The city of Corvallis is gathering information on a role it could play in bias response and hate crime efforts.
The city requested that its King Legacy Advisory Board develop options. The board presented a preliminary proposal that was included in the packet for Thursday’s City Council work session, and Chris Lenn, the chair of the board, was on hand to discuss it.
But at this point councilors seem more interested in the information-gathering aspect of the issue, and the bulk of the 70 minutes they devoted to the topic consisted of hearing from two other presenters, Katie Babits of the city of Eugene, and Scott Vignos of Oregon State University.
Babits is the human rights and equity analyst with Eugene. She is a member of the city’s Office of Human Rights & Neighborhood Involvement which, given that it has five staffers, shows Eugene is a few steps ahead of Corvallis on this process.
But there are similarities, too. Babits noted that “Eugene is 85 percent white and because hate crimes aren’t happening to them they think they aren’t happening at all.” You could insert Corvallis into the beginning of that quote.
Vignos works closer to home in OSU’s Office of Institutional Diversity, which has been operating a bias response team for about two years. Vignos also played a key role in the university’s work on renaming buildings, and he serves as a member of Corvallis’ Community Involvement and Diversity Advisory Board.
“We needed a more effective way to respond to hate and bias incidents our students and staff were experiencing,” Vignos said of the formation of the bias response team. Vignos also noted the broader picture in town by saying that the “same things that are happening at OSU you are seeing in the rest of the community.”
Vignos said that the most common issues the office faces are posters and graffiti, at the rate of about 100 per school year.
“It requires low effort and has high impact and much of it is protected speech,” Vignos said, adding that social media and comment sections on web pages also produce some of the same behavior.
Vignos’ office has no disciplinary powers per se, with severe cases referred either to the university’s student conduct office or law enforcement.
“And it’s OK to say we’re still working on it,” he said. “We have reports that come in where we can’t do too much. We don’t know who is responsible. We only can provide the caring and some resources. And a lot of people seem really satisfied with that. ‘They responded to my email, and I talked to someone and they listened to me.’ ”
Lenn said that getting to that point of buy-in will be a challenge for the city.
“Corvallis needs to build trust so that people can feel good about coming forward,” he said. “How do we respond when we know a thing? How do you put a face to the name of this?”
“This is a first step,” said Mayor Biff Traber. “I hope we can learn some things from what the university and Eugene have done. What can we do? It’s going to take some ongoing work by the council, and this work is very important.”
Lenn’s letter to the council notes five possible levels of city involvement that could include analyzing data, enforcement and outreach. All of the options would require city staff and other resources.
There was no discussion of the possible budget challenges of future council work on the issue. Thursday was a day for discussing the nature of the problems and reviewing how others have approached them. Counting the beans will come later.