Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Battling Bias: Community Responders Network offers support for victims of discrimination.

Screenshot 2014-03-30 10.59.40It hasn’t been easy for American Muslims since 9/11.

Samia Malik, a central Pennsylvania community activist, is aware of the looks of fear that people give her, of the doors closed in her face and incidents that affected her kids when they were in college.

But things came to a head in 2008. Before the presidential election, millions of free copies of a DVD called “Obsession” were mailed to people. The film “claimed that all Muslims are against America and the west,” Malik said.

Shortly afterward, a chemical irritant was sprayed inside a Dayton, Ohio, mosque, afflicting children whose parents were praying nearby. Then someone set a fire outside the Malik house, though the family wasn’t sure this was connected.

Malik turned to other activists she knew, among them Margee Koistra and the Rev. Sandy Strauss—both serving on the peacemaking committee of Market Square Presbyterian Church.        

They agreed that something needed to be done, and the Community Responders Network was born.

The non-profit organization is comprised of a coalition of local leaders and concerned citizens seeking to build a stronger, more inclusive community in central Pennsylvania by educating people about, preventing and responding to instances of bias and intolerance based on such personal characteristics as religion, race, gender, age or sexual orientation.  

The network provides support, information and referral to services to the victims of a hate crime or incident of bias. It also aims to serve as a “moral voice,” reinforcing the message that intolerance is not acceptable.

Members of the Community Responders Network represent a variety of faith communities, non-profit organizations, state and county governments, as well as YWCAs. Its administrative home is at the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg, where its volunteer members meet about once a month.

The network has been busy. One incident under investigation concerns a middle-aged African-American woman who was stopped by a police officer because the windows of her car were tinted, which is illegal in Pennsylvania.  She explained her unfamiliarity with the law, and the officer seemed satisfied.

But then two other officers from another municipality, in an unmarked car, stopped by.

“It was an exacerbation of the situation already resolved by the first officer,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “I felt it was overkill and filed a complaint. It was very intimidating. I felt it was racial profiling.”

There is also the case of a midget football game in which a primarily white team shouted racial slurs at a primarily African-American one. The Community Responders Network is helping to provide guidelines for behavior for players, coaches, officials, cheerleaders and fans.

“We’re working with the league to beef up policies and procedures,” said Amanda Arbour, racial justice development specialist at the YWCA and liaison to the network. “We felt the incident had not been adequately addressed.”

A classic situation involving bias is when a family of a different race, religion or ethnicity than the majority moves into a neighborhood. Suddenly, there is hate graffiti or slashed tires, explained Ann Van Dyke, a long-time executive of the state Human Relations Commission who now volunteers for the network.

“Law enforcement may do what it can, but the family is often left shaking in its boots, and it’s often hard to prove who did these things,” Van Dyke said. “Moreover, many incidents go unreported.”

Van Dyke helped the network compose a manual subtitled, “A Guide to Engaging the Community in Prevention and Response to Intolerance, “ which was updated in July.

The manual includes a “flow chart” of procedures of how community organizations and citizens can respond to hate and bias incidents, said Arbour.

In addition to its coordinating committee, the network has a rapid response team to help community members who feel they have been targeted, as well as a prevention and education team, which strives to address the root causes of intolerance.

The network will be working with local school districts since intolerance “starts at a young age,” said Koistra, chair of the coordinating committee.

“We’re a citizens group,” she added. “The Human Relations Commission follows through, but not all incidents come to their attention. We needed a way for ordinary citizens to work together in a supportive way. “

The network does inform the Human Relations Commission and, if appropriate, the local police—which both track trends of hate crimes and incidents. “We try not to step on toes but to be collaborative,” said Koistra.  

Carl Choper, chair of the Interfaith Alliance of Pennsylvania and rabbi at the Jewish Home of Greater Harrisburg, has been involved with the network from the beginning.

“It offered a way to have a united response when hate incidents happen,” he said.

Some of the tension that develops in communities between perceived “insiders and outsiders” is “beyond our control, but the silence of people about the incidents is not beyond our control,” Choper said. “We have to speak out early and make the community inhospitable to hate.”

Part of the Community Responders Network’s mission is to make itself and its work better known. The organization recently enhanced its website and is using social media more. It’s trying to increase the involvement of faith groups, as well as LGBT and minority communities.

The network hopes the number of victims who are willing to report incidents will increase. To assist that effort, it held two informational events last spring for the community, which attracted more than 50 people. Similar events may be held again this year.  

Most people who feel they have been targeted come to the Community Responders Network through word of mouth or because they personally know a network volunteer. But community members also can reach the network through the CONTACT Helpline, 717-652-4400, which will refer them to an individual on call from the network.

For more information, visit The YWCA of Greater Harrisburg is located at 1101 Market St., Harrisburg, 717-234-7931. 

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