I was recently appointed to serve on the Cheltenham Township Human Relations Commission. Like many local cities and towns, Cheltenham Township, where I live, has a Human Relations Ordinance prohibiting discrimination in housing accommodations, certain commercial property transactions, employment, and public accommodation, within the Township. The CHRC is a citizen committee that hears complaints and mediates disputes under the ordinance, and works with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission on situations that go beyond mediation to disputes in court. The CHRC also plays a valuable role in providing community education about the kinds of discrimination that are unlawful and what community members can do about it.
The Cheltenham ordinance, like many similar local laws, covers a broader range of categories than the state or federal anti-discrimination statutes. Its purpose is to “ensure that all persons, regardless of actual or perceived race, color, age, religious creed, ancestry, sex, national origin, handicap, disability, or use of guide or support animals and/or mechanical aids because of blindness, deafness or physical handicap of the user or the user is a handler or trainer of support or guide animals, or sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression enjoy the full benefits of citizenship and are afforded equal opportunities for employment, housing accommodations, public accommodations, and in publicly offered commercial property transactions.” Cheltenham Township Code § 26-2. Because the ordinance covers categories people may not be aware of, the educational role of the CHRC is particularly important.
Law school can sometimes create the impression that most civil rights enforcement happens at the federal level, but with a new President and Attorney General openly hostile to civil rights enforcement, I could see that state and local governments were going to play a bigger role in addressing civil rights concerns.
The CHRC announced that it had an opening at a time that I was interested in getting more involved with local government. Other than participating in my kids’ schools’ parent organization, I hadn’t been very involved at the local level. In the wake of the 2016 election, however, it became clear to me that protection of civil rights at the local level was going to become more important. Law school can sometimes create the impression that most civil rights enforcement happens at the federal level, but with a new President and Attorney General openly hostile to civil rights enforcement, I could see that state and local governments were going to play a bigger role in addressing civil rights concerns. That, combined with a rise in reported incidents of harassment and violence against African Americans, people of Middle Eastern descent (or perceived to be), Muslims, Jews, and members of the LGBTQ community, made the Human Relations Commission of particular interest to me.
Through working on the CHRC, I hope to contribute to my community in multiple ways. The Commission is planning a series of educational sessions to make sure that people in Cheltenham are aware of the ordinance and what to do if they encounter a problem. It is also a great opportunity for general education on the ills of discrimination and implicit bias. Cheltenham is a highly diverse community and it takes work to come together effectively as a community. The CHRC can play an important role in improving community relations.
Another great benefit of the CHRC is that I have met interesting people whom I would never have known otherwise. The Commission has a real mix of people who live in Cheltenham. There are a couple other lawyers, someone who works in local government, and several other interesting people. What we all share is a willingness to volunteer our time to improve our community and a commitment to principles of equality. I look forward to getting to know them all better as my time on the commission continues.
It is easy in law school to think it is all about state and federal law, but a lot can happen on the local level that has a direct impact on people’s lives. I am happy that my appointment to the CHRC allows me to be involved in a meaningful way in my local community.