Human Rights Commission Hits Half-Century Mark

The staff of the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights – Carmen Arroyo, James Douglas, and Director Karen Baer – will celebrate the commission's 50th year on Tuesday, Dec. 10.

On Tuesday, Dec. 10, the Human Rights Commission of Tompkins County will celebrate 50 years of existence. That day also happens to be International Human Rights Day, the day in 1948 when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The day was formally declared in 1950.

This year’s theme for Human Rights Day internationally is “Working for Your Rights.” In Tompkins County, the day will be marked with a gala and dinner by the Dorothy Cotton Institute and an informal after-school Human Rights Day party at GIAC.

New director of the Office of Human Rights in Tompkins County, Karen Baer, is celebrating a personal milestone, as well: it’s her birthday. “Isn’t that perfect?” she said with a smile.

Baer and administrative aid Carmen Arroyo and paralegal James Douglas comprise the staff of OHR. Baer started in the job just this September, after sixteen years at the human rights office in Geneva (her husband, Eugen, is Dean of Students at Hobart William Smith), but she has deep roots in the area and took her undergrad degree at Cornell. “I really am happy to be back,” she beamed. “My son is going to Boynton, and he likes it.”

“At this point,” said Baer, “I’m mainly interested in having a community conversation.” Baer is focusing on outreach via several pathways: the office is looking for an outreach and program specialist; they are seeking new members for the Human Rights Commission, and coming up soon is the annual arts and poetry contest for Martin Luther King Jr. day.

“If I have a sense from the community where they see social justice going forward, it helps us develop programs,” said Baer. She’d like to reach out to all the communities in Tompkins county, especially those outside Ithaca, hence the search for an outreach specialist.

The Human Rights Commission is a volunteer body that advises the office (the Office of Human Rights is a county agency) and they are now actively seeking new members to sit on the commission. Applicants are invited to visit the Tompkins County website to learn more. Prospective members of the commission will be interviewed in January and appointed by the county legislature. “I really need that body to be active and be functioning, and be out in the county,” said Baer. “It helps us understand what’s going on and be effective. Barbara Coleman – she’s the chair – and I are actively recruiting new members. Our hope is that the new members will represent all areas of the county.”

Coming in January/February is the annual Martin Luther King Jr. art and poetry contest for students from kindergarten through twelfth grade, who are asked to submit literary and artistic expressions this year under the theme “Why We Can’t Wait.” Individual students as well as classes are invited to submit their work by January 10; winners will be announced in late January/early February, and their work will be exhibited at the Tompkins County library. For Competition details and submission guidelines contact the OHR at 607-277-4080 or email

Ongoing, the Office of Human Rights has a facebook page. Anyone is invited to submit 25 words or less on the “I Have a Dream” theme to help celebrate the golden anniversary of human rights in Tompkins County. If you visit the page (search Tompkins County Office of Human Rights in FB) you’ll see selfies of people holding up their dreams: “I have a dream we will all be as equal on the outside as we are on the inside,” says the one for Carmen Arroyo.

“Living wage and all local labor for public projects!” reads the one from County Legislator Kathy Luz Herrera.

“Yo tengo un sueño,” reads the one from resident Augusto Pacheco. “Que todos estaremos unidos en la lucha a la igualdad.” (I have a dream that everyone will be together in the fight for equality.”)

Looking ahead to the upcoming year, Baer is hoping to find many ways to celebrate the 50 year milestone. “There’s not enough money to do anything spectacular,” she smiles, “But I’m hoping there will be many opportunities to celebrate.”

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