Human Rights Commission celebrates 50th anniversary
If you bring up the topic of human rights concerns with a friend, more than likely the conversation will focus primarily on a distant county that is experiencing some form of political or humanitarian crisis. However, when it comes to the Richfield Human Rights Commission (RHRC), the topic hits much closer to home.
This year, the RHRC is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding.
The first step toward creating the RHRC came in May 1964 when leaders from city churches gathered at the home of Gertrude Ulrich with the goal of making the city a place that welcomes citizens of all races, colors, or creeds. That group, which labeled itself the Richfield Committee on Race and Religion, was the precursor to the RHRC.
“One of the first causes taken up by the Committee on Race and Religion was to understand why non-white homeowners were so underrepresented in Richfield,” explained RHRC Secretary Bob Mulcahy. “The committee worked with local realtors to understand what barriers potential non-white homeowners faced when trying to buy a home in Richfield. The group also explored ways to eliminate those barriers.”
Four years later, on April 8, 1968, the Richfield City Council officially established the RHRC, four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The RHRC was no stranger to controversy in its early years.
In 1971, only three years after its official founding, the city council declined to appoint a 17-year-old with a history of leading student demonstrations to the RHRC. Eventually, the council was admonished by the Minnesota DFL party. After considerable pressure from residents and external parties, the student was allowed to join the RHRC.
Alarmed at the agenda being promoted by the RHRC, an organization called the Richfield United Neighbors labeled the commission “socialistic” and “the single most-destructive organization in the city.”
“The Human Rights Commission did not have it easy during its first decade of existence,” said RHRC Chair Brett Stursa. “However, the commission persisted in its work to lay a foundation for a more inclusive community.”
By 1980 the commission had become a fixture in the city and included current Ward 2 Councilmember Edwina Garcia, who would go on to become the first woman of color elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives.
“During my time on the Human Rights Commission we looked in to workplace discrimination and started a column in the Sun Current that saluted residents who were promoting the cause of human rights within the community,” remembered Councilmember Garcia. “Then and now, the RHRC provides the community with an outlet to tackle and discuss challenging issues.”
Throughout the 1980s, the RHRC took on the role as mediator for allegations of human rights violations in the city. It was the commission’s duty to examine, on neutral and bipartisan manner, all allegations where someone believed their human rights had been violated. On average, the commission intervened on 15 cases a years.
In the late 1990s, the RHRC adopted a Hate Crime Response Plan with the city’s police department.
In 2007, the RHRC became the first human rights commission in Minnesota to work with its city council to pass Ban the Box rules in the city, limiting the ability of employers to ask about criminal history early in job application processes.
In recent years, the commission has sponsored events on topics such as Islam 101 and human trafficking. Miss Richfield 1981, the 2015 winner of the Gene & Mary Jacobsen Outstanding Citizen Award, has led Drag Storytime, an event co-sponsored with the Augsburg Park Library. Beginning in 2016, the RHRC began sponsoring annual naturalization ceremonies--more than 200 people were naturalized at the event in 2019.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, nearly 100 human rights commissions were founded in cities throughout Minnesota. Sadly, more than a third of these commissions have ceased to exist,” remarked Stursa. “In Richfield, residents have a passion for advocating for human rights, so I see a bright and busy future for the city’s RHRC.”