual award during its November meeting.
“The evening was incredibly moving and emotional,” Lehman said. “Nicole, who has known [my husband] Tom and I for nearly 20 years, gave an introduction like no other, talking about everything from my mother to my military service and to our years of activism in San Diego.”
Lehman recalled fighting in the trenches for both marriage equality and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and how many in the community, after being decimated by the AIDS crisis, felt that fighting for these rights was an impossible dream.
“People told us we were crazy, or were wasting our time,” Lehman said. “Other people told us to move on to something else — no way would we ever get the right to marry or be openly gay in the military. So, hearing Nicole’s introduction brought back all of those memories and it made me feel good about what we’ve accomplished and for my part in making that happen.
“I never wanted to look back and think ‘I should have stepped forward but didn’t,’” he said. “Which is why I believe it’s a responsibility for each of us, especially in the LGBT community, to step forward and fight for our rights.”
Lehman said he was moved to be honored with an award named after Turnham, “a man who served both his country and his community.”
“I admire his approach to service and to life,” he said. “I met Keith and his wife Ginny a couple of times at civic events when Tom was on the commission. They had this incredibly positive outlook on life and always had a smile and a handshake to offer. Keith was the type of man you hope to be like some day.”
Based on the award, Lehman has achieved that.
Other annual awards also established by the commission include the Business Diversity Award, the Commission Partner Award, and the Commission Commendation awards. Six were honored with commendations this year, for the “profound impact they have on their communities.”
Fernando Lopez, director of operations at San Diego Pride, was one of those recipients.
“It was hard for me to wrap my head around what it meant to be acknowledged by my city for the work that I do,” Lopez said. “As an activist and an advocate, it has been my passion to fight for my community, to engage minds, to empower others, and to inspire change in government policy, all in the hopes of LGBT people having a better life. As a person, inside me there will always be that little scared gay kid just doing his best to get by — driven by the fear of my own memories.
“As I sat in that room, weighed down just like everyone else after this election, I looked around at this beautiful family of friends and colleagues who stood by me at different times and through different fights along the way,” Lopez continued. “They weren’t sitting there because of me, I was sitting there because of them. It gave me hope to remember how far we’ve all carried each other and comforted me to be in a room full of San Diegans who are all dedicated to their work for equity and inclusion. The evening left me inspired. Our work was far from over before this election, so it’s a good thing we’ve got each other.”
Dr. Day said the commission recognizes people like Lehman and Lopez because the work that they do — which he said can often be isolating and seem futile — is often overlooked in the day-to-day scheme of advocacy.
“What we want to do at these ceremonies is pick up the people and identify those hard workers in our community who are working day in and day out to make San Diego an inclusive, welcoming and vibrant city,” he said.
To learn more about the Human Relations Commission or to file a discrimination complaint about something that happened within the city limits, visit sandiego.gov/human-relations.
—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.