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Human rights group raises visibility

BY LAUREL BLACKlblack@paducahsun.com

Despite its weighty title, the Paducah Human Rights Commission tends to work quietly.

Its cases aren't often featured in the headlines, and some Paducah residents may still be unaware that this month marks its 50th year of service.

In some ways, that's a plus.

When the commission can resolve a discrimination complaint, as it usually does, without resorting to litigation or the local courts, it's considered a success, said Andrew Coiner, a Paducah attorney who served as chairman of the commission.

On the flip side, the organization itself needs and deserves recognition, he said. The fact that it has started to receive that recognition marks one of the more significant changes former commissioners have seen during the board's five decades.

"The last five to 10 years, (the commission) has become more visible in the community. I believe that's a good thing," Coiner said.

He cited the annual Fair Housing Luncheon - which just celebrated its 17th year - and the 8-year-old Evening of Performance as two important outreach projects the commission has undertaken.

Since taking the reins as chairwoman in 2012, the Rev. Bernice Belt has continued to promote these programs. She's also worked to inform and involve more of the community in the board's mission. That includes reaching out to other organizations with similar goals, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Belt said.

"Education is the key, and community relations is the key, to improving the human rights commission," she said.

 One of the commission's newer initiatives, an internship for high school students, has brought the youngest commissioner in its history - 19-year-old Rafiel Banks - to the board, Belt said. Other initiatives include a public television show called "PHRC: Raising the Standard," which addresses issues from bullying to human trafficking.

The nine-member volunteer board mediates and resolves complaints of discrimination related to race, color, sex, national origin, disability, sexual orientation and age. The commission was established under the leadership of Mayor Thomas Wilson on May 26, 1964 - a little over a month before the federal Civil Rights Act was enacted.

Paducah Mayor Gayle Kaler praised Belt for taking a proactive approach and turning more attention to the commission's work.

"There's still discrimination," Kaler said. "Even though it's against the law, I know it still happens, so that's what is so important about the human rights commission."

As for Belt, she hopes to build on the progress she feels the Paducah Human Rights Commission has made during her tenure.

"The sky is the limit for positive initiatives," she said. "There's a whole lot that's still to be done, and it's going to take all of us to do it."

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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