Members of the Crow Wing County Human Rights Commission were encouraged by the turnout Tuesday at an anti-racism rally in support of beating victim, Willie Navy, and the dialogue it is creating within the community.
The commission’s regular monthly meeting was a few hours after the rally at Central Lakes College. Though there were no community members there airing any human rights grievances — something that occurs rarely, anyway — commission members discussed how they could help foster an open community conversation about race in the Brainerd lakes area.
The Rev. Deb Celley, pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Brainerd and a commission member, said she and others involved in the group Lakes Area Anti-Racism Study Dialogue Circle are now attempting to schedule an anti-racism event soon, sometime in late February. The two- to three-hour event would involve guest speakers with the theme, “Who is my neighbor?” to discuss ways to become better neighbors to people of color.
“Everyone thinks we’re all Minnesota Nice, and most people want to be welcoming but what do we need to do to be better neighbors?” said Celley. “It’s an opportunity to open our eyes. How do we make a positive change in our culture?”
The event would be co-sponsored by The Women’s Center of Mid-Minnesota and the UCC church with support from the commission. Celley said the group is looking for business sponsorship to help with financial support, as well as restaurants that would be willing to donate food for participants. A similar anti-racism event was hosted last spring and had 20 participants. Celley is hoping that there is a larger turnout for this event, particularly in light of the rally Tuesday.
“It takes an incident like this to take action, to get a sense of urgency,” said commission chair Billie Dobbs.
John Redding, a longtime commission member, said he hoped the event would reach out to younger people. Redding attended Tuesday’s rally and said it was nice to see the support.
“It’s a start for Brainerd,” said Redding. “I’ve been here 15 years and this wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. I saw a lot of 20- to 30-year-olds. That’s the younger generation. ... The community won’t tolerate it.”
“Brainerd is small town Minnesota. We know this existed,” newly appointed commission member Tay Stevenson said of racism here. “You now have a touchstone to have a dialogue. You never want it to come to this. Unfortunately, violence is the only thing that gets people to talk about it.”
“I think the business community is concerned how this makes Brainerd look,” Celley said of the beating of Navy, which law enforcement has said was racially motivated. “Who would want to move their business here and want their employees to be treated this way? It’s a wake up call.”
Dobbs encouraged Navy to get in touch with the commission if the commission can help him find any resources he may need.
The commission, which receives no financial help from the county or state but relies on donations and grants, is always looking for additional commission members. Anyone in the community is invited to attend the meetings, which are scheduled from 5-6 p.m. the third Tuesday of every month in Room C209 at CLC.
Those who wish to learn more information about the upcoming anti-racism event, to help or financially support the effort, may contact Celley at 829-2528.
Crow Wing County continues to seek people willing to serve on the Human Rights Commission, but has struggled with ongoing vacant positions on the commission. In 2008, the Crow Wing County Board considered reducing the commission from 13 members to eight, noting concerns for the number of vacancies. Volunteers on the commission successfully argued against reducing the numbers, saying the diversity on the commission was welcome and noted volunteer members do not take per diems or mileage reimbursement.
The county human rights commission was formed by the Crow Wing County Board in 1998 to secure equal opportunity in housing, accommodations, public services and education and to work consistently to improve the human rights climate in the county.
The role of the commission is to encourage and promote equal opportunities, fair treatment and practices for all people. The commission acts as an advisory body to the county board. Commission goals are to develop educational programs and provide a procedure to report discrimination. The group is also seeking private partnerships with area businesses who may be willing to donate or reduce cost of services to the non-profit commission.
The commission has sponsored information sessions such one titled Understanding and Countering Hate and Bias Crimes in Crow Wing County.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.