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New human rights commission director excited about challenge

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On Tuesday, one city employee will step into a role that will give her the chance to make a lifelong career out of her passion — helping people who have nowhere else to turn.

Aida Ramirez, the Human Rights Commission’s deputy director, will replace Lorraine Smith, who is retiring.

Ramirez will become the person leading the way for progress on human rights issues in the city, and she has been excited to get started since she first learned she was getting the job.

When Ramirez talks about her job, that excitement is visible. Her eyes light up, and you can see in them what she says is a sincere passion for her work and desire to help people and affect “as many people positively as I can."


The Golden Rule

It’s a desire she first developed as a girl growing up in East Chicago, Indiana, where she said her parents taught her to live by the Golden Rule, to not shy away from who she is and to help people who can’t help themselves.

It’s a passion that she is carrying into her new job, hoping to continue the commission’s positive work and to move the department forward.

Ramirez said her first priority will be to keep the department’s day-to-day operation working smoothly.

Smith said a day’s work can include handling the preliminary intake for cases, fielding questions from the community, making public speaking engagements or tending to financial matters, such as handling the budget or paying bills.

Trying to get it all done can be challenging, Smith said.

It involves juggling a lot of priorities and “keeping all the balls in the air,” the outgoing director said.

Gil Palmer, the commission’s chairman, said it also requires commitment — which Ramirez already has shown.

Focus and flexibility

Ramirez said she understands the amount of flexibility and focus that the position demands, especially since there are only three full-time employees in the department.

But it isn’t daunting, she said. In fact, she said the variety of work is part of the reason she loves her job and is still excited to get up in the morning and go to work. She likes that there isn’t a typical day.

Since moving from Indianapolis to Columbus and starting as deputy director in November, Ramirez said, she’s fallen in love with the city — its people and welcoming atmosphere — and with the commission and what it has done for the city since its 1962 inception.

Smith said in her 28 years with the commission as director, deputy director or in other roles, she has seen the department make a lot of progress, calling the work incredibly rewarding.

Of all the things the commission has accomplished in that time, Smith said she is most proud of:

-Becoming a full-fledged city department.

-Creating the oral history project in 2000 to document local civil rights history.

-Changing local law to mirror federal law protecting against discrimination.

-Creating a community dialogue series.

Over the past 16 or so years, Palmer said he has seen the commission evolve and become more visible while serving as chairman of the 11-member volunteer commission. And he said the commissioners and the department’s staff members have always made strides to be part of a solution and not part of the problem.

The Human Rights Commission, Ramirez said, is well run and has a “fabulous foundation,” thanks to the work of those who preceded her.

She said since that solid base exists, she doesn’t have any big changes planned for the commission’s programs, although she might make small changes as a way of “tweaking something that already works.”

She does, however, have some ideas for new projects. She said she would like to look at creating an internship program, revamping the website and getting software to track statistics, among other things, all of which would be subject to approval by the commissioners.

While the commission has made a lot of progress in making the community welcome and inclusive, Ramirez said, every city has its challenges — and Columbus is no exception.

The city, she said, needs to examine the wealth gap and lack of affordable housing. The commission may be able to play a part in that by providing education on the issue in a way that relates to its mission, she said.

Smith said staying true to that mission is the best way to move forward.

She said Ramirez will need to “continue to be vigilant” and bring groups together to create dialogue on issues. Ramirez especially will need to focus on facilitating dialogue about rights for persons with disabilities and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Smith said.

And Palmer said he would like Ramirez to continue making strides with Welcoming Community and teaching the community about the value of diversity.

Ramirez’s passion for the job will enable her to take the commission and successfully move it forward, Palmer said. He said she will direct all of her energy into doing what is best for the community.

She has a strong sense of justice based upon the law and a willingness to give her full attention and respect to people, both of which will help her not just fill the shoes of previous directors but have “her own shoes,” Smith said.

Ramirez said that more than anything else, she wants people to know she is available to help — they shouldn’t be shy about calling the office to ask for assistance.

She wants to hear from the community, whether it’s in the form of a positive comment or a complaint.

“We can’t grow if we don’t know the areas in which we need growth,” she said. “I am all ears.”

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