Interviews With Philip Avila And Ben Herrington
Following a year of heightened visibility, the Amherst Human Rights Commission (HRC) has grown both in membership and visibility, setting the commission up for a year of action. This was discussed in recent interviews with the co-chairs of the HRC, Philip Avila and Ben Herrington.
The two began by giving their own personal reasons for joining the commission. Avila explained that he moved to Amherst in 2018 from Southern California, and he was looking for a way to learn more about the town and to get involved with his new community. Because he was pursuing a Masters of Sociology with a focus in social justice, working with the HRC was a natural step for him to take. He joined in June of 2020 and became co-chair six months later. While he cares for all aspects of human rights, Avila explained that his three foci are food accessibility, racial justice, and immigration.
Herrington’s interest in the commission came from more local experience. He explained that his parents had both been commissioners on the Human Rights Commission in Hartford, and he had joined the Amherst commission after serving on Town Meeting. Currently, he is also a member of the Amherst School Committee and chair of the Amherst-Pelham School Committee.
Going into the background of the HRC, Avila explained that although there is little information on the official founding of the commission, the oldest meeting minutes he has been able to find date back to 2009. Herrington shared that the mission of the HRC is to engage residents on the issue of protecting human rights and to work with the Town Council to address issues related to human rights violations. According to the mission posted on the town website this includes “insur[ing] that no person, public or private, shall be denied any rights guaranteed pursuant to local, state, and/or federal law on the basis of race or color, gender, physical or mental ability, religion, socio-economic status, ethnic or national origin, affectional or sexual preference, lifestyle, or age for all persons coming within the Town of Amherst.”
Avila added that he sees the HRC as an important tool for residents to utilize when making their voices heard. By organizing cultural events — such as Kwanzaa, Martin Luther King Day, Latinx Heritage Month, and Juneteenth, all of which the HRC has been involved with organizing in the past — the commission can become a space for marginalized members of Amherst’s community to find each other.
According to Herrington, the current procedure that the HRC participates in when a human rights complaint is filed by a community member begins with the Department of Equity and Inclusion (DEI). The complaint is first reviewed by Pamela Nolan Young, the Director of DEI and Jennifer Moyston, the Assistant Director. If they find the complaint valid and warranted, they then pass it along to the HRC, who then work with the town to resolve it.
Avila shared that having the two departments work together on this is important because one recurring issue that comes up in complaints is racial profiling, often in relation to policing. “To the HRC’s benefit, we are the only commission in town where you can file a complaint (about public safety) and it won’t go to the police department,” he said. “I know that in particular, with the July 5 incident (See also here) that happened in town, the community was like, where do we go? What do we do? Who do we contact? What department do we talk to that is not the police department? A lot of families had faith in coming to the Human Rights Commission.” Avila stated that the HRC typically receives between four and six complaints per year, but he is not sure if this is because of lack of visibility when it comes to this process, or truly a lack of complaints.
When asked how the town can better equip the HRC to handle complaints, Herrington mentioned the lack of flexibility afforded to the commission in the complaint review process. Currently, members of the HRC do not receive the complaint before it is presented in a public meeting, where the filer’s identity is revealed. This can make some residents hesitant to file complaints, as currently the HRC cannot protect their identity. He said he would like for there to be some kind of mechanism with which the co-chairs can review the complaint privately before it is presented publicly.
In general, however, the creation of this process has been beneficial for the town. Avila said that in the past few years the town has started going in what he terms “the right direction.” He gave the example of the creation of the DEI Department, as well as the Community Responders for Equity, Safety & Service Department (CRESS), headed by Director Earl Miller. “I understand that it’s tiring to have the same conversation over and over and over again, and not be heard, though I think that that conversation is finally moving forward. It’s finally moving to a point where it’s like, “oh, some people are listening,” not everybody’s listening, but some people are in,” Avila explained.
Envisioning the future work of the HRC, both co-chairs said they would want to see the commission take on a bigger role within the town government. “I would love to see the HRC take a more active role in addressing the basic human rights of people in Amherst. We play a relatively unseen role in the town and more visibility and education of people in town (not just residents) as to what we do on the HRC would go a long way towards allowing us to be a more effective body,” Herrington said. Similarly, Avila shared that he would like to work with the bylaws of the HRC to give it more influence in the town government. He gave the example again of the July 5 incident, where he said the commission decided unanimously that human rights were violated, but had very little power to actually do anything about it.
Asked in closing about what they wished residents understood about the HRC, Herrington said he would want residents to understand that the cultural and educational events of the HRC are only one aspect of the work they do, the other part — actively working with the town to protect human rights — is the main scope of their work. Avila closed by explaining that the HRC works to create a judgment-free zone for residents to air their grievances. He believes that an important part of the mission is to make residents feel comfortable coming forward with complaints. “That’s why we hold space for public comment before and after all of our meetings, just to air out anything. We’re just gonna to sit there and we’re just gonna listen. And of course, if we think that there’s more that we can do we are going to do it. We’re gonna step up and we’re gonna help our community.”
The HRC holds monthly meetings on Zoom that are open to the public. The next meeting will be on February 15 at 6:30 P.M.