DSM Civil & Human Rights Commissioners’ Next Steps On Racial Justice

Des Moines residents woke up to a new ordinance this past Tuesday. The City Council passed a racial profiling ordinance that prohibits biased policing and requires city employees to report violations by officers.

After years of talks and negotiations from local organizations and advocates, it was the multiple protests after the murder of George Floyd that moved and broke the needle.

Other parts of the ordinance include training, from de-escalation, cultural diversity, cultural competency and implicit bias for sworn police officers. It also directs the Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission to educate the public and assist those who witness or believe they have experienced discrimination with filing complaints.

The mission of the commission is to work to advance justice, promote equality and ensure the protection of human rights for Des Moines residents. Their charge also includes education, advocacy, community engagement and investigation of civil rights violations.

I reached out to two commissioners to learn more about their reaction on this new ordinance.

Emily Shields, vice-chair, and Claudia Schabel, acting secretary of the commission, agreed to talk to me and share their views.

When I asked Emily about the prevalence of racism in the Des Moines area, she said that there is a problem with systemic racism that needs to be addressed.

“It’s important in Des Moines in particular because we have a more diverse population, and we have the opportunity to address that more effectively,” Shields said.

She added that “the commission started conversations around community policing a couple years ago because it recognized that there was an issue where there were incidents involving racial profiling. Many people in the black and immigrant community had experiences where they felt they were targeted by the police, having negative interactions.”

Shields also shared that throughout these dialogues, they learned that community members are more worried about equal housing and access to jobs. These are things that will build stability and dignity in their communities, which takes us back to systemic racism.

Although the Commission maintained their focus on those issues, they continued to have conversations about racial profiling. Shields emphasized the importance and ability of collecting data (like traffic stops and race) to make long term changes. Data collection helps to really understand the situation in more depth, along with the ability to increase community involvement in how to do policing.

Emily highlighted the leadership of the Alliance group, which includes the NAACP, Iowa CCI and the ACLU, that represents specific communities in this process.

She let us know that the commission is going to have a grant program around economic opportunity and will continue to push for required training on bias and cultural competency for staff, board, commission members, and elected officials.

“It’s also important to mention that we are working on several things around language access and gender inclusivity and in general trying to find ways that more residents in Des Moines are able to engage with the city in order to get what they need and to also contribute at that level,” Shields said.

In summary, one of the commission’s goals is to make sure they are building opportunities for listening, learning, and advocating for community members who do not typically have access to their government.

One thing to keep in mind is that even if or when they achieve their goals, surrounding cities would have to follow suit. Des Moines residents live work and play in surrounding communities, and city governments must consider the benefits of a regional effort.

Claudia Schabel has worked in the diversity and inclusion field and now owns her own consulting firm. She is not only a consultant, but also a coach and trainer in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion to businesses, educational and governmental and not-for-profit organizations.

Claudia and I discussed the events that followed the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matters protests and what may be different this time.

Candid conversations on race are a good start. She told me that she does not know if there is any difference yet. She is giving it some time to see if those mobilizing will continue to press for change and continue talks.

When I asked her what is next for the Commission, she indicated they are planning to get together in July for a retreat. The objective will be to put their strategic and action plan in place and discuss how they are going to continue to carry out the project “Bridging the Gap” and the added recommendations they made to the City Council nearly two weeks ago.

“But we still have a lot of work to do, because if you look at the Bridging the Gaps documents, housing is a big conversation and we need to organize our community to have some dialogue around accessible housing and housing affordability,” Schabel said.

Another important goal the commission is hoping to continue to advance is engaging the LGBTQ members of the community to learn how policies can be gender-neutral and gender-inclusive.

Claudia highlighted the importance to improve the relationship between the community and the police.

“We’re going to continue to play a positive role and bring those two parties together, some of the bridging the gap recommendations regarding the police,” she said. “It is about implicit bias and de-escalation training, which have been welcomed by the police department. Although both parties may not agree on the details, I think the premise of having racial profiling or having own-bias policing [training] is something that is accepted by the police department.”

We touched briefly on the topic of the city budget and the fact only 1% is allocated for the Civil and Human Rights Department. Schabel said she would love to see bumping the budget up to accommodate some of the staff they would like to add.

When I asked her what role businesses should play in the efforts of seeking justice and equality, she thinks leaders in the business community can do so much. The first thing they need is to be willing to be reflective and look inward. Understand the depth of the problem, understand what they do not know and to have the humility to understand that this is a long journey to transformation.

Finally, I wanted to know Claudia’s thoughts regarding the governor’s announcement about forming a task force called “Economic Recovery Advisory Board.” This board is made up mainly of CEOs and it lacks the involvement of communities of color and people that have been most directly impacted by COVID-19.

“We saw the disparities in communities of color and the impact of COVID-19,” she said. “We know based on data provided by the State of Iowa that the Latinx community has been impacted the most, and not having someone from our community at the table, speaking about our challenges, amplifying our voices, explaining the barriers and challenges — it’s not only an oversight, but an insult. It is time for our government leaders to understand that we are here because many of us choose to be here. We have made this state our home and like many other neighbors we want to give back, we want to be part of the rebuilding.”

Without a doubt it is going to take volunteers like Emily and Claudia, elected officials, and public servants to commit to this work. The ordinance is a step in the right direction. The time is right for conversations, but is ripe for action. The public, private and nonprofit sector have made multiple attempts to address the issues of inequality in the past.

Many are tired and inpatient. I do not blame them, talking gets old without action.


by Claudia Thrane
Posted 6/24/20

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