Tolerance commission members take testimony in Juneau

Posted: Friday, July 27, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Sara Boesser was 16 when she realized she was a lesbian. It wasn't a path she would have chosen knowing the hostilities she would face, she told the governor's Commission on Tolerance on Thursday at a hearing in Juneau.

Boesser said she's been the target of slurs.

''The fear and hatred aimed at people like me is not muted,'' she said.

Today, as an adult, she said, she speaks out for fair treatment of gays and lesbians but worries for her safety.

''It only takes one bigot or zealot to aim a paintball gun,'' she said. ''It only takes one bigot or zealot to shoot a rifle.''

Gov. Tony Knowles appointed the 14-member commission in May after three white teen-agers drove through downtown Anchorage targeting Alaska Natives with paintball guns. The commission is conducting hearings around Alaska, listening to stories, assessing the level of racism and recommending how to fix it.

Five commission members attended the Juneau hearing, the second of nine planned meetings, which was split between a morning session for state agencies and groups and an evening session for public testimony.

About 40 individuals attended the evening hearing at Alaska Native Brotherhood hall.

''Discrimination, racism, prejudice permeates every corner of the state,'' said Selina Everson, a Tlingit leader. It's in state agencies, the court system and schools, where dropout rates soar for Native teens.

''Would you have a happy and healthy mind if someone was always calling you names?'' she asked.

Some commission members said they have been bombarded with testimony about how the Division of Family and Youth Services handles cases when Native families are involved.

''That's one of the biggest complaints we've had,'' said panel member Shari Kochman, Knowles' deputy legislative director.

Some have testified that when the division works with split families made up of one Native and one non-Native parent, it tends to place children with the non-Native parent, said panel member Denise Morris, president of the Alaska Native Justice Center.

People have complained that families whose children attend schools in poor, minority neighborhoods hear from the division more often than families in wealthier, white neighborhoods, she said. ''If you live here, you're more likely to get reported to DFYS than if you live over there,'' Morris said.

Russ Webb, deputy commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services, said he understood there was a perception of unfairness. The care of children is such an emotionally charged topic that sometimes people feel mistreated, he said.

The division is also struggling to understand why a disproportionate number of Native children are reported to DFYS or come into its care, Webb said.

Jim Duncan, commissioner for the Department of Administration, presented the panel with numbers on minorities in state government.

Of the 14,071 permanent employees in the executive branch, 2,536, or 18 percent, are minorities and 22 percent of the new hires are minorities, he said. ''It appears we are doing better,'' he said.

An unidentified audience member stood to say those statistics cover only full-time workers. Duncan agreed but said he did not have a breakdown on part-time and seasonal workers.

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