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Human Rights Work as A Public Safety Issue

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kelly Larson

K Larson sept

When people struggle to meet their most basic needs – for food, shelter, safety, belonging – they can be pushed to a breaking point that can result in harm to self or others in a struggle for escape or survival. A public safety issue.

When people do not interact across differences, their shared story becomes truth. When confronted with another group’s truth, it breeds conflict. Identity based conflict has fueled wars since the beginning of time. A public safety issue.

When people are treated in ways that violate their sense of identity and respect, it takes a psychological and emotional toll. When experienced over time, by entire groups of people, it can lead to victimization or to rebellion. A public safety issue.

Perhaps the loss of focus comes from the failure of our communities to learn from the past and to adapt our government structures to the changes that have occurred over the years. Human rights departments have traditionally been staffed and structured solely to be reactive. We adjudicate discrimination cases after jobs have been lost or housing has been denied. We speak out on hate crimes after there is a victim. We tell people “the law” as if it can provide an answer to the complexities of life. Moreover, we focus more on deciding whether to punish individual people than we do on examining the environments, policies and structures that are impacting opportunities.

In Dubuque, just as our police department has embraced community policing, our human rights department has restructured to move toward the proactive end of the public safety spectrum. Although we continue to serve as the point of contact on concerns related to discrimination, individually filed complaints are investigated by our Legal Department. Our department focuses on analyzing data and information for patterns that allow us to focus on questions like:

  • What do we need to do differently to make it more likely people in this group will be able to succeed?
  • How can we engage groups who are disengaged?
  • How can government work with residents as partners in addressing community needs? 

Over the course of several years, and with the support of community input, consultant expertise, data and our City Council, we have structured our department to work toward a stronger civic infrastructure that addresses equitable access to city and community services and opportunities. We offer intercultural competency workshops for individuals, which are designed to provide tools to be more effective working across individual and group differences. We work with groups of people who are disconnected, disengaged or facing barriers to opportunity as we connect them to services and engage them in identifying barriers. We work with other institutions and community members to identify and address complex social issues of adequate employment, housing, education, safety and opportunity.

We have developed a group of intercultural ambassadors – volunteers from various sectors of the community who have completed a minimum of thirty-two hours of training in intercultural communication and intercultural conflict styles. A recent survey of our ambassadors indicated:

  • Sixty-five percent agree that they have improved their intercultural communication ability; 22 percent strongly agree.
  • Sixty-five percent agree that they have changed their behavior by using skills learned; 26 percent strongly agree.
  • Fifty-two percent agree they have expanded social connections with people from different cultures; 9 percent strongly agree.
  • Ninety-one percent are involved in diversity and inclusion efforts in their organization or community. 

We also have focused heavily on community-police relations. Our police community dialogue on race resulted in a participating captain and another officer choosing to complete an intercultural competency train-the-trainer course. These two individuals adapted what they learned to create a course focused on identity, culture and communication that is now offered to new recruits and their field-training officers.

Working with our police chief, we revised our recruitment process so that we no longer select interviewees based solely on the highest exam scores. Instead, we supplement passing exam scores with indicators of strong communication skills. In addition, we created a community resource officer internship program designed to build relationships with area college students in order to create a pipeline of talent.

For several years, our city council has endorsed a community initiative called Sustainable Dubuque, which includes actions to support social-cultural vibrancy and economic prosperity. One of the council’s priorities is a community-wide initiative called “Inclusive Dubuque.” The mission is to advance equity and inclusion to meet economic and cultural needs in the community. Next steps in this project will be a community equity report that will help to determine direction and measures to guide the work of this cross-sector collaboration.

Other successful cross-sector collaborations have included:

  • The Campaign for Grade Level Reading, which reduced chronic absenteeism in the initial pilot school from 7 percent to 2 percent . The campaign also instituted a summer academy where 84 percent of participating students maintained or improved reading proficiency.
  • Re-Engage Dubuque, which has reached 206 local students who had not completed high school, re-enrolling 87 percent of them in further educational opportunities.
  • Opportunity Dubuque, a program that connects unemployed and underemployed residents to training for positions local employers are struggling to fill. The placement rates show great success with 93 percent amongst manufacturing graduates, 95 percent amongst computer numerical control machinist graduates and 97 percent amongst welding graduates.
  • The Circles Initiative, which enlists middle class allies to provide community-based support to families working their way out of poverty, resulting in a 70 percent employment rate after 18 months in the program.
  • Expansion of our Family Self-Sufficiency program, which successfully increased graduates’ annual income from $6,151 to $22,238 and earned income from $2,308 to $19,868. 

Of course we have experienced the challenges and setbacks anyone doing this work might experience. We still have racial tensions, unemployment and high school dropouts. However, we are making progress—together.


Author: Kelly Larson is the executive director for the City of Dubuque, Human Rights Department. She can be reached at [email protected].

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