Seeking and sharing what unites us

On human rights, and the county’s new director of the Human Rights Commission

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 3/31/21

MONTICELLO, NY — It doesn’t matter what we look like, how much we weigh, how much money we have or if we can walk.

Underneath it all, we are human, and helping us recognize that is …

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Seeking and sharing what unites us

On human rights, and the county’s new director of the Human Rights Commission

Posted

MONTICELLO, NY — It doesn’t matter what we look like, how much we weigh, how much money we have or if we can walk.

Underneath it all, we are human, and helping us recognize that is part of the work of the human rights commission (HRC) in Sullivan County. 

On March 1, Wurtsboro resident Adrienne Jensen took over as executive director of the HRC. Created in 2005 to help develop good relationships between communities in the county, the commission encourages respect and understanding between groups. They mediate. They work to resolve complaints of discrimination. 

The commission offers a lifeline in a time when the words “partisan divide” crop up with depressing regularity.

So, Jensen has begun her job by talking and listening to people—a lot of listening. “There are a lot of people who feel like their needs are not being met,” she said. 

Resolving that is another part of human rights work here, or maybe it’s a different aspect of the first. Sometimes the problem is crystal clear and the solution involves helping people listen to each other and understand. Other times, the issue is more complex. 

The work involves breaking through barriers to find a resolution.

“We have these laws that are not perfect,” Jensen said. They were created when the country was smaller, when the county itself was small and everyone knew everyone else. 

Times have changed, she said. We’ve grown from an era when other people were owned, when women, children and the poor could be abused with impunity, to a time when we acknowledge that as wrong. But the current challenge is understanding the fears and needs of people who have had different experiences. “We’re trying to merge these beliefs,” she said. Or, in other words: “How do we exist as a group intentionally deciding to live together?” 

That’s where Sullivan County’s approach to human rights comes in. If we can recognize shared humanity, we can begin to work together. 

Jensen has a background in law, mediation and public advocacy, all of which will help in the job ahead. And as someone who is multilingual (Spanish, French, Norwegian and sign language), her strong communication skills will help her reach out to people in the community who may have felt left out before. 

Helping those who’ve experienced discrimination is at the top of the job requirements, and Jensen talks about how that goes beyond skin color or gender. “People get discriminated against by how they earn money,” she said. Or if they don’t earn money. Whether they have teeth. Body shape. Accent. Where someone’s from. “It can affect us all across the board.” 

She muses that engaging in discrimination is a symptom of finding it difficult to see someone else as a human being. Or maybe it’s because we humans think in shorthand, complex humans and their complex behavior reduced to images and a word or two. Sometimes it’s just a misunderstanding or a failure to communicate.

Jensen’s job is to figure out what went wrong and help the people involved make it right again. “Complaints come in and I address them. Conversations might need to happen... I’d like to address [problems] before they become an issue.”

If it’s something her office doesn’t deal with, she’ll “do research and point them in another direction,” Jensen said. 

A nine-member commission is being formed to assist Jensen; each legislative district will recommend one member. 

And in the meantime, the work of human rights in Sullivan County goes on. Asking questions and listening deeply to the answers.

“The bigger question is, Do we matter? And that question is extended to everybody else... In the end, the way I view the role is as extended grace to the community.”

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