WATERLOO -- When residents are treated unfairly based on the color of their skin, religion, sex or age, the Waterloo Commission on Human Rights has stood ready to react.
But under the steerage of Walter Reed Jr., the local anti-discrimination agency has taken its mission into the community and workplace, working proactively to attack problems before they occur and providing forums to build a greater appreciation for various cultures in one of the state's most diverse cities.
Reed, who served as the local commission's executive director for more than a decade, is spending his last day on the job today. The 51-year-old longtime Waterloo resident and community leader is moving to Des Moines after being appointed by Gov. Tom Vilsack to head the Iowa Department of Human Rights.
"I think he has done an excellent job, particularly providing leadership and outreach in the community," said Douglas Zhu, chairman of the local human rights commission. "He has demonstrated that leadership by taking the initiative and (starting) programs that have had a positive impact in the community."
Zhu was particularly pleased with the expansion of the commission's capacity to take on more discrimination investigations and the success of a "study circles" program which provided a structured atmosphere for residents to talk about race-related issues and problems in the community.
"The study circles and outreach programs have been the jewel of my administration here," said Reed. "We created a forum for residents to talk about tough community issues and come together on common ground without making it personal.
"There had been so many great opportunities started in the past, but they fizzled out because of personal attacks on everybody," he added. "People stopped showing up and great ideas went to waste."
Reed, a product of Waterloo schools after moving to the area at age 5, was working as an employment and training specialist at Area 7 Job Training and serving as volunteer president of the successful Gates Park Youth Basketball League when the city began seeking a new commission director following the death of James Boyd in 1994.
"I just felt it was an opportunity to further the work of human rights in Waterloo," Reed said of his decision to apply for the job. "I wanted to have an agency that had some authority behind it and deal with the practice of discrimination in the area … to try to uplift people."
While Reed's soft-spoken demeanor lacked some of the bluster of his predecessors. He was passionate about building the commission's stature in the community. And that included reaching out to those who had been targets of commission investigations in the past.
"One of the myths that we wanted to deal with was the perception among employers that the commission was out to get them," he said. "We were actually here to help them as well."
Today, Reed said many area businesses have realized the commission is a resource, utilizing the agency to review personnel policies or to provide diversity training for employees.
"I feel really good about that," he said. "That was a marked change in perception about what the commission was doing and what we were here for."
At the same time he was working to make the commission proactive, Reed was building its ability to react to a wider range of discrimination complaints.
In 1999, the city reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to serve as a fair housing agency. The deal brought more than $470,000 of federal funds to the commission to date and allowed it to hire specialist to handle local housing discrimination complaints, which had previously been referred to the state commission in Des Moines for investigation.
Despite those successes, Reed leaves the Waterloo commission with an uneasy feeling about its future in the wake of city budget problems.
"Probably the biggest disappointment right now is the fact that the administration has been cutting our funds," Reed said. "Cases are going up, and we've cut the staff. That represents an enormous challenge to the commission and staff in terms of providing the basic service required under the city's ordinance.
"It's going to be incumbent upon the citizens of this community to make their voices heard and make sure the administration knows the importance of maintaining the commission and staffing it so it can do its work," he added.
Meanwhile, Reed is looking forward to the broader challenges of his new job, which involves working with 26 local commission around the state.
"I look forward to dealing with the Department of Human Rights, because I can deal with her issues on a broader scale," he said. "It's going to be a great opportunity to do something I really love doing in the area of human rights: make sure that all people have the ability to seek work and enjoy a quality of life free from discrimination."
Tim Jamison can be contacted at (319) 291-1577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.