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12/20/2002
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Diversity task force is called together by county exec's office
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

1220taskforce.jpg
photo courtesy of Ken Evans
Members of the Diversity Task Force. Back row: Rabbi Joshua Taub, Dick Kurtenbach, Rev. Roger Kube, George Noonan, Thomas Poe, and Lama Chuck Stanford. Front row: Sayed Hasan, Diane Hershberger, Katheryn Shields, Rita Valenciano & Rev. Vern Barnet.
KANSAS CITY - In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, increasing numbers of incidents of religious intolerance, especially against Arab-Americans, were reported across the nation. Locally, 14 incidents of intolerance were recorded in the first six weeks, according to the Kansas City Missouri Human Relations Department's bias crime records.

Many incidents went undocumented for fear of reprisals or a perception of nonsupport for further investigation, said Ken Evans, Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shield's public information officer.

To help combat future occurrences of bias crimes in Kansas City, Shields assembled a task force to examine issues of diversity, religious discrimination and hate crimes in the area. The 12-member task force was introduced at a press conference on Feb. 14, 2002, and asked to make its report to Shield's office by Sept. 10, 2002.

Members of the task force came from many different religious and social backgrounds. Chaired by the Rev. Vern Barnet of the Kansas City Interfaith Council, the group included representatives of the Buddhist, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Sikh and Jewish faith traditions and members of the Hispanic, African-American, and Gay and Lesbian communities. Diane Herschberger of Kansas City Harmony and Dick Kurtenbach of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri were also members.

Task force member George Noonan, chancellor of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, said the history of the diverse backgrounds of Catholics underscored the importance of learning about and accepting other faith and culture traditions. "Catholics have experienced prejudice themselves in the past; the anti-Irish bias in the 19th century is one example. We, as Catholics, need to encourage acceptance of diversity in Kansas City."

Three of the task force's meetings were designated as public listening sessions - at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, at the Islamic Center of Greater Kansas City and at the Antioch Branch of the Johnson County (Kansas) Library. A Web site was established in April to further enable public comment on issues of religious intolerance and bias crime.

The group met with Michael Tabman of the Federal Bureau of Investigation several times to discuss the Patriot Act and proposed national homeland security measures in relation to Kansas City.

The task force presented its findings and recommendations to Shields on Sept. 10. They confirmed that intolerance does exist in the Kansas City area and identified educational resources that are accessible to religious institutions, businesses and non-profit organizations, governmental agencies, the media and residents.

The task force called for three preventive actions: a crisis response plan, a public education plan, and a tolerance monitoring plan.

A crisis response plan would help ensure the safety and protect the civil and religious liberties of vulnerable ethnic and religious minority communities in the event of further terrorist activity at the local or national level.

Barnet, the task force chair, said the implementation of a response plan is a way of managing potential crises. The first step in its implementation would be the creation of a catalog of the religious institutions and educational facilities most vulnerable to harassment and violence. Other steps include creating directories of contact persons within those institutions to facilitate communication between law enforcement and government bodies and the religious institutions in the event of harassment or violence.

Barnet said the group recommended the involvement of the Mid-America Regional Council in tailoring national homeland security efforts to fit the needs of a Midwestern region. "Kansas City has different security concerns than a coastal city like New York or Los Angeles. We need to be ready, but not paranoid," he said.

A public education plan is the second recommendation of the diversity task force. Barnet said he expects to meet with Katheryn Shields early in 2003 to discuss the creation of a community education program about religious and cultural traditions to improve communication and appreciation of the traditions. The program would be targeted at non-profit organizations, the arts and education communities, and the media to promote tolerance.

Some of the steps suggested to implement the education recommendation include governments and law enforcement agencies declaring municipalities as "Hate Free Zones," and providing law enforcement officials with pocket-sized cards developed by the Anti-defamation League to help them determine if a bias crime occurred.

Finally, the task force proposed a tolerance monitoring plan as a way of "monitoring the state of tolerance in the greater Kansas City area."

One step in implementing such a plan would be the creation and dissemination of an annual report card on the state of tolerance in the area. Barnet said this would begin with a one-year study of religious and cultural traditions with law enforcement officials, the arts and education communities and media representatives.

Noonan and Barnet both said they were pleased with the report of the task force and hoped Shields's office would follow up on their recommendations.

Shields agreed to act on the task force's recommendations. "I have met with the [task force] members and agreed that we would proceed with the annual report card part of the proposal. I have also agreed to additional meetings with law enforcement, religious leaders, and emergency preparedness officials to discuss a crisis plan. We will be meeting with others in the education and arts community about the need to create a greater community awareness about bias," Shields said.

Barnet said he hoped to see visible signs that the task force recommendations were being implemented by Sept. 11, 2003.

END


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