The PA Human Relations Commission: A mess that still needs cleaning
Since 2011, the committee has faced three discrimination lawsuits. While change has occurred, the NAACP in Harrisburg is now calling for the removal of three long-time members named in one of the cases.
“How ironic it is that the agency whose mission it is to eradicate discrimination in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has been found by a jury to have, itself, discriminated?”
It’s a question lawyer Charley Ganley asked after his client, Kevin “Kaaba” Brunson, was awarded $150,000 and $1 respectively for racial and sex discrimination in a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Human Relations Committee.
Brunson — who is a black man — spent 39 years as a member of the committee before putting his name in for the executive director position in 2011. He was eventually passed over for the position in favor of JoAnn Edwards, a white woman.
The decision was a new beginning for the committee, one that would be marked by the very social ills it is tasked with combating.
Brunson’s discrimination lawsuit was the second of three that would come against the committee after Edwards’ 2011 appointment.
In 2013, another candidate for executive director, Kathryn L. Waters, filed a federal lawsuit against the committee after receiving advice from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission to pursue legal action.
Waters’ lawsuit alleged that she and another black woman were unfairly passed over for Edwards, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. However, it set the stage for Brunson’s successful suit in 2015.
A central player in both Waters and Brunson’s lawsuits was then-committee chair Gerald Robinson. In 2016, Robinson was removed from the chairmanship after allegations of racism surfaced, but he retained a spot on the commission that he continues to hold to this day.
In Brunson’s lawsuit, Robinson is cited on two occasions as verbalizing a racial slur. After one instance, Brunson voiced his disapproval, which drew Robinson’s ire. He would later channel that ire into manipulating the outcome of the 2011 selection for executive director.
To get his way, Robinson threatened not to reappoint any committee member who didn’t back the selection of Edwards. Sure enough, court records from Brunson’s suit show that the three members of the committee who didn’t back Edwards — Sylvia Waters, J. Whyatt Mondesire and Daniel L. Woodall — all lost their spots on the committee during the 2014 selection cycle.
Those that did back Edwards were Raquel O. Yiengst, Joel Bolstein and Robinson himself. All three remain on the committee to this day, despite being determined in a court of law to have acted discriminatory in the selection process.
The final lawsuit leveled against the committee arrived in 2018 from Edwards herself. It came almost a full year after she suddenly resigned from her post and alleged more discrimination from the committee. Robinson is alleged to have criticized Edwards for running an “all-white girls club,” and other members are accused of discrimination for excluding her from meetings since discovering she was a lesbian after she married her partner.
Edwards’ case is still open, but the bigger question after all the lawsuits is can PA’s Committee on Human Relations really be trusted to do its job effectively when it can’t live up to its own standards?
The NAACP recently called for the removal of Bolstein, Yiengst and Robinson for their role in Brunson’s successful discrimination lawsuit, but officials from the state cited the recent work of the commission as evidence against the notion.
All three are among the most tenured members of the commission. Yiengst is the current vice chair of the committee and has been a member since 1978. Bolstein first joined the commission in 1999, was appointed interim-chair in 2016 (after Robinson’s removal) and chairman in 2018. Robinson was appointed in 2009.
Committee member Michael Hardiman has also been with the commission since 1979, but in various counsel positions. He also applied for the executive director position in 2011, but was disqualified for entering late. Brunson’s case argued that with Hardiman disqualified, rather than appoint the next most qualified candidate, the selection committee chose the next white one in JoAnne Edwards.
In addition to 2014, 2016 and 2018 also brought many new faces to the commission, but those at the center of its controversies still maintain their positions of power.
Committee members of the Human Relations Commission are appointed by the governor and approved by the state senate. They serve five-year terms and have no term limit. Yiengst’s term ended in December 2018, but she continues to serve until either reappointed by the governor, or a replacement is found. Robinson’s term ends in October 2019, and Bolstein’s in 2021.
In response to the NAACP’s demands, Bolstein has said he will not resign and that offers for a meeting have been ignored.