Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz served as the keynote speaker at a civil rights conference in Lenox Tuesday night.
The event was put together by Multicultural BRIDGE, an organization focused on cultural competence in the Berkshires and beyond. BRIDGE handed out its annual awards for community action. One went to Jeanet Ingalls of SHOUT OUT LOUD Productions, a media non-profit that raises awareness of sex trafficking.
“Just knowing that there are kids who have suffered what I have suffered, there are kids who will later struggle with the burden I now carry on my back, fuels my need to help,” said Ingalls.
As the first woman and Hispanic to serve as U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz delivered the keynote address.
“We are here as government and law enforcement, we are accessible to you, but also we are reaching out to you to help us keep you safe,” Ortiz said. “Because really public safety is not just the government’s job, but it’s all of our jobs to keep ourselves safe.”
A year after taking office in 2009, Ortiz created the Civil Rights Enforcement Team consisting of criminal and civil lawyers, victim advocates and outreach coordinators.
“I knew we wouldn’t have a tsunami of civil rights cases,” Ortiz said. “I knew that because we live in Massachusetts. We’re not in New Orleans or other parts of the country where I have colleagues who deal with a greater number of civil rights cases. But I still think that there are, in many different areas, peoples’ rights are being violated, but people aren’t coming forward and reporting it.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin O’Regan from the Springfield Office, which covers the commonwealth’s four western counties, explained the limitations law enforcement faces regarding hate speech.
“So no matter how mean-spirited, no matter how horrible, no matter how hateful speech is, it normally is protected unless it has a very specific and real threat,” explained O’Regan.
The panel discussion focused on equal educational opportunity and the frequently discussed school to prison pipeline, in which expelled students get in legal trouble later on. Studies have shown minority students are more likely to be expelled even if they represent a smaller portion of the student body. Panelist and Judge Harold Ramsey says it’s very hard to get out of the criminal justice system once you’re in it because access to scholarships and jobs is often cut off.
“There are no civil rights laws that I’m aware of that address those issues,” Ramsey said. “The best way, stay out of the criminal justice system. That’s what we have to implant in our young peoples’ head. Whether in school or out of school, they have to stay out of the criminal justice system.”
Ramsey, who is black, pointed out the disparity in Pittsfield Public Schools, whose student body is roughly 16 percent African American and Hispanic, but only two percent of its teachers are minorities.
“When I was growing up in a segregated school all of my teachers were African American,” Ramsey said. “I learned from them and they were great role models. You know what they said if you were failing, ‘Fail until you succeed.’ There was no giving up. You continue. They instilled that in all of us.”
In the audience was Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi, who also sits on the city’s school committee. Bianchi agrees there is a disparity of representation in both the schools and city workforce, but says the recently reconstituted affirmative action and human rights commissions along with other efforts can close the gap.
“It will take time, but obviously we can do a better job,” said Bianchi.
Bianchi added that 18 percent of the city’s new hires since 2013 have been minorities. In January the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education together released a “Dear Colleague” letter to schools describing best practices to maintain order while addressing the school to prison phenomenon, explaining that the Justice Department will step in if deemed necessary. Ortiz says having minorities holding high offices shouldn’t delude people into thinking there is no more racial struggle.
“We have I believe come a long way in this country when you see an African American president and attorney general, a Latina U.S. Attorney, but when you see what’s going on in different parts of this country, we still have a long way to go.”