Besides the usual marching bands and parade floats, this year’s Alaska Day Festival in Sitka will have an unusual participant: The Alaska State Commission for Human Rights.
The commission, which investigates discrimination across the state, is renewing a tradition of public outreach that has been dormant for years, and Sitka is the first stop.
KCAW’s Robert Woolsey spoke with the commission’s executive director Rob Corbisier about the team he’s bringing to Sitka, and what they hope to accomplish.
Corbisier – Yes, myself, our commission secretary, and our admin officer are going to be there to support the meeting. I’m also going to be doing some outreach with the Trooper Academy on Monday morning, and then Tuesday for Alaska Day, since particularly, Alaska Day is a big celebration in Sitka. That’s why we thought this would be a good thing to dovetail in, to hold the commission meeting. But we’re doing a bit of an outreach event during the parade: We’re going to be set up in the Aspen lobby area, that’s right along the parade route. And we’re hoping that people can want to come in and talk to us a little bit about what they see going on in their community, you know, if they’ve experienced discrimination, if they’re interested in filing a complaint, that would be the better opportunity for them to come in and talk to us kind of in a smaller one on one, as opposed to during the public meeting. We are more than just a complaint-taking agency; the Alaska Supreme Court has said that we’re to be more than a complaint-taking agency. And that’s why we’re doing some of the outreach. But we’ve also got a series of guidance documents to help businesses, the business community, HR professionals, to avoid discrimination complaints. You know, if we can head off a case, by making sure that a business has good policies in place, then that’s great. That means we’re doing our job, too.
KCAW – Do you have categories of discrimination that your investigators look to when when they’re deciding whether something is actionable, or whether it’s frivolous? (For lack of a better word).
Corbisier – So it’s, it’s the things that you think of. It’s age, race, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity when it comes to employment cases only. Pregnancy, parenthood, physical or mental disability, religion, national origin, those are the protected classes. So we get jurisdiction over employment cases – that’s by far and away our biggest caseload. But we also have cases of places of public accommodation. And that statute is the one that is the genesis of the Human Rights Commission, I suppose you could say, and goes back to Elizabeth Peratrovich. And actually, her husband, Roy Peratrovich, was one of the very first commissioners for the Human Rights Commission when it was created in 1963.
KCAW – It strikes me as a process that ultimately leads to improvement in the system. I think that’s probably the the objective of all this is to make things better to reduce the amount of discrimination in Alaska? Isn’t that the mission statement of the Commission?
Corbisier – It is. And we’re not a punitive agency. Our goals are to educate. If we have a respondent that comes in and simply was not aware of the law, and didn’t know that they were required to provide a reasonable accommodation for a disability, the goal is to educate and prevent that from happening in the future. And we also want to make the complainant whole. So we’ve got the ability to get a damages award for a complainant. It’s kind of the same way you could do it by hiring a private attorney, but we are a state agency. And so this is just a service that is a component of what our mission is, and what our constitutional function is.
KCAW – I hope this experiment with the quasi-hybrid meeting and outreach and Sitka is successful. I hope this conversation has defanged it a little bit for people and that they’ll come out and see you, and I hope you’re okay with bagpipes because we got a lot of that going on in Sitka on Alaska Day.
Corbisier – I’ve been just a couple times. One of my best friends from high school lives there, and I’m really looking forward to this meeting.
Monday’s meeting of the State Commission for Human Rights in Sitka will begin at 1 p.m. October 17, in the Aspen Hotel, with public comment at 1:30. Two commissioners will be in-person at the meeting; the other four will attend via Zoom, as can members of the public. Public comment is scheduled for 1:30. If you wish to attend by Zoom, please contact the Commission office at 907-276-7474 by 4:30 p.m. on Friday, October 14, 2022, to make arrangements.
On Tuesday, October 18 – Alaska Day – the commission have a booth open in the lobby of the Aspen, along the parade route, for any individual or business who would like to learn more about preventing discrimination in Alaska.