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Metro Human Relations Commission's new leader in favor of tried, true processes

Thursday, July 11, 2013 - 5:57 am

The Metropolitan Human Relations Commission has a new leader, but its focus remains the same.

On July 1, Dawn Cummings assumed the role as executive director for the commission, which is based in Room 680 of the Edwin J. Rousseau Centre, 1 E. Main St. Cummings replaces Cathy Serrano, who served as executive director for 13 months before resigning in May.

Cummings had served as staff attorney for the commission since 2007. She said that not only is she familiar with the processes of the group that seeks to educate about how to comply with various ordinances concerning equal rights and investigates complaints regarding the same, but she is also extremely comfortable with the people who serve as investigators and support staff.

"There's a good group of people who work here. They're professionals, and they do amazing work," Cummings said. "Quite honestly, they could probably run themselves."

Cummings, from Geneva, earned her bachelor's degree in political science from Ball State University and her law degree from Thomas Cooley Law School in Michigan. She said that she always wanted to use her law degree in the public sector, working in the tax division of the Indiana Attorney General's office prior to coming to Fort Wayne in 2007.

Metro combines law enforcement with education and outreach, Cummings explained, with types of discrimination falling into three groups: overt, covert and unconscious.

"In our line of work we don't see a lot of overt discrimination...because people know that they can get into trouble for saying that they are treating persons differently because of race, national origin, gender, religion or disability," Cummings said, though she said that overt discrimination is still performed by hate groups.

"What Metro mostly deals with is the covert discrimination -- those who try to hide it because they know it is illegal -- and also the unconscious discrimination," Cummings said, with the latter being the most dangerous, in her opinion. "Unconscious discrimination is that internal prejudice that we may or may not recognize that we have, these internal biases that influence our decisions every day."

Cummings stressed that Metro is a neutral fact-finding and law enforcement agency -- as a matter of fact, her previous role as staff attorney meant that she ensured that all investigations and mediation were in compliance with existing laws, not set for a predetermined outcome. Just because a complaint is filed doesn't mean laws have been broken, Cummings explained, and it is up to Metro's investigators to ensure that both sides in a complaint have the opportunity to explain their positions in detail.

The investigators -- Metro has eight -- then generate reports and recommendations about filed complaints that are submitted to commissioners who review the work.

"That's something people need to understand: Metro represents the public interest," Cummings said. "There is an appeal process, and there is the ability to settle a case or set up a hearing. But we're neutral in our fact-finding -- we investigate complaints, but that doesn't always mean discrimination is found."

Cummings said that outreach and training is also part of Metro's work and that the commission could always do more to help increase understanding of anti-discrimination laws.

"Sometimes people forget about us, but we're still relevant," Cummings said.