Originally impaneled in 1963, the Providence Human Relations Commission (PHRC) “celebrates and elevates Providence’s diverse cultural communities; facilitates digital workshops and trainings to support civil rights; ensures discrimination complaints are investigated and adjudicated properly; [and] advocates for policies that codify and protect the civil rights of Providence residents.”
One of the PHRC’s core initiatives is improving the city’s accessibility – both physically and virtually. In 2019 the commission collaborated with the Refugee Dream Center and AMOR (Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance) to create its Language Access Toolkit, a comprehensive resource for city departments, to ensure that everything from vital records to community events is accessible and inclusive to folks who are hearing impaired and/or whose primary language isn’t English.
The PHRC’s 2019 legislative agenda included bills tackling housing discrimination due to immigration status and legal non-employment income sources (e.g. Social Security); a bill protecting consumers from predatory payday loan practices that target lower income communities; and bills addressing barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated individuals. Unfortunately, their bills died in committee during last year’s raucous legislative session, but the PHRC has worked to reintroduce several bills this year.
For 17 years, the PHRC has held its signature event, Providence’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall of Fame Awards, to recognize community members who exemplify “the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to acceptance, social justice, civil rights, and equality.” The Commission also co-sponsors the city’s observance of the Transgender Day of Remembrance that honors the memory of trans and gender-diverse folks who lost their lives to bigotry and violence.
This year, the Commission has a new executive director, Andi Wheeler, who has worked in the field of equity and advocacy since 2005 in roles ranging from community organizer for LGBTQIA+ concerns including marriage equality, transgender nondiscrimination protections, and anti-bullying legislation, to electoral consultant and campaign manager on local, state, and federal campaigns. Wheeler views their current role as facilitator of the PHRC and the Providence community’s shared vision of a more equitable Providence. Their work is centered on collaborating with community members, community organizations, and working across City Departments to develop and implement targeted initiatives and policies. Wheeler shared their vision for moving the PHRC forward.
Options: What are some ways in which the PHRC has improved accessibility in Providence?
Wheeler: The PHRC has done a tremendous job in defining what those barriers to access are and who are most impacted. This has been through a variety of methods, including listening to the concerns of people who have reported it and researching best practices in other communities. Though they seem like small adjustments, the addition of things like door stops and a new wheelchair lift, has made our space more accessible for all people to participate in. We continuously engage [the] community in the initiative and policies we take part in, to ensure that they are equitable and accessible to all.
Options: What are some ways in which the city of Providence has utilized the toolkit since the PHRC rolled it out in summer 2019?
Wheeler: The commission has been working hard to expand the Language Access Toolkit not just to increase language access, but to also establish an intersectional framework that takes into account diverse communities. Since it was first developed in 2019, we have added sections on LGBTQIA+, disability access, and aging population concerns. This work provided my colleagues in city government not only practical tools to engage our diverse community, but new ways of thinking so that we're constantly working together to innovate for greater access.
Options: What did you learn from partnering with Refugee Resettlement Support Network and AMOR RI?
Wheeler: AMOR and the Refugee Resettlement Support Network have been instrumental in the language access portion of the toolkit. These partnerships have allowed for a safe and inclusive space to do the hard work of collaborating with community groups and incorporating their feedback into our policies. In my experience, the process of developing the toolkit was just as important as access to the toolkit itself…. I am planning follow-up programming, including hosting trainings with AMOR, to highlight how to be an ethical and effective translator.
Options: The Commission’s 2019 legislative agenda was impressive. What were some of the difficulties in getting bills passed last year? Do you feel optimistic about the bills that have been reintroduced?
Wheeler: Sometimes progress moves slower than needed. As Director, I am committed to working with the Commission in staying the course on the legislation we have continued to advocate for and that is because the community is equally dedicated to this work. Regardless of how bills were left at the end of each legislative session, with every year we continue to build upon past efforts and incorporate more community involvement to build a stronger, more cohesive message.
Options: What do you hope to see the PHRC achieve in the coming year?
Wheeler: The Providence Human Relations Commission has changed and evolved over time and I want the work we're doing to promote long-term gains for the community. As director, I am working to create a 3-5 year strategic plan to advocate, educate, celebrate, and enforce ending discrimination and oppression. Together with the Commission, this plan aims to foster a culture of collaborative governance with the community to meet its changing needs.
Options: What can Providence/RI residents do to support the PHRC’s legislative efforts?
Wheeler: The only way we get this done is if we do it together, and I encourage anyone that may be interested in learning or doing more to reach out to me or a member of the Commission to see how they can get involved in our work. [Email firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Options: How do Providence residents benefit from PHRC sponsored events?
Wheeler: A core value of the Commission is restoring the power of government back to communities who have been historically disenfranchised. There can be power in reclaiming City Hall, there can be power in reclaiming your community's accomplishments, and there can be power in using government to make sure your community is recognized. Holding that space for people who have historically had power used against them is critical to not only cultural survival, but also the future of thriving communities in Providence.
In addition to Director Wheeler, we spoke with PHRC Commissioner Kai Lo Muscio, who emceed the 2019 Transgender Day of Remembrance and the 2020 MLK Awards. LoMuscio reflected on his experience hosting this event, as well as the commission’s value to the Providence community.
Options: What PHRC accomplishments are you personally most proud of?
Commissioner LoMuscio: I have enjoyed the opportunities that I have had to participate in initiatives on behalf of the PHRC. For instance, in 2019, AS220 got the community together to have conversations on how to make public art spaces and events more accessible to everybody in the city. This was part of AS220’s All Access Campaign. I shared my experience as a queer/trans person with an invisible disability and talked about navigating event spaces (both as a performer and as an attendee). This was a forum to discuss how we could change things for the better as a community. I also had a chance to describe what our commission does and how the audience could contact us if they wanted to file a complaint of unlawful discrimination. The PHRC has city, state, and federal resources we can point people to depending on the type of complaint. We also make recommendations to the mayor based on the data from these phone calls.
Options: What have you personally found meaningful about PHRC’s sponsored community events?
LoMuscio: The Transgender flag raising during the month of November at City Hall is a demonstration that Trans and gender-nonconforming people are a recognized part of the Providence community. Being able to sponsor that event along with a recognition of the Trans Day of Remembrance is one of the things that we do that I really connect with on a personal level. Walking through Kennedy Plaza the first time that flag was up there was a great feeling.
(NOTE: Wheeler’s and LoMuscio’s responses represent their personal perspective, rather than the Providence Human Relations Commission as a whole.)