Nonprofit Spotlight: Sioux City Human Rights Commission

The Sioux City Human Rights Commission was formed in 1963. It is an impartial government agency that primarily investigations allegations of discrimination, and educates the public through events that promote diversity and the elimination of discrimination.

The Iowa Civil Rights Act requires every city with a population of more than 29,000 to have an independent commission in order to further its goals. The commission is represented by 11 citizen Commissioners appointed by the City Council. The Sioux City Human Rights Commission currently has three full-time staff, one part-time secretary, and four AmeriCorps Vista Volunteers. 

The Sioux City Human Rights Commission may only investigate incidents of alleged discrimination that have occurred within the last 300 days for everything but housing (which is one year). The incident must have also taken place within Sioux City. The areas in which complaints may be filed are employment, public accommodations, housing, education, and credit. 

All discriminatory incidents must be categorized as one of Iowa’s 12 protected classes:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion / Creed
  • Sexual Orientation
  • National Origin
  • Age (in employment and credit)
  • Disability (mental or physical)
  • Marital Status (in credit)
  • Familial Status (Families with Children) (in housing and credit)
  • Sex
  • Gender Identity
  • Pregnancy (in employment)
  • Retaliation

The Executive Director of the Sioux City Human Rights Commission is Karen Mackey. She was kind enough to sit down with Siouxland Magazine and explain what the commission does, and what to expect if you need their services. 

“We basically have two mandates. We are a law enforcement agency. We enforce civil rights laws. We do this by taking allegations from parties and then investigating those allegations. We also educate people regarding diversity issues in our community. We have amazing diversity in Sioux City, but we don’t always realize that because we’re in it every day,” said Mackey.

First let’s explore the law enforcement facet of the commission. One thing the commission is not is an advocate for people, which understanding that at times may be difficult.

“We are a neutral fact finder. Someone comes in with a complaint, they file a written allegation, and then we investigate it. We go where the facts take us. We are a free service, but we are neutral. We do not take either side in a complaint,” stated Mackey.

What should you do if you feel you’ve been discriminated against in some capacity?

“If you think you’ve been discriminated against, the best thing to do is to contact us. Either stop by our office at City Hall. We’re on the fourth floor, room 410, or call us, or email us. Each situation is so fact dependent. Sometimes people don’t realize that they are being discriminated against. Or they know that what’s happening is improper, but they have so much shame that they don’t want to talk about it. An example of that would be being sexually harassed.” 

What happens once a person contacts you and gives you their specific information? Do you handle everything at the Commission yourself, or do you have to involve other agencies at different times?

“We have trained people on staff who know how to ask the correct questions to get those facts. However, we also try to do all of our work to be informed that everyone is subjected to trauma in multiple different ways. We try to be very empathetic; we listen to people’s stories in a non-judgmental fashion. We’re able to listen to that, and there’s been many times, though, when we’re dealing with someone that it’s clear they need to do more than tell their story to us or file a complaint. Sometimes we refer people to the Sioux City Police Department because of what has happened to them. Other times, we refer people to mental health services within the community because they really need to have someone that they can talk to more than once or twice. Someone they can see therapeutically for a while. So, we encourage that and really try to give people space where they can think about that in a non-shameful way. Everyone needs that kind of help at some point in their life,” said Mackay.

The other facet of the commission is education, an area that continues to grow and expand.

“We have a variety of programming. Sometimes they are a forum, and sometimes they are workshops. One of the things we do every April is a fair housing workshop. April is fair housing awareness month, we’ll conduct a workshop that is specifically for landlords and property managers to learn about the best practices, and also what things are inappropriate and illegal to do,” said Mackay.

The Siouxland area has many smaller tenant landlords, they don’t own large properties. Often when they make a mistake, they have a complaint filed against them. Usually, the root of the problem turns out to be that they did not understand the legal aspects of the problem.

“We try to teach them the legal and correct way to deal with things. We offer that training. We also try to train the tenants to explain their rights and responsibilities as a tenant. One of the publications we have is the Guide to Renting in Sioux City. That gives people some ideas about best practices when renting in Sioux City,” explained Mackey.

When it comes to the educational aspect of the Commission, one of the things they do is host the Faces of Siouxland Multicultural Fair.

“We host this event every year. Pre-COVID, we had nearly 3,000 people attend. The 2023 fair will be held Sunday, March 12, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Siouxland Convention Center. It is an amazing event!” said Mackey. “We also host the Pride Festival, Students Promoting Equality, and Universal Human Rights Day.”

The Commission also participates in the Asian Festival, Juneteenth Celebration, Africa Night Festival, the Unity in the Community picnic, Neighborhood Network’s Family Fun Night, as well as the National Night Out events in Sioux City.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have some great summer interns who during the summer then really get out in the community and do pop-up events, and attend anything and everything they can to help promote the commission. They hand out a lot of SWAG (promotional materials for the organization), and the good thing about that is those items have our phone number on them, or our website. Then people have a way to contact us if they need to. This isn’t a one-size fits all type of situation. We can’t help people until we’ve been able to listen to them and hear their story. We want people to contact us if they have a concern. Then we can talk through with them what’s going on, and then give them their options on how to deal with it. They’re the driver of how to proceed with this. They can file a complaint, or not. That is their choice, but at least then they know that they do have that option. Some education may need to take place with the two parties, but once it does, then it (the issue) will probably never happen again,” said MacKay.

To hear more of the conversation about what the Sioux City Human Rights Commission is, turn in to Siouxland Magazine’s Nonprofit Spotlight on Facebook.

If you have a concern you want to discuss with the Human Rights Commission, they can be contacted at (712) 279-6985, they are located at the City Hall Building, the fourth floor, room 410, or visit their website at: Sioux-City-org and click on their listing.

By Amy Buster

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