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2001 Annual Meeting

The Orange County Human Relations Commission: Managing Diversity and Transformation

by Dennis J. Downey, University of California-Irvine

In the March issue of Footnotes, readers learned from Fred Smoller and Roberta Lessor’s article of the many dramatic social changes experienced by Orange County in recent decades. None has been more remarkable than its demographic shifts: in 1970, the county’s Latino and Asian American populations were 10 percent and 1 percent, respectively; by the 2000 census, those numbers have risen to 31 percent and 14 percent. The county has clearly become a region of remarkable diversity—notwithstanding the continuing underrepresentation of African Americans (less than 2 percent). The Orange County Human Relations Commission (OCHRC) has been at the forefront in responding to the challenges that have arisen with the demographic transformation, to ensure that it enriches rather than divides communities.

The OCHRC was created by the county Board of Supervisors in 1971 in response to chronic law enforcement conflicts with African American and Latino communities. Similar HRCs were established in many American cities during the Civil Rights era. Generally, they combine broad mandates to improve interethnic relations with scant resources or official powers, and consequently are often mostly symbolic.

Commissioners and staff (a core of about six from the mid-‘70s until the early ’90s) brought extensive experience in community activism to the commission, and were often portrayed in the press as “rabble-rousers.” Nevertheless, they were able to establish the commission as an advocate for poor and minority communities, and became the agency the press and the community look to when issues of interethnic conflict peaked.

Leaders were forced to act strategically given the tensions inherent in their position as a public entity seeking to challenge the status quo. That became more difficult in the political context of the 1980s. They also recognized that they needed to establish strong relationships with county institutions in order to effectively mediate solutions for their constituents. That recognition, combined with the need for stability and security, prompted leaders to realign the commission during the 1980s. The most dramatic realignment was the cultivation of a partnership with law enforcement—previously the commission’s strongest opponents—that facilitated inside influence on training programs and the development of community policing techniques.

In the 1990s, the OCHRC faced renewed threats to its existence. The recession of the early 1990s coupled with the fallout from the county bankruptcy brought a series of dramatic cuts in public support. By 1991, the commission had been pared down to the director’s position, with two additional positions funded through a public grant. At that point, the Executive Director, Rusty Kennedy (an ex-organizer for the United Farmworkers), and a group of supporters with business and political connections, joined together to create a parallel private structure. In 1991, the OC Human Relations Council was established as a private non-profit organization to develop and implement human relations programs, and shortly thereafter a Community Partners group was established for the purpose of raising those funds. Private funding is now the primary support for their programs, bringing in well over one million dollars annually, and supporting some two dozen staff members. That is more than four times the level of public funding, including grants for specific service provisions.

The “public-private” OCHRC now has programs in four fully-developed program components in the areas of school interethnic relations, leadership development, community-building initiatives, and alternative dispute resolution. Their most visible work has been around hate crimes (within the community-building component). They have organized a “hate crimes network,” track those crimes and present an annual report, and have developed a multi-media public education program.

The OCHRC’s largest component is the school inter-ethnic relations program, which is now integrated into 40 schools throughout the county. The programs work closely with students to teach them about issues of diversity, conflict resolution techniques, and leadership development. The OCHRC also sponsors annual day-long conferences for high school and junior high school students called “Walk in My Shoes,” where students spend a full day with their peers from other county schools attending sessions and discussing issues of diversity.

The broad menu of programs made possible by the private resources has given the OCHRC high visibility as a leader in addressing the challenges of demographic transformation. Their success in engineering organizational expansion in the face of declining public budgets has made it a model for other HR organizations statewide. The California Association of Human Relations Organizations touted their success as an example of “the entrepreneurial spirit in human relations/rights”—a spirit evident in Kennedy’s conception of his own role as “marketing a line of products.”

For those who see social movements such as the Civil Rights movement as the greatest model for social change, the private-sector commercial orientation to the management of human relations grates uncomfortably. But students of social movements (as well as political and organizational sociology) will be familiar with the exigencies of resource dependency and organizational adaptation that forced organizational leaders to make hard choices: to maintain the adversarial approaches characteristic of their earlier years would have meant certain extinction.

Certainly there have been sacrifices; some former commissioners have voiced concerns about a creeping conservatism and the loss of links to grassroots activists. In spite of sacrifices, the organization continues to play a valuable role for the county by providing a forward-looking vision for complex social transformations.

The generalizability of the OCHRC’s public-private model may be limited, given the distinctive dynamics of the county. Orange County’s affluence and economic strength make it more able to support such endeavors, increasingly so during an era of unprecedented economic expansion. Moreover, the unique demography (predominantly Latino and Asian American rather than African American) makes it possible to market diversity as a source of global economic competitiveness, and minimizes issues of interethnic conflict that have traditionally been most intractable.

Notwithstanding reservations and limitations, the OCHRC provides a fascinating model of an institution that has been able to expand and develop innovative programs in the field of inter-ethnic relations, in an era when funding for such services has all too often faced crushing declines.

For those interested in learning more about the OCHRC, Rusty Kennedy, Executive Director, will be speaking at a local spotlights panel at the Anaheim conference (Session 417 on Monday, August 20 at 4:30 p.m.).