BROOKINGS – Brookings city councilors have voiced their commitment to inclusion and being a welcoming community to all.
The Council’s unanimous approval of Resolution 17-022 on Tuesday evening reaffirmed “Brookings’ values of inclusion, respect, tolerance, equality and justice and the city’s commitment toward action to reinforce these values.”
After more than a half-hour of comments, stories and emotional statements from residents, the councilors’ vote was met by an enthusiastic round of applause. The chambers were packed, with most of the audience at the meeting specifically to show support for the resolution.
The resolution of inclusion was prepared by the Human Rights Commission in response to requests from the South Dakota World Affairs Council and members of the Brookings Ministerial Association.
People not behaving
George Hamer, vice chair of the Human Rights Commission, said watching the news has been a sad experience lately. “People are not behaving with any of the values that we would wish to emulate as citizens of this great city.”
Hamer said Brookings is not immune to the issues that are reported in the national news. He said local Muslim women walking in downtown Brookings have been told to “go back home.” LGBT slurs have been written on a dorm room door at South Dakota State University, and a local mosque has been desecrated.
“We are a very diverse city, and this is one of our strengths. We ask that you approve this (resolution) in an effort to further reinforce that Brookings will continue to welcome all who wish to be a part of this great community that we call home,” Hamer said.
Police Chief Jeff Miller said he is aware of a couple of instances of documented hate crimes in Brookings.
“Some time ago we had an act against our local mosque. All those types of things are investigated thoroughly and are treated like any other crime. We are obligated through our Unified Crime Reports to identify any crime as a hate crime to the national statistics. We’re doing our part, reacting and responding to any complaint on hate crimes.”
More action needed?
A couple of the councilors requested clarification on section 3 of the resolution: “The City of Brookings will implement measures to facilitate reporting, tracking and responding to hate and bias-motivated activities in Brookings.”
Mayor Scott Munsterman said he wondered how the city would respond to that statement and if any specific actions were needed.
City Manager Jeff Weldon said it’s a matter of responding to complaints made to law enforcement and the Human Rights Commission. He said the city was also open to suggestions on how to respond in other ways.
City Attorney Steve Britzman said he didn’t think the statement was problematic for the city.
Councilor Nick Wendell said most national studies indicate that less than 40 percent of hate or bias-related crimes are ever reported. “So there’s a lot happening in our community that we may not hear about and wouldn’t be part of the official record.”
Councilor Patty Bacon said the council simply having this discussion could empower some people to step forward and report hate crimes. Councilor Keith Corbett agreed the discussion could stimulate some people to take action.
Dianne Nagy with the Brookings Interfaith Council said the group has heard “growing alarm over the willing divisiveness rippling across our country, and increasing incidents of aggression and hate.”
“We look to our city government for proactive measures to assure our citizenry that Brookings remains an inclusive, welcoming community,” Nagy said. “We urge you to publicly reaffirm the city’s commitments to equity, social justice and respect for the human rights and dignity of all, and we call on you to take a leadership role in calming fear and creating opportunities for social healing and civil discourse.”
Many meeting attendees spoke to the widespread diversity the community already enjoys.
ESL teacher Lisa Plummer said in Medary Elementary School alone, she has 43 English language learners from 24 countries speaking 17 languages. “Here in Brookings, in one elementary. That’s amazing and awesome.”
She also said options must be available for people who aren’t comfortable contacting police about hate crimes and discrimination.
A teacher from Camelot Intermediate School said she’s heard some students saying racial taunts to others, and someone shouted a racial slur at a lecturer who was visiting SDSU, as he walked near Sixth Street. That’s just a small percentage of the things educators are hearing, she said.
Councilor Dan Hansen said words matter, but the Council hasn’t yet fixed any of the problems it talked about Tuesday night.
“At the end of the day, our words have to be congruent with our actions. … We’re seven people up here, and we’ll try to do our best to continue to enact policies that we have in the past,” Hansen said.
Past examples he cited were turning the human rights committee into a commission with more authority, and supporting the creation of an LGBT liason at the Brookings Police Department.
Councilor Ope Niemeyer agreed. “I think we’re doing a great thing here this evening, and we would be doing ourselves a discredit if we didn’t pass this.”
Councilor Mary Kidwiler said the values of the resolution should just be a given in this country, and it’s sad and unfortunate that they’re not. She said she’s only benefited from the diversity she encountered by working at SDSU.
Weldon suggested the Human Rights Commission take the resolution to other entities such as the Brookings School Board, Brookings County Commission and SDSU.
“I think that there might be more ways that the message could be spread to change the culture and the thought by having more organizations other than the Brookings City Council take a stand like this as well,” Weldon said.
Contact Jill Fier at [email protected]