Reno Promised Change with the Human Rights Commission, But Some Feel It’s Merely a “Symbolic Gesture”

Reporters Holly Kuhl, Ian Cook, Neith Pereira and Kennedy Vincent take a look at Reno’s Human Rights Commission and its ability to help with pressing issues like homelessness, racial violence, and LGBTQ+ rights in the Biggest Little City. The commission has been meeting since 2018, but it seems to still have little power to create change.

Amid a global pandemic and mounting calls for change, human rights is at the forefront of this year’s most pressing conversations. Visual by Merisse Garcia for the Reynolds Sandbox

A Broad Scope Addressing Narrow Issues

Tackling issues like renaming parks and controversial holidays, Reno’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) has tried to stay busy this year despite all the added challenges of the pandemic. After a tumultuous year and still surging COVID-19 cases, racial violence and homelessness loom ominously over Reno. Many in Reno’s community, some Commission members included, say they want more out of the HRC.

Reno’s Human Rights Commission is modeled in the image of national groups like the Human Rights Campaign. Based in Washington, D.C. and three million members strong, the Human Rights Campaign is the largest advocacy group and organization for the LGBTQ+ community in the United States. Reno is currently the only city in Nevada to have this type of commission, but thus far its name seems to speak louder than its accomplishments.

Members of the Commission we interviewed say they would rather discuss Reno’s greater issues, including homelessness. But as an advisory board to the City Council, the Commission is severely limited in capability.

“If you think there’s some kind of issue that implicates human rights, it would come to the advisory board for advice, some kind of recommendation, or something, right?”Thomas Hassen, a 23 year-old member appointed in August, asked. “However, that’s not how the relationship between the Human Rights Commission and the City Council works.”

Meetings and agendas of the Commission are posted through the Reno.gov official page.

The Inner Workings of Reno’s Commission

The HRC is made up of 14 City Council-appointed members, but discussing agendas and inching toward progress can look like a slow grind.

“Think of how slow government is,” one founding member Alex Goff, 36, said. “The City of Reno meets every two weeks. We meet every two months.”

Goff said he’s dissatisfied with the Commission in its current form, but he is nonetheless passionate about his work. Reno’s evolving housing crisis is initially what drew him to the Commission, when his wife, who leads a veterinarian practice, saw many of her employees forced to relocate.

“Affordable housing is vital to the community,” Goff said. “Homelessness, as with a lot of issues, is broad and overarching. It’s difficult to advise on the entirety of the problem. I think that what would be necessary is advice on particularities of the problem.”

According to Hassen, there is little structure in place for the Human Rights Commission to advise the City Council effectively, let alone enact its own plans. There is no formal structure for individuals, or even the city council, to submit issues to the Commission. Relevant issues pending at the council don’t automatically go through the HRC first.

Perhaps most damning: they only meet once every other month. By the time the Commission can meet to address the issues in their jurisdiction, the issues discussed might have already been resolved by other bodies out of necessity.

Feelings of waiting for change can be felt across the Reno community for many thinking that they are stuck, as if in a waiting room listening for their number to be called. Visual by Holly L. Kuhl

A Commission Struggling to Define its Jurisdiction

According to Vice Mayor, City Council member, and HRC liaison Devon Reese, the Commission was created to address broad issues such as equity, inclusion, and diversity. As its liaison, Reese is tasked with mediating between the HRC and the City Council. For the City of Reno, the HRC is an opportunity to expand on the community’s needs and provide a greater discussion of diversity and the need for change.

Reese pointed to Reno’s municipality page on the Human Rights Campaign website for a list of the city’s successes thus far. It is admittedly impressive on paper, but it does not reflect Reno’s growing homeless population or increasing calls for police reform. On the page, the Commission notably lacks an “enforcement mechanism,” a point the Human Rights Campaign holds against Reno’s score as a community that supports marginalized communities. Moreover, these overarching issues aren’t the bulk of the conversations happening at Commission meetings.

“We’re not the United Nations,” Reese said. “Some things are obviously beyond our scope and other things maybe don’t seem as important to others, but are relevant to how we name parks. In the scope of relative importances, those things may appear on opposite ends of the spectrum, but are nonetheless tied to some greater belief that our community should be more inclusive and open to all folks and create a safe environment for people.”

Less exciting, but necessary agendas, like renaming controversial parks and holidays, can take up the hours of meetings. But Reese believes it’s important for some organization to give them the “oxygen” they need.

“In some ways, the name of the organization is not entirely descriptive of what it does,” Reese said. “Sometimes we have contracts that come to the city council… From my perspective, I want to make sure that the company we’re paying [to contract] is one that aligns with our core values.”

Others described a vastly different experience maneuvering the City of Reno’s “core values.”

When Commission members want to press harder on the human rights issues they believe are relevant, they are often asked to stay within their “jurisdiction.” At times, the HRC’s role can feel “symbolic.”

At one meeting, a representative from janitorial service Qual-Econ came in to present a potential contract with the City of Reno for homeless camp cleanups. City staff and attorneys flooded into the room soon after. When Commission members pressed on their issues with homeless camp cleanups, according to their recollection, city staff warned them they were “out of order.” Other times, it was “something [they] shouldn’t be asking.”

Reno’s City Council seldom formally tells the Commission they are reaching out of their jurisdiction, but conversations like these at meetings feel discouraging, members we interviewed said. It’s an informal type of pressure, but over time, it may have become paralyzing for the Commission’s ambitions to do more. For now, the HRC seems stuck in place.

One Success Story: QLAB’s Work for the University Community

Fortunately, the Human Rights Commission is not the only body discussing human rights issues in Reno. At the University of Nevada, Reno, the outlook seems brighter.

On campus, several advocacy groups have sprouted up and reinvented themselves in recent years. The Queer and LGBT Advocacy Board (QLAB), for example, is comprised entirely of allied faculty and staff. Their mission is to make an ongoing assessment of attitudes and conditions throughout the university regarding gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and Queer persons and issues.

“We represent one facet of this intersectionality puzzle,” Lexi Arwin said. Arwin is QLAB’s appointed leader.

QLAB meets monthly with university administration, and they work actively to present concerns and issues regarding the campus population. As the university adjusts to an administration change under recently selected President Brian Sandoval, Arwin hopes QLAB can keep its momentum going.

“We want there to be a more timely response and transparency,” Arwin said. “I want to make this look easy and really fun… I don’t want this to be a cycle of excited leadership and then the momentum dies. We want to be sustaining our work.”

If QLAB’s successes are any indication, Reno’s Human Rights Commission has a long way to go before it will live up to its name. The issue appears not to be solely with the Commission itself, but the bureaucratic processes and bodies from which it was created, too. Despite major setbacks from COVID-19, this time has allowed both bodies to sit back and reevaluate how to implement a more proactive effort for the future. In the meantime, as the world waits for some semblance of a return to normalcy, real human rights reform may have to stand by.

Reporting by Holly Kuhl, Ian Cook, Neith Pereira and Kennedy Vincent for the Reynolds Sandbox

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The Reynolds Sandbox showcases innovative and engaging storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab.

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