My Turn: We have a long way to go when it comes to human rights


Thursday, December 28, 2017

It’s been a rough year for human rights, and that’s as true in Greenfield as it is on the national and international stages. Obviously, what’s happening here doesn’t compare to the crises in Yemen, Burma and elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do.

In August of this year, I volunteered to help Greenfield do that work by applying to fill a vacant seat on the Human Rights Commission. Last week, this newspaper reported that my appointment had been tabled by the Appointments and Ordinances Committee; what actually happened was that I had withdrawn from the process. And there’s more to the story.

There are several reasons I was feeling particularly motivated to join the HRC back in August. One was the Greenfield Town Council’s vote against the proposed ordinance to make Greenfield a “Safe City.” Like many, I was disappointed that the ordinance did not pass, and frustrated that some of our councilors prefaced their votes with remarks that clearly disregarded their constituents’ views as well as expert legal analysis in favor of their own biased views and sources. Of course, we all see issues through the lens of our own experience, but we must do so with caution, lest we project inaccurate assumptions onto other people’s lives and experiences. Or worse, that we close ourselves off to other people’s experiences altogether, choosing to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes only if we know they already fit us.

It wasn’t just the vote against the Safe City proposal that had me frustrated and concerned; it was some of the comments I heard in the various public meetings leading up to the vote, equating all Muslims with terrorism or Mexican-born people with criminal activity; assuming that undocumented immigrants are, by definition, criminals; arguing that crime would increase in Greenfield if undocumented immigrants felt safe reporting problems to local law enforcement. Such comments range from inaccurate to irrational, and demonstrate a need for more education and empathy among our community, not to mention clearer guidelines for counteracting hate speech in public forums.

This brings me to the Human Rights Commission. To its credit, the HRC originated and — after thoughtful deliberation — recommended the idea of Greenfield becoming a Safe City; that is the body I would be proud to be a part of. But I’ve also heard inaccurate assumptions, prejudice, and bigotry — including some of the comments above — voiced by people who are currently members of the HRC, and that is truly worrisome.

The United Nations defines human rights as “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.”

The Greenfield HRC’s own mission statement holds ”that all citizens of the community have the right to be treated with dignity, respect, fairness, impartiality and justice without regard to race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion or disability.”

Dignity and respect. Life and liberty, without discrimination. Some would say that these are the most fundamental of American values, but here’s the thing — the very concept of human rights holds that these have to be true all the time, and for everyone. No picking and choosing based on national origin, immigration status, or anything else. And when some of the people publicly charged with upholding these rights — most notably, the vice chair of the HRC — are instead speaking out against them in public forums, then neither that body nor the mayor’s appointments to it can be trusted as taking its mission seriously.

I care deeply about human rights and have worked to uphold these values in every aspect of my professional and personal life. I applied to join the commission because I believe that the HRC could do a better job of working toward that goal, and that we have to actively be a part of the change we wish to see. But after being told I would be appointed in August, then (wrongly) told there were no vacant seats, then hearing nothing for several months, I am forced again to question the sincerity of the mayor’s and the current HRC leadership’s interest in a robust local commitment to human rights.

As for me, in the intervening months, I’ve taken on other commitments. One of these efforts is co-coordinating Greenfield’s new Not In Our Town group, which works to help spearhead the fight against hate, oppression and bullying through community education and advocacy. These are big issues, and I am honored to be working with a group of dedicated, compassionate, open-minded fellow citizens to address them. I hope to one day be able to say the same about our Human Rights Commission or another town government effort to promote human rights — one that I would be happy to join.

Rachel Gordon hails from Greenfield.