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Department of Justice official speaks to Divided Community Project

Director of Community Relations Service Paul Monteiro highlights importance of local leaders

When the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service (CRS) is working at its best, the work often goes unnoticed.

“A win for CRS is you never heard we were there.” That was the central message from CRS Director Paul Monteiro, who spoke to the Divided Community Project (DCP) earlier this month.

The project, run through the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, offers resources, classes and direct assistance to local and university leaders to address polarizing issues in the community. Monteiro’s remarks closed a two-day national training held by the DCP in Columbus. Topics included advancing equity initiatives, engaging youth and de-escalation of conflicts at a local level.

CRS was created by Title X of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It assists state and local governments, private and public organizations, educational institutions, and community groups to resolve community-based conflicts stemming from issues related to race, color and national origin.

In 2009, with the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA), CRS’s jurisdiction expanded to the prevention of and response to violent hate crimes committed based on actual or perceived race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or disability. CRS’s voluntary, confidential and impartial conflict resolution services aim to assist all parties involved in a conflict to improve communication, promote problem-solving, improve collaboration and restore positive community relations.

Since its founding, CRS has worked with communities during historical moments like the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, the riots following the beating of Rodney King in 1992, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.

During a two-plus hour conversation with former Ohio Attorney General (and Ohio State emeritus professor and Moritz College dean) Nancy Rogers, Monteiro spoke about the importance of community relations during times of community crisis.

While the CRS provides facilitated dialogue, mediation, training and consultations, Monteiro said it is the people in the community who are the most valuable resource.

“You want a mechanism where you have actionable relationships, where you have some reservoir of trust with people,” he said. These local leaders can provide insights about a volatile situation and, just as importantly, vouch for CRS workers.

“Who does this person work with that I may know, someone who can vouch for me and for CRS, with people who’ve never heard of it? The Justice Department may be scary to them. So I work through that,” he said.

Monteiro answered questions from the audience about protests, the rise of misinformation and social media and the intersectional nature of many community crises. The most important thing a CRS facilitator can do, he said, is be authentic.

“The coin of the realm is authenticity,” he said. “The minute you think I’m talking to you because I need something from you, we’re done. We want to build in ways for a community we’re trying to work with to know that there’s no other agenda here. I’m being as transparent with you as I can be.”

It is authentic relationships with people on the ground to which Monteiro attributes any CRS successes – people like members of the DCP who are invested in their own neighborhoods and their own institutions. And so, at the end of his keynote, he gave out his cellphone number to the assembled crowd.

“You all are doing this work at a local level. I want best practices, people to know, organizations to be aware of, fault lines,” he said. “I want to steal ideas from you.”

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