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Four of five Community Relations Commission members resign from volunteer board

Durango City Council declines request for formal apology over Columbus Day Facebook post
All but one member of the city of Durango’s Community Relations Commission resigned Nov. 17 after disagreements with Durango City Council. Olivia de Pablo, left, is the only member of the commission who did not resign. Tirzah Camacho, Enrique A. Orozco-Perez, Jennifer Latham and Trennie Burch signed a resignation letter to the city and City Council. (Courtesy of Tirzah Camacho)

Nearly the entire board of the city of Durango’s Community Relations Commission resigned earlier this month after Durango City Council rejected a request for a formal public apology following a “Happy Columbus Day” post on the city’s official Facebook page in October.

CRC members Tirzah Camacho, Jennifer Latham, Trennie Burch, Enrique A. Orozco-Perez and subcommittee leader Kelsey Bell all signed off on a resignation letter dated Nov. 17, leaving Olivia De Pablo as the sole remaining board member.

The letter was addressed to Durango City Council, City Manager José Madrigal and the city of Durango. In the letter, the commission members said CRC’s work toward “equity and justice initiatives have continuously been met with discomfort, dismissive attitudes, and blatant disregard” from the city.

The letter goes on to say CRC members don’t feel “valued, seen, treated as equals, or respected as professionals in senior positions in our respective justice fields.”

It referenced City Council’s discussion regarding the CRC’s request for an apology as well as a City Council meeting in which councilors asked for more information about a budget request made by the CRC members, specifically how increased funding would be spent.

Councilor Olivier Bosmans, the City Council’s liaison to the CRC, informed his colleagues at the Nov. 15 City Council study session that the commission was seeking a formal public apology. But other councilors weren’t keen on revisiting the subject, saying that an apology was already posted to the city’s Facebook page the same day that a new city staff member published a “Happy Columbus Day” message.

The city of Durango faced backlash after posting a “Happy Columbus Day” post on Oct. 10 that featured a cartoon Christopher Columbus. (Screenshot courtesy Trennie Burch Foster)

The Facebook post drew scrutiny from some Durango residents and started arguments between supporters of Columbus Day and supporters of Indigenous Peoples Day, which the city has officially recognized on Oct. 10 since 2016. The post was online for at least an hour before it was taken down and replaced with another post acknowledging Indigenous Peoples Day and apologizing for the confusion.

During City Council’s discussion at the Nov. 15 study session, Councilor Jessika Buell said the city apologized for a mistake (the Columbus Day post) made by a new employee who didn’t understand the city’s policy recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day. She said everyone makes mistakes and when apologies are made, she hopes they are accepted with sincerity.

Councilor Kim Baxter said the apology issued online could have been more specific, but the issue was a staff and organizational matter, not a matter for City Council.

“Council’s set a policy about the Indigenous Peoples Day,” she said. “I don’t believe previous councils ever set a policy saying it also wasn’t Columbus Day. So I don’t know that. But staff failed to follow council policy.”

Mayor Barbara Noseworthy said she agrees with Baxter that the apology issued online was more of an apology for miscommunication.

Councilor Melissa Youssef said she doesn’t believe staff had any ill intent in publishing the “Happy Columbus Day” message, that the post was taken down, an apology was made online and she would rather move forward “in a productive manner focusing on the good work that we do and our DEI efforts.”

Bosmans said a public apology from City Council would demonstrate the council takes ownership of DEI efforts and is committed to those efforts.

“Even though the damage has been done, it’s a path to move forward in a very easy way, constructive way, and actually work on addressing and supporting all the DEI work and issues in our community,” he said.

But, Bosmans acknowledged the majority of council did not appear interested in issuing an apology.

Challenges and next steps

Camacho, a former CRC board member, said she watched City Council’s discussion on the subject and found Baxter’s comments to be the most “interesting.”

She said the “meat and potatoes, of Indigenous Peoples Day is to replace the false narrative perpetuated by the Columbus Day holiday. She said Baxter’s comment that Columbus Day is not mentioned in the city’s policy reveals how disconnected City Council is from “cultural and social movement work.”

“It wouldn’t have taken much for them to have some more substantial recognition around how and why this is damaging and dangerous, which is what we said before,” she said. “In a climate where people feel emboldened by these narratives, if you are claiming Columbus Day, that narrative – you’re perpetuating this stronghold, this sort of white knuckling of this colonizer narrative of dominance that isn’t real.”

She said to do so is not a small mistake but a dangerous one; a formal apology is the smallest gesture the city could make in the right direction and the “huffy” dismissal of the CRC’s request for a formal apology was “pretty gross.”

Camacho said she is proud of the work the CRC has accomplished over the last few years, but none of its successes were easily achieved, and diversity, equity and inclusion work is “tedious” and “trying.”

She said she doesn’t think substantial progress on DEI efforts is possible until people from marginalized communities with “lived experience” can get into positions of power, such as on City Council. But a barrier to that happening is the time commitment required in volunteer politics.

“Because there are so many barriers to be able to volunteer the kind of hours that having a power position like this would require, we’re never going to get the kinds of candidates that have lived experience,” she said.

If City Council positions included more pay, people from lower incomes could afford to devote the hours needed to performing the job, she said.

“As we’ve seen – this isn’t an assumption, this is a fact – older, mostly white, affluent folks are in these seats,” Camacho said. “That’s what we’re seeing. And so until the structure changes to support different kinds of people’s ability to be in this role, we’re not going to see the changes that we could with DEI work.”

De Pablo, the only CRC member who did not resign, said she stayed on the commission to ensure it doesn’t get dissolved entirely. She said she is disappointed in City Council’s reluctance to issue a formal public apology, but she is also disappointed in her colleagues’ decisions to resign. She prefers starting and continuing a dialogue with local government and collaboration toward solutions.

“When the city is taking a stance to honor the fact that we are living on stolen lands, if they are also honoring Columbus Day, which is rooted in genocide and the killing of a lot of our ancestors, of course I am disappointed that they’re not willing to admit they made a mistake,” she said. “I am, however, not going to just quit on all of my efforts because they decided not to apologize. I think there’s gotta be a constructive way to communicate what we need.”

She said to her understanding, City Council is responsible for appointing people to fill the positions vacated by former CRC members. De Pablo is studying the city’s bylaws regarding boards and commissions to make sure she is prepared for the commission’s next steps, whatever they end up being.

De Pablo said it is time for the CRC to receive new representation; new faces, new talents and new energy. She doesn’t need to be involved with the CRC in the future, but she doesn’t want the entire board to be vacated and the commission closed for good.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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