Durango deals with racial tension
Local groups and individuals credited with ‘excellent work’

Although on the surface it may look idyllic, Durango, home to large Latino, white and American Indian populations, has its fair share of racial tension and discrimination. However, in recent months members of various community groups as well as Fort Lewis College, the Durango City Council and Durango School District 9-R have stepped up efforts to address the problem. Many say the probelm stems from misconceptions and a lack of education and understanding./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Plenty of anecdotes from minorities expose racial discrimination in La Plata County. While these anecdotes paint a picture of struggle, organizations working to combat the problem paint a picture of hope.

In recent months, members of various community groups have stepped up their efforts to address discrimination by vowing to educate residents about the need for cultural tolerance and sensitivity. When the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission held a public hearing in Durango last spring, residents described a multitude of discrimination issues that eventually led commissioners to urge community leaders to get proactive. Commissioners feel such issues are best addressed on a local level so they left with a message: Get going.

John Dulles, director of the Civil Rights Commission, says his board only wants to act in an advisory capacity instead of forcing out-of-area mandates on local residents. He's hopeful that county leaders will remain responsive.

"The discrimination issues still exist since we visited, but I had a sense of good strong leadership in the community. There are many people doing excellent work," Dulles says.

Achieving diversity on campus

Along with the federal commission, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission is also providing local community leaders with guidance. The state commission is working especially close with Fort Lewis College, a target of claims by American Indian students. For at least a decade, these minority students have reported to commissioners that they feel unfairly treated in a variety of ways, including lack of available housing and bungled health care. Because these particular issues keep arising, Wendell Pryor, director of the state Civil Rights Commission, says he continues to have an "ongoing interest" in achieving diversity on campus.

Dave Eppich, assistant to the president at Fort Lewis College, said the college is working on ways to communicate better with its American Indian
students on issues of health care and
housing./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

In recent months, state civil rights commissioners have met with college officials to identify solutions. Dave Eppich, assistant to the president of external affairs, says that the college is working with federal housing agencies to identify funding to replace the dilapidated student family housing the college demolished four years ago. At the time of the demolition, American Indian students were upset that a housing option for the families was being taken away. They worried they were being unreasonably locked out.

Eppich says the students were immediately placed in single student housing on campus - an option that remains for American Indian student families to this day.

"Eleven families lived in single student housing during the winter semester and of those, nine were American Indian families," Eppich says.

Eppich adds that the college recognizes the need to replace the family housing, but receiving federal money for construction on state property is especially cumbersome. Still, he says the college is acting at the behest of the state commission to continue researching options.

The college is also increasing ways to communicate with American Indian students about how to receive medical treatment in the community. The setup is somewhat unique because American Indian students from any tribe may attend FLC without charge. However, they are obligated to pay student fees, one of which goes to fund the college's on-campus health-care clinic.

Eppich says in the past, there has been miscommunication about how the clinic operates and what American Indian students are required to do to get proper health care and be reimbursed by their tribes for any charges.

"It's largely been a matter of miscommunication," Eppich explains. "The students come here and don't realize what they need to do in some cases, and they end up getting caught in a bureaucratic entanglement."

This year, the college is providing American Indian students with more and better information on how the college runs the health-care clinic and how those operations interact with their own tribes. The increased communication and information flow is what Eppich sees as an important but simple fix.

"I think the most important thing to realize with discrimination issues is that we have to understand what peoples' perceptions are," he adds. "What's perceived is not always reality."

Teaching tolerance

Perceptions and understanding are also vital to organizations working in area school districts. Durango School District 9-R, which some residents often charge as not providing adequate or fair education for Hispanics has a long checklist of actions it will or continues to take to tackle discrimination.

Such actions include holding focus groups and youth summits, enforcing safety, and building skills of teachers so they are better able to handle bullying and racism. New for this school year will be the district's Task Force on Minority Student Achievement. Deb Uroda, district public information officer, explains that though the task force will focus primarily on improving achievement of Hispanic students, it also will make aim to curb racial intimidation so Hispanic students feel safe and welcome at school.

District leaders have also embraced a working relationship with the 4 Corners Safe Schools Coalition, a nonprofit community group. The coalition formed in 2002, shortly after a Farmington man fatally beat Fred Martinez, a transgendered Cortez teen-ager. Martinez' identity was a key factor in the incident and became a key issue for surrounding communities to study. Organizations and activists pleaded with community leaders to get involved in teaching tolerance.

Since then, the 4 Corners Safe Schools Coalition (4cSSC) has been energetically leading efforts to teach school students about the effects of bigotry and harassment.

"We especially want the kids to know that in the long term, these things can lead to violence," says Tecumseh Burnett, coalition director.

This fall, 4cSSC plans to conduct a pilot survey at Durango High School to determine how students deal with discrimination. The coalition, Burnett says, will use the results to instigate a series of student study 4 circles in which students will discuss how discrimination affects themselves, their peers and society.

In addition, Burnett says the coalition will continue to facilitate nonviolent communication training for the community and students. This training is based on models from the Center for Nonviolent Communication, a global organization based on the research and solutions offered by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. Essentially, the center provides resources for people to teach others how to communicate with compassion and resolve conflicts nonviolently.

Opening minds

Community endeavors are not limited to educational institutions. Los CompaF1eros, a local Hispanic advocacy group, continues to work on integrating Hispanics into the larger community. Its most recent success came when the Durango City Council agreed to adopt a resolution making the city a "safe zone" so that legal and illegal immigrants can communicate with the local government without fear of prejudice.

Corporal Dick Mullen, speaking for the La Plata County Sheriff's office, says his department has not implemented any new programs to specifically address racial profiling or intimidation at the county law level. He only briefly stated that the sheriff's office continues to enforce and advocate a long-term policy that prohibits such behavior and provides measures for grievances if it does happen.

Yet, no matter how universal task forces, summits and policies are, community leaders say that ultimately it's up to society, and especially adults, to rid communities of discrimination.

Uroda says that addressing racism and intolerance in local schools is "never-ending." She explains that each year school leaders deal with students from various backgrounds and teachers with their histories and attitudes. Given that, she says, racism won't disappear from schools until it disappears from the community.

Pryor, director of the state's Civil Rights Commission, agrees. He says the commission will soon approach city and county governments to enlist their participation in the battle against racism.

That process may continue for many decades because of the rapid population growth of La Plata County, says Sage Remington, a Southern Ute tribal elder and activist.

Because La Plata County has a strong Hispanic heritage and two American Indian reservations on its borders, there is a higher number of minorities here compared to other similar small towns in the West. As more outsiders make this area their home, they plant themselves in a milieu of cultural significance. Some of them, Remington says, need to be active in educating themselves and opening their minds.

"Some people bring their fortress with them when they move here," he explains. "They don't see or take the time to understand the history of these (minority) people, and so they keep their hearts locked and their minds closed."

Ultimately, Burnett says, this is a similar purpose of the 4cSSC. The only way the group can measure its success - and she believes this is the same for other groups as well - is if they get students, parents and community leaders involved in an ongoing and vigorous dialogue about discrimination.

"Our main goal is to stir the pot and get that going."





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