A celebration of civil rights

HOUGHTON – The executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights visited Michigan Technological University Thursday to talk about current and upcoming civil rights issues in the state.

Leslee Fritz spoke to Tech students at a forum Thursday night, as well as meeting with members of student groups at lunch.

She came to Houghton as part of the department’s 50th anniversary celebration, which involves visiting 50 communities around the state. Michigan was the first state to establish such a department.

Because of many people’s antipathy towards government, many people with problems first go to their church or other local organizations. By touching base with those groups, Fritz said, the department makes sure people who they can help are pointed in the right direction.

“This is really a good opportunity for us to get to a lot of places that frankly, we don’t get to enough, to renew partnerships with groups we’ve long worked with and to build new ones, so the enforcement work we do, the investigation of discrimination complaints, as well as the outreach in education and training we do, we can do a little bit more effectively,” she said.

Established in Michigan’s 1963 state constitution, the department is charged with enforcing discrimination laws in the state, as well working to prevent discrimination.

The department has a team of investigators and attorneys on staff to investigate complaints and negotiate settlements. On the prevention end, about 4,500 people go through training per year. This week, staff have done training sessions in Bark River and Marquette.

Many of the issues, such as race and ethnicity, have remained the same over time. But there’s been a growing number of investigations on discrimination against disability, which Fritz said was due in part to many organizations’ effort to raise awareness about access. There’s also more focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender discrimination, Fritz said.

“Unfortunately, our law still does not prevent discrimination against people due to sexual orientation, so on the investigation side, we’re not as engaged, but certainly on the prevention side,” she said. “That’s a new public debate that we’re engaged in.”

Fritz said the most rewarding part of the job comes from resolving complaints to give a person something they’ve been denied. Recently, the department helped to change Craigslist policy to prohibit rental housing advertisers from wording that violates the fair housing laws.

The department also works with youth through an anti-bullying initiative and civil rights academy. In one project, students created a civil rights project in their schools. For instance, children in Detroit decided to do something about their lunchroom, which was informally segregated by race, religion or gender. They taped activity in their lunchroom for a couple weeks to document cliques, then set about instigating communication between the groups.

“We didn’t give them that idea, but to see them try to say, ‘We need to be more open with one another and live with one another,’ that kind of stuff was really cool to see happen, and frankly will have the biggest impact long-term on openness and equality and fairness in this state,” she said.

The department has a couple of new projects. It released a report earlier this year assessing the economic impact for the state from LGBT discrimination; they planned to discuss the findings at Thursday night’s meeting, Fritz said. The department is also conducting an updated count of seasonal and migrant farm workers in the state to find out where populations are going.

“It will change the way we engage in that work,” she said.

At lunch Thursday, Fritz and other Department of Civil Rights staff met with students from Tech campus groups. Fritz talked with students about the department’s work as well as listening to their experiences on campus.

“It’s great to hear from the inside, ‘This is what we’re doing, this is how it’s going to change,'” said Taylor Driscoll, a fourth-year student from Detroit who is president of the Tech chapter of National Society of Black Engineers and a member of Tech’s Society of Intellectual Sisters.