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Does Grand Forks still need a diversity commission?

It's been well over a year since the debate on a Grand Forks diversity commission has subsided. Activists who drove the discussion have since left town, and the momentum behind the project has dissipated.

Grand Forks City Hall (Herald photo/Sam Easter)
Grand Forks City Hall (Herald photo/Sam Easter)

It's been well over a year since the debate on a Grand Forks diversity commission has subsided. Activists who drove the discussion have since left town, and the momentum behind the project has dissipated.

But even though the clamor has faded, the concerns that launched talk of such a group haven't gone away. Discrimination-against immigrants, the disabled, even families with children-is persistent in around North Dakota, advocates say, and there's plenty of work for groups that focus on those concerns.

It's unclear who would lead the push for such a group in Grand Forks-or even exactly what it would look like-but proponents aren't hard to find. Michelle Rydz, who heads the High Plains Fair Housing Center, can list case after case of housing discrimination from around North Dakota.

Rydz recalls in particular the case of an East Grand Forks landlord who attempted to evict his immigrant tenants two years ago. After firing a management company, in part because it had rented to immigrants, he declined to renew immigrants' leases after new management took over.

"It was too difficult to deal with all their issues, because he couldn't understand them," Rydz said, adding that her organization-a watchdog group that fights housing discrimination- was able to intervene, but only after some immigrants had already lost their apartments. "That's a pretty obvious example of treating someone differently because of how they're born."

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Rydz said her group has seen cases of "steering" in Grand Forks, in which some renters are encouraged to seek a building "where there's more people like you." Elsewhere in the state, her group sent undercover shoppers to rent an apartment. The person with an accent, she said, had to fill out a form and pay a fee before being able to tour a unit.

Rydz envisions a centralized, city-backed group that would help direct victims of discrimination to the groups that can help them. While High Plains focuses on housing discrimination, people still need a place to go for labor or wage concerns.

"And again, remember, the biggest issue of discrimination in Grand Forks and statewide is persons with disabilities," Rydz said. "That's going to be increasingly evident as our population continues to age."

The last push for a diversity commission unfolded in 2015 and early 2016, and eventually became a proposal for a nine-member, City Council-appointed board that would back local diversity-themed events and connect victims of discrimination with the resources they need. But the project, a flash point for local debate, eventually fell out of the spotlight and never materialized.

"I will say I don't think it's a coincidence that the three women who tried to pioneer the commission no longer live in Grand Forks," Natasha Thomas, one of the original backers of the group, said in a social media message in which she declined an interview.

Groups elsewhere

Despite Grand Forks' lack of a diversity commission, other North Dakota cities have had one for years. In Fargo, the Human Relations Commission, founded in the early 2000s, has nine mayor-appointed members and mostly exists to keep the conversation over diversity at the forefront of the community's mind, member Barry Nelson said.

While it works at times as a clearinghouse for people who feel discriminated against-connecting them with the right organization or attorney-Nelson said the group primarily advocates on diversity issues. It returned an investigation to the City Commission that found refugees offer a net economic benefit to the community, and it's working with the Department of Justice to bring educational sessions on hate crimes to the area.

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Fargo made national headlines earlier this summer when Amber Elizabeth Hensley, a white woman from Mapleton, N.D., was caught on video angrily telling three Muslim women in a Wal-Mart parking lot that "we're going to kill all of you," and that they should "go home." The incident echoes an apparent uptick in such incidents in Fargo, Nelson said.

But Nelson said he's unsure if those incidents are being reported more or if they're actually happening more. He wondered if President Donald Trump's rhetoric on immigrants and refugees and Trump's much-criticized response to white supremacist demonstrations in Virginia have shaped the trend.

Grand Forks City Council member Bret Weber said the city's Immigrant Integration Initiative, which focuses on welcoming new Americans, doesn't serve the same broad interests that a diversity commission would. He's supportive of a new group whose presence could help avert violence like the 2015 firebombing of the Somali-run Juba cafe.

"We need to have a place where we can have a habit of dialogue and an opportunity for dialogue," he said.

City Council President Dana Sande said he hasn't heard any recent calls for a diversity commission, though he said he's open to discussing one if the Grand Forks community feels it needs one.

"You know, we need to have an active community where people are engaged and want to make our community better," he said. "I think we're pretty fortunate that we do have a relatively active community."

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