Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Group celebrates 60 years as human relations bridge

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Mike Barnhart from Media Bridges talks with a group of teens at the Jules Smith Ministry Center on Hamilton Avenue in Northside.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
For six decades, the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission has been a trouble-shooter for human rights issues and a catalyst to unify individuals and groups in Greater Cincinnati.

The commission will celebrate 60 years of building bridges of racial, religious and cultural understanding and respect tonight at 6 p.m. at Cincinnati Music Hall.

The anniversary celebration comes at a time when Cincinnati is grappling with an economic boycott of its convention and entertainment industries and race relations remain strained, two years after riots tore the city apart.

Though it hasn't garnered much media attention, the Human Relations Commission has been a central player in trying to bring about citywide healing and improve the relationship between police and African-Americans.

"Our job is not to take sides, but to be a bridge. We don't get into the politics," said Cecil Thomas, executive director of the nonprofit commission. "Our function is to try to meet the needs of the citizens of Cincinnati. I think we've done that very effectively and that is why we've been around for 60 years."

Founded in 1943 as the Mayor's Friendly Relations Committee, the commission's original mission was to study problems connected with the promotion of tolerance and harmony. In 1965, following nationwide race riots, the commission was renamed and charged with investigating religious, racial and ethnic relationships.

In 2000, amid cries from City Council that the commission was becoming ineffective, the organization was reshaped again and its focus shifted to improving police-community relations, in addition to building religious, racial and ethnic relationships.

The city-funded commission operates with a staff of seven, one volunteer and a yearly budget of roughly $420,000. It relies on money from grants and other outside funding sources for many of the programs that it administers.

Thomas, who retired from Cincinnati police in 2000 after 27 years, said it's just as valuable now as it was. He said the April 2001 riots proved a reminders of how important a human relations commission could be.

"People tend to have a short memory when it comes to human relations, because we are never out there in the forefront of the media," Thomas said. "Much of what we do is behind the scenes."

And the commission mission no longer focuses solely on issues of black and white, he said.

"We've got over 160 different ethnicities and cultures in this city, and all of their issues have to be addressed by the commission now," Thomas said. "So our mission has broadened."

The commission played a key role in helping resolve a dispute between African-American protestors and downtown restaurants that shut down during a black music festival in the summer of 2000. It helped to mobilize clergy, community leaders and other volunteers to walk the streets of Over-the-Rhine in an effort to keep the peace during the April 2001 riots.

The commission has played a part in helping to implement police reforms recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice. It has even been actively trying to bring city leaders and boycott organizers to the table to talk out an end to the 21-month-old boycott.

The commission is probably best known, however, for intervening when police and citizens clash. Its 50 community relations monitors are routinely dispatched whenever there are public protests or police altercations with residents.

Ernest Waites, a former chairman of the commission's board of directors, said the Human Relations Commission has maintained its relevancy over the years. Waites, 82, said the success of the commission has always been dependent on the support that it receives from City Council.

"Anything that deals with human relations is positive as far as I'm concerned," Waites said. "Helping people learn how to live together and respect one another, you can't have a greater mission than that."

Thomas said he believes Cincinnati will become a model for other cities on how citizens can come together and build a better community for everyone.


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