Guest columnist Megan Paik: Northampton’s Human Rights Commission aims to amplify voices of residents

Published: 11/21/2019 10:59:17 AM
Modified: 11/21/2019 10:59:07 AM

Decades ago, I immigrated as a child to the United States, which promised free education, health care, good jobs and safety from crime. We were not refugees but wanted release from the political oppression and economic stagnation of a still-developing home country.

My family arrived with little money, networks and language abilities, and our years without citizenship were fraught with displacement and anxiety. Whenever another landlord denied extending our lease or threatened to report us to “the government” for overdue rent, we would scramble to find another apartment.

The youths I knew were similarly transient, moved frequently by their guardians’ changes of jobs and relationships to new homes and schools. I only remember them as a blur of faces, without last names and attached to tragedies of suicide, rape and addiction. They are the millions living in the shadows of poverty, fragmented by generational dysfunction and bound by a fear of authority figures and financial insecurity.

As a young adult working with undocumented immigrants, I came to understand their fears, trials and seeming lack of agency as a deprivation of universal human rights. As a set of laws and policies, human rights still remain abstract outside of intimate stories told by those facing daily atrocities of genocide, sexual violence, torture, trafficking, food and water insecurity, lack of and access to health care and education and livable wages.

But in personal narratives, often framed by news reports and social media, we can hear common echoes of pain and rage, nostalgia and regrets, courage and aspirations. No matter where humans originate, they share resilience and reserves of hope.

In every American municipality, we confront collective problems of domestic violence, racial profiling, homelessness and deportations, to name a few. Many cities have established human rights commissions of resident volunteers to educate the public about rights issues and to investigate complaints about unlawful harassment and treatment.

The Northampton Human Rights Commission has a particularly broad mandate “ ... to promote and advocate for human rights.” Like my fellow commissioners, I am moved to community service by my experiences with various forms of injustice. But we also celebrate progress of the human rights movement that is manifest in local actions.

Our small group strives to sponsor and implement public education and outreach events that are meaningful for our city residents. In past years, the HRC supported the municipal resolution to recognize the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day, championed the statewide vote to uphold protections for transgender people and backed the local high school students in the March for Our Lives.

More recently, we conducted public readings of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, led community conversations with Northampton Connects, and piloted a community survey to identify local issues of importance to our residents.

But challenges of the HRC are ongoing: The commission does not have the authority to investigate human rights violations; those reports are referred to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Moreover, frequent changes in our membership means that we have and will continue to revisit our objectives and reset our agenda.

The Commission is entering a new planning phase as our City Council experiences significant turnover. We have fresh opportunities to strengthen our connections to new councilors and leadership of other boards and social justice agencies. We will partner with those groups to raise awareness of human rights issues in educational access, safe and affordable housing, fair employment and public accommodations.

As we build relationships with decision-makers, we hope to more effectively represent the community concerns that surface from our listening circles and surveys and support local resolutions and ordinances with human rights dimensions.

The road map for the HRC is still taking shape, but I have faith that our gatherings in and out of city chambers will remain reflective, empathetic spaces that can amplify the voices of Northampton residents. Our group embraces diversity in race and ethnicity, gender, ability, nationality and citizenship status, age, and perspective; we actively welcome dynamic residents who wish to join us in facilitating and learning from community dialogues around human rights advocacy.

The Commission meetings are held on the fourth Wednesdays of each month at 5:30 p.m. in the Puchalski Municipal Building (although next week, we meet on Monday in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday). Applications for membership can be requested from the mayor’s office (mayor@northamptonma.gov).

Megan Paik is the newest member of the Northampton Human Rights Commission.


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