When Terrence Sullivan told people earlier this year that he had been named the new executive director of the Kentucky Human Rights Commission, he got some unusual responses.
“Is that a new group?” some asked. “I didn’t know that existed,” others said.
The Kentucky General Assembly created the commission in 1960 to discourage discrimination and foster fair treatment among Kentuckians of all backgrounds. A few years later lawmakers gave the agency the authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws in the commonwealth. Those can range from state statutes to federal legislation dealing with civil rights, fair housing, and Americans with disabilities.
Yet with such a long history of fighting injustice, Sullivan realized that the commission needs a higher public profile.
“We are really looking at ways that we can just be a little bit more engaged… and to do that we’re just trying to be a little bit more visible,” he says.
The commission investigates discrimination claims in housing, employment, public accommodations, and financial and credit transactions against individuals based on their race, gender, religion, national origin, or disability. Sullivan says the majority of cases they see deal with hiring- and employment-related discrimination against those with a disability or based on an individual’s race. But he says those who may be considered part of a protected class of people can change, depending upon the category of discrimination and on evolving court opinions.
“We have different protected classes generally for our different areas of jurisdiction,” he says. “For example, in employment cases, we have included smoking status as a protected class.
“We’re always listening to any changes to make sure that we’re not leaving anyone out because we want to be an agency not just for Black people in Kentucky but for everyone in Kentucky because everyone can be discriminated against.”
Complaints Involving Law Enforcement
One area that Sullivan would like to include in the commission’s jurisdiction is complaints against law enforcement. He says the agency has received an uptick in complaints this year coming from individuals who allege they have been mistreated by law enforcement for protesting against the police-involved deaths of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minnesota. But he says as of now the commission is unable to respond to such complaints.
“As our current statute is constructed, there is a question of law on what types of actions we can take against a police force,”
There is some case law that suggests arrests can qualify as a public accommodation, according to Sullivan, which would fall under KCHR authority. He is seeking legal clarification as to the commission’s ability to investigate such complaints. He also says state lawmakers, through enabling legislation, or Gov. Andy Beshear, acting through executive order, could explicitly expand KCHR’s jurisdiction to handle complaints against law enforcement.
Until then, Sullivan says he’s keeping a file of all those complaints until such time he’s certain his agency can act on them.
A Fresh Vision for the Commission
A native of western Kentucky, Sullivan says he grew up facing racial discrimination. He says his family was denied housing simply because landlords didn’t want to rent to “that poor black family.” Those experiences inspired the career path he would later pursue and a commitment to help others who have felt helpless in the face of injustice.
“For me, it’s a personal thing,” says Sullivan. “I wanted to go to law school and do the people’s work.”
After graduating from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law, Sullivan worked for the Louisville Metro Council and the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission as well as Kentucky Youth Advocates. He became the head of KCHR in June of this year. He says Kentuckians too often accept discrimination as just a normal part of life in the commonwealth.
“My main mantra right now is that we don’t have to accept what is, because we can push for what should be,” he says.
Sullivan says he’s exploring ways to make the agency more visible and more engaged across the commonwealth. He’s launched a weekly radio show and podcast called We & You to discuss civil rights, social justice, and other equity issues. He also hopes to secure more funding for the commission so it can expand its size and reach, and offer more community trainings on fairness, equity, and ending discrimination.
“People don’t know that we are an option when they feel discriminated against,” he says. “I want to make sure in the next three to five years that we are as visible as possible and people know that we are there to help them.”
Another way to expand the commission’s reach, says Sullivan, would be to collaborate with other organizations such as Black Lives Matter.
“Our mission is to eradicate discrimination in Kentucky, and if there are groups who are pushing for that same thing, why wouldn’t we work together?” he says. “I personally welcome and would love to work more collaboratively with these groups across the state… because there’s strength in numbers.”
Lexington Mural Celebrates the Beauty of the Black Experience
This edition of Connections also includes a look at a new mural that features a racial justice message. The painting by designer and artist Ciara Leroy is located in downtown Lexington on Short Street just south of Broadway. It’s based on a spoken word performance entitled “Black is Beautiful” by Shady Dior Couture, the drag persona of Lexington ICU nurse Terrill Thurman.
Despite the atrocities of history,
Despite the perils of the present,
Despite the unknown of my future,
My Black is beautiful.
“My mission… was to create an anthem for Black people,” says Thurman, ”acknowledging the beauty that is Black as far as the physicality, our features, our hair. Then it goes deeper into our history – our history of oppression, our history of overcoming.”
“I was so inspired and so moved by the piece,” says Leroy. “I knew that it needed to be the centerpiece of the mural design.”