The mandate of the agency known as the Justice Department’s “peacemakers” has expanded beyond its original goal of soothing racial tensions to extend to conflicts involving discrimination on the basis of sex, religion and disability, according to Community Relations Service Director Ondray T. Harris.
Harris said the Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed last year broadened the jurisdiction of the agency exponentially, adding five additional protected categories that can trigger the division’s involvement in an incident: gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or disability.
“Our role historically has been someone reactionary in dealing with race, color, national origin matters,” Harris said in an interview last month. “Now we have more of a preventative role.”
The agency, which celebrated its 45th anniversary last August, was created under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is the only federal agency that exists to assist state and local governments, organizations and community groups in preventing and resolving racial and ethnic tensions.
“The underlying assumption of what CRS does is that when we get into a room and get single or multilateral talks with parties who have opposition to one another, that they will develop some understanding. At the core of all this is the faith in the American people,” Harris said.
Mediators come from a variety of backgrounds, said Harris, including lawyers, police chiefs, people with military backgrounds and those who have worked for civil rights organizations. Mediators do not force an outcome in reconciliations or negotiations. Instead they act as a third party, providing a process to allow communities to come together and reach an outcome that works for all parties, Harris said.
“It can be difficult in our culture, as we’ve gotten there through television and a lot of other media, that people think shouting at each other is always the answer,” Harris said. “That’s not what we need in a conciliator. We need someone who can show empathy but still be objective.”
Recently, U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke asked the Community Relations Service to help with the civil rights forums. The agency also has been on hand at meetings with Somalian refugees in Colorado to help them integrate into the community. The agency was present when Justice Department officials informed the parents of a 14-year-old boy who died at a Florida boot camp that DOJ would not pursue civil rights charges in the case.
While its mission has expanded, over the past few decades the number of agency employees has shrunk. At one point, more than 350 employees worked for the agency. That number stood at around 100 in the early 1990s, but a budget cut in 1997 slashed the agency to just 41 employees. For the past several years, the agency has had about 59 employees. Today, a staff of 34 full-time employees man four field offices and 10 regional offices.
“They make a Herculean effort to get it done. My hats off to them, they do a great job, they make me proud,” Harris said. “Is it a challenge? Yes.”
Harris was nominated as Director of Community Relations Service by President George W. Bush in May 2007 and confirmed by the Senate in March 2008. The position is a four-year term. Before becoming director, Harris served as Deputy Chief of the DOJ’s Employment Litigation Section in the Civil Rights Division.
Secrecy, Impartiality Key to Success of CRS
The congressional mandate of the Community Relations Service includes a confidentiality agreement that bars officials from revealing the identity of parties taking part in negotiations without their permission, Harris said.
“Part of that is the reason that is some of those groups wouldn’t even come to the table if they feel that what they say to us or even that we’re talking to them will go public or will be shared with other federal agencies. Some of these groups aren’t very trusting of federal agencies,” Harris said.
That secrecy, Harris said, allows for frank and open discussion and participation. It also can ease the concerns of local elected officials who may worry how their work with the agency would be viewed by the public.
“They want to be seen as strong and not caving in to another side or a party, but they’re willing to talk behind closed doors to solve the issue,” he said. “They don’t want to read about it in the paper tomorrow that the mayor and the police chief met with civil rights activist X at the table with some federal agency.”
Not taking sides on an issue is also important to the work of the agency’s mediators. Harris said that lesson hit home when he traveled to Jena, La., in the summer of 2007 after a series of racial incident, including one where nooses were hung from a tree at a local high school. Six black teens were charged with attempted murder for beating a white teen, and they became known as the Jena Six.
“I didn’t go to Jena as a black man,” Harris said. “I went as the director or an agency working on an issue. I can’t afford to have a dog in that fight. It’s not about me, it’s not about the conciliators.”
Harris said some of the parties the agency works with would not agree to meet if they did not feel that the conciliators are objective.
“When you’re helping a community with a dispute, that’s not your fight,” Harris said. “So you cannot take into consideration your race, gender, national origin and side with one choice or another because as soon as you do that your impartiality is shot, your credibility is shot.”
Agency Adapting to New Issues, Expects Rise in Immigration Related Incidents
As the issue of immigration takes the national stage, the agency expects to see a rise in incidents tied to the debate, Harris said. The agency’s fiscal 2011 budget request states that if immigration reform moves forward, “experience suggests that we will see an increase in discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin” against either immigrants or those perceived to be immigrants.
Immigration often masks other issues concerning race and national origin, according to Harris.
“We’re not really looking at the immigration question. We’re looking at the allegations of discrimination,” Harris said. “We’re comfortable with that because we have traditionally done race, color, national origin. So while we’re seeing an increase, the work itself isn’t new to us.”
As the agency reaches out to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community, there are lessons to be learned from how it handled outreach to Muslim and Arab-Americans communities in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Harris said.
“Some of those communities, with reason, weren’t necessarily very trusting of state, local, federal government,” Harris said. “We don’t expect for it to happen overnight. But I think we’ve turned a corner in building rapport in those communities, and part of making it work with those communities is allowing them to have access to us and other federal agencies.”
Muslim and Arab-American communities in recent years have worked with the government to address their concerns instead of feeling ostracized, Harris said.
“Are there criticisms? Sure,” said Harris. “I’m not going to paint a picture that everything is perfect in those communities, but I think that most of those communities, if you talk to them, think that they can talk to the government, that the government is appreciative of them. The process that CRS provides allows them to come to the table.”
A Shift to Proactive Prevention
With the passage of the hate crimes law last year, the agency is reaching out to new communities.
“Disabilities are something we’ve haven’t done historically, because that overlaps with housing issues. Different communities see disabilities differently. Even the language, you have to be careful in how you address those communities because you don’t want to offend people in those communities,” Harris said.
The agency hopes to prevent hate crimes by facilitating educational meetings in response to conflicts or incidents. But predicting where hate crimes may occur “is not like reading the entrails of an owl” Harris said.
“There’s no barometer for measuring the tension. Generally we rely on the public,” Harris said. “It’s a little difficult in some of the rural communities in measuring the tension. It’s different if you’re talking about a city like New York City, for example, where there’s a civil rights or activist infrastructure in that community. You get into some of the rural areas, those communities don’t have the infrastructure.”
In the area of LGBT-related hate crimes, the agency has gotten high marks thus far. Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said last month that DOJ has been conducting “spectacular” community education around the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.