By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Jennifer Ortiz, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice will join New Albany’s Human Rights Commission.
First established in the early 1970s, the HRC is a forum whose mission is “to uphold equal opportunity for education, employment and housing for all New Albany residents while also weighing all general human rights complaints.”
Ortiz joins Cliff Staten, professor of political science and international studies, as the second IU Southeast faculty member to sit on the five-member Commission.
In its initial form, the Commission was set up to receive and consider complaints, and pass on recommendations for action or non-action to city government.
After a period of inactivity, the Commission was relaunched in the 2012 at the urging of New Albany City Councilman Greg Phipps, who is also senior lecturer in sociology at IU Southeast.
Phipps has spent most of his life in New Albany, and earned a bachelors degree from IU Southeast in sociology. This was the beginning of his life in local government. He served on the Board of Zoning Appeals for nine years before being elected to the City Council.
“I credit it all to sociology,” Phipps said. “When I went to college and received sociological training, I became much more aware of diversity and the impact of both individual and institutional discrimination in society.”
Phipps recommended expanding the ordinance to ban discrimination in employment, education, housing and public accommodations based on race, religion, color, sex, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran or military status, or disability.
In part, this was to update the ordinance, which had been created before the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In part, it was a response to New Albany’s growing diversity.
At the time, New Albany was one of only seven municipalities in Indiana to ensure nondiscrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.
In her new role, Ortiz intends to help the HRC become more well known.
“Although the commission was created to respond to complaints of discrimination, I think it is equally important to educate people about the variety of cultures that exist in New Albany,” Ortiz said.
To that end, she is developing ideas for events to commemorate and celebrate various diversity holidays and remembrance days.
This effort also has a practical application that speaks to the commission’s more focused intent.
“Because many people don’t know that the commission exists, it is possible that there are incidents that go unreported,” Ortiz said. “If we don’t know what the problems are, we can’t address them.”
While New Albany is considered generally welcoming, it is not immune to state trends. In 2016, there were 6,121 reported incidents of discrimination involving 7,615 individual victims in Indiana alone, according to statistics released by the Uniform Crime Reporting Program and cited in the News and Tribune.
Ortiz has herself experienced and witnessed racist and sexist behavior since making the city her home three years ago, giving her involvement a special relevance.
“I want to do everything in my power to ensure that other people feel like they have a mechanism for righting injustices,” Ortiz said. “As an openly pansexual, Latinx woman, I am proud to serve on a progressive commission whose mission it is to address all forms of discrimination.”
For his part, Phipps is gratified to see the commission envisioning proactive promotional steps to “show that New Albany is a welcoming, diverse, tolerant and accepting community.”