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Community Relations Commission foresees progress on diversity in 2021

Slow, but steady steps taken this year on inclusion issues, representatives say
Durango Community Relations Commission members Tirzah Camacho, left, Olivia Lopez-DePablo, center, and Lexie Stetson-Lee in front of the Black Lives Matter mural June 26 at the Everyday convenience store at East Eighth Avenue and College Drive.

It was a year of friction in Durango and across the nation as social reform protests and counterprotests swept the country. In response, the city government says it will prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion issues in 2021, relying on the Community Relations Commission to bring viewpoints to City Council.

Community Relations Commission members say they can point to examples of how the city turned its response into action, but the pace has been a challenge.

“Sometimes this work can move at a glacial pace for those that are suffering. It can feel as if there is no progress being made,” said Lexie Stetson-Lee, who chaired the committee. “That is going to be a common thread until we embed more of this, educate more and shift systems.”

The Community Relations Commission, which launched in 2012, is one of several boards and commissions that advise City Council.

In the past, it has hosted focus group meetings and surveyed the community at events. It launched a Civility First pledge program, which gathered pledges from more than 70 community organizations but has been criticized as a superficial effort.

The five-member board began 2020 with three empty seats, which were filled between February and August. Unlike other boards, it didn’t have a City Council member designated as a liaison.

The commission’s budget is $3,000, and it is possibly the only advisory board with a budget.

Steps taken

This year, one main project was to hold three listening sessions with community members starting in January.

Then, several Black Americans were killed at the hands of law enforcement, with George Floyd’s death in May leading to nationwide protests. In Durango, the community protested and split over the Chief sign outside of Toh-Atin Gallery, 145 W. Ninth St.

The listening sessions were filled with people recounting frustrations and experiences of prejudice and discrimination in the city.

In response, Councilor Barbara Noseworthy took on the role of interim liaison and a third staff liaison, Sandy Irwin, was added to the commission. Irwin is part of a staff team organizing the city’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative.

When Stetson-Lee’s term ends in January, Tirzah Camacho will become the new chair. Camacho, who has served on the board since September 2019, has regularly challenged city norms while advocating for traditionally marginalized communities. City staff members believe she is the first Indigenous person to chair a city board or commission.

“I hope by accepting, it would be in the name of modeling for other people in the community to think about these spaces, and that they could stand in these spaces with decision-makers for power building,” Camacho said after her nomination during a December commission meeting.

Stetson-Lee said one of the commission’s biggest successes dealt with translation services. Durango added Google Translate to its website and allocated additional funding for translation in 2021.

It was an example of community feedback being heard and action seen within a year, she said.

“When we look at inclusive participation, translation is needed. And it is a sincere win this year,” Stetson-Lee said.

Council’s approval of an inclusion-focused city goal for 2021 and the listening sessions were major successes, said Irwin, who is also director of the Durango Public Library.

Stetson-Lee added the commission “had a lot of very brave and very giving community members share with us this year, and so we were able to embed that into the city’s goals.”

Looking ahead

The commission is still working on its next steps in 2021. It plans to bring in a strategic planning adviser to help during a goal-setting workshop in January.

In December, the commission members listed its top priorities as translation services, holding the commission accountable to its goals, the Civility First program and connecting the city to educational institutions.

Some challenges still remain, including the pace of change and necessary resources, commission representatives said.

But looking ahead, they felt that regardless of the individual people involved, policy changes were in place to continue prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion in the future.

For Stetson-Lee, she hopes the commission will still be community-driven, informed by residents and those struggling to be heard but in need of change.

“Sometimes you have to go through uncomfortable change to come back to harmony,” Stetson-Lee said. “That might have marked this year as being a more uncomfortable year, but I would say the goal remains the same.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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