The purpose of a human rights advocacy office is to foster a healthier relationship between vulnerable communities and the more powerful local entities that surround them. But if that office, through its own fault or not, isn’t able to serve those communities, does it deserve to exist?
Dr. Kenneth Clarke, recently confirmed as the newest permanent leader of the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights (OHR), thinks he can prove that not only is the office he now helms important and necessary, but that it can also be effective and helpful to those who need it most.
Tompkins County OHR, one of just 13 offices of its kind in New York State, has a stated mission of work towards the “elimination and prevention of unlawful discrimination and to develop and facilitate County-wide programs that increase awareness of human rights and social justice ideals,” goals that it has been working towards over since its establishment in 1963. But it’s been increasingly difficult to accomplish those goals over the last several years.
Setting the stage, in 2008, New York State rescinded the Memorandum of Understanding it had with Tompkins County OHR, choosing instead to focus on MOUs that it retained with human rights offices downstate in more densely populated counties. This neutered some of the county office’s power, as its ability to investigate human rights complaints on its own, and make recommendations before the state office’s final determination, was revoked when the MOU lapsed, leaving the office only able to submit discrimination complaints to the New York State Division of Human Rights and wait for their investigation and determination.
The office was further marginalized in 2017, with turbulence from the top down inhibiting the office and staff. Clarke has already been through the gauntlet at OHR, having worked with OHR starting in Nov. 2017, overlapping that period of turmoil that very nearly threatened the office’s existence. Clarke began serving in an advisory role at that time, while then-Director Karen Baer’s status was in limbo. Baer was placed on administrative leave in Oct. 2017 for “misconduct and/or incompetence.” That saga turned into a protracted battle that revealed a rash of tension and in-fighting that had surrounded the office and inhibited its ability to function properly.
Even before that situation played out so publicly, the effectiveness of the office and whether or not it should be funded was questioned by some Tompkins County Legislature members, led by Republican Mike Sigler of Lansing (though he has since expressed cautious support for funding the office). Baer’s ousting, and what followed, could have potentially shuttered the office permanently; the possibility was quietly rumored at the time, though how close that actually came to happening is unclear. Eventually, the legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee undertook a review of the efficacy of OHR, determining how to alter the office’s policies to make it most effective , though members of the public became loudly apprehensive that the review was a means to the end of eliminating the office entirely, despite the denials of legislators.
Yet, more than a year later, the office still exists and Clarke said he is eager to reclaim its mission, as he deems it, and apparently has the backing of the Tompkins County administration to do so.
"Dr. Clarke's human and civil rights background along with community history and engagement over the past 20 years will continue to serve the community well in the future,” County Administrator Jason Molino said after Clarke was unanimously confirmed by the legislature last week.
Clarke said he realizes that OHR’s public perception might not be very high right now, due to the aforementioned events.
“It certainly had its impact on the office, it was a very difficult time,” Clarke said. “I think we have a chance now to be able to establish a narrative about what the office offers, what the office can and cannot do.[...] Just because we do not have an MOU, does not mean that the office is ineffective or a paper tiger. What emerges from the situation from several years ago is an opportunity to clarify our narrative.”
Clarke brings a more religious background to the job than might be expected in government work, though it fits well in the context of a job that deals with human rights struggles. He has a doctorate of Ministry from United Theological Seminary and a Masters of Divinity from the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, and previously worked at Penn State University as the director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs before serving as the director of Cornell United Religious Work for 16 years until June 2017. He got his start in San Francisco, working with Ethiopian refugees.
“When you look at the works of Jesus, you’re really talking about an emphasis on personal and social transformation,” Clarke said, noting that he takes inspiration from the work of Jesus and the prophets in the Bible for speaking out to, and in defense of, those being oppressed. “For me, my work over the last 30 years has been in secular institutions, unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition, but I have sought to bring the values of my own tradition into that space, but do that in a way that points toward a more inclusive society, a society where people of different races, religions, genders, sexual orientations and such, can feel a part of the community. I think that working in this office gives me an opportunity to work out those same commitments.”
Specifically, Clarke named his primary priority as housing and his desire to work on the myriad problems associated with that by strengthening connections to other governmental bodies and community groups that are working on similar issues from their own unique angles. Last year, for example, OHR held training sessions on housing to spread awareness of resident’s rights, particularly as tenants, and deepened its relationship with the Office for the Aging, the Department of Social Services and the county’s Youth Services.
There’s also, obviously, the common practices of a human rights office, like to serve as a conduit between citizens and the state when it comes to human rights complaints. Even though the county lost its ability to investigate and recommend, consultation with other New York counties (which also lost or never had their own MOU) has given Clarke and his team more insight to navigating how to serve the community regardless of that reduction in power. Conversely, Clarke has organized events to educate local citizens on changes in state law, such as last year’s tenant reforms that banned housing discrimination based on source of income (in the most common form, it outlawed refusing to rent to a tenant because they were using Section 8 housing vouchers).
Clarke named education and outreach as more broad perspective priorities, though ones that are still just as important as his more specific policy goals. Acting on those education and outreach aspirations, Clarke said the office is nearly finished planning a documentary screening at Southside Community Center on Feb. 28 about the infamous voter suppression efforts in North Carolina during the 2016 election, which overwhelmingly targeted minority voters. The event is the first of Clarke’s planned dinner-film-discussion events that will take place quarterly throughout the year.
A week into his official, permanent tenure, Clarke speaks about OHR in the way one would hope its director would, as if it’s striving for some higher purpose beyond garden variety government work, even if actually getting there will be a struggle. He also knows, from the last few years, that OHR is facing plenty of doubts, having grabbed vastly more headlines for its troubles than its triumphs recently.
“The community, broadly, needs an office that is committed to principles that have been outlined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we need to be able to make those manifest in our community,” Clarke said. “To be able to frame certain issues in the context of human rights, issues like employment, housing, voting [...] It’s important to have an office that upholds that type of standard, for people from any walk of life, any socioeconomic reality, of any political persuasion, any ethnicity, or any other characteristic, should be able to come here and to, if not get a resolution, to be able to be heard and tell their stories.”