MARQUETTE - Marquette might not have the same civil rights issues as Alabama did in the 1960s, but keeping an open dialogue about the many types of discrimination that still exist is one of the main goals of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
Leslee Fritz, interim director with the department, visited Marquette this week on a 50-city state tour commemorating its 50th anniversary.
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights was established in 1965, two years after the Michigan Civil Rights Commission was created by the state constitution.
The commission decided it needed an investigatory arm to supplement what it had to do, Fritz said.
However, she acknowledged many people aren't even aware Michigan has a Department of Civil Rights.
"We believe it's a bad thing," Fritz said, "and it's not a surprising thing to hear."
The 50th anniversary tour is designed, she noted, to change that.
"We've seen, over the last three or four years, a decline in people contacting us and filing complaints," Fritz said.
The department, according to Fritz, has two components: investigative and prevention.
Not only does it look into civil rights complaints, it conducts 4,000 training sessions per year about topics such as legal understanding of issues and cultural competency, she pointed out. It also takes part in initiatives about subjects ranging from anti-bullying to hate crimes.
"Obviously, race relations is a component, but not the only one," Fritz said.
The Upper Peninsula's Native American community is a focus, Fritz noted, but her department also works with different ethnicities and religions, the disabled and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.
"We deal with a much broader range of issues," she said.
Fritz said the department has had more than 250 investigations in Marquette County alone over the last decade,.
The cases have different outcomes. Fritz said some are dismissed for lack of evidence and other reasons, while others are settled - examples would be installing a ramp for accessibility or paying back wages in an employment dispute.
The state civil rights commission is the last stop in the process.
"That doesn't mean they're all resolved," Fritz said. "But at least we're talking about them."
During her stop in Marquette, Fritz visited Northern Michigan University, which has a strong teacher-preparation program. She stressed the importance of training teachers who represent their students.
That's one example of why the department needs a presence in small communities.
"How does civil rights apply?" Fritz said.
She acknowledged it's different for the department to deal with issues in the Upper Peninsula, mainly because of the geographic isolation from its Lansing base. However, the department does have an office in Marquette, located at 234 W. Baraga Ave. That location can be a starting point for anyone in the area who has a civil rights problem that needs to be addressed, she said.
"But really, it's just a matter of being persistent and consistent of what we do and why it matters," Fritz said.
John Rodman is the civil rights investigator at the Marquette office. He said the bulk of the cases he examines deal with age and disability.
He said public knowledge of the department is improving.
"We're always looking for better ways to get the word out," Rodman said.
After all, Fritz said more open discussion is the first step in addressing challenges.
"We've certainly made progress," she said. "There's a lot more to be done."
Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org