Institute's educational exhibits elicit conversations
If the walls of the Human Rights Education Institute (HREI) in Coeur d'Alene could talk, executive director Jeanette Laster believes they would have much to share about the joy, pain, challenge, tears, emotions, grief and—most of all—hope they have seen through conversations elicited by exhibits they have held.
Educational exhibits invite people to engage in tough conversations about justice, equality, human rights, race and more," she said. "Out of conversations come hope, strength and belief that all people belong. Conversations encourage humility, kindness and acceptance. HREI is a place for safe conversations."
Jeanette, who became executive director in December 2018, continues what she had been doing for four years as administrative program manager.
"I've spent much time team-building and building capacity for our longevity," she said.
HREI's vision comes from the board of directors in collaboration with staff, said Jeanette, who focuses on raising funds to keep the doors open.
HREI's doors first opened in 1998. It began as an outgrowth of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations' work to counter white supremacist activities in the area.
While the task force primarily focuses on advocacy, HREI was formed to educate. They work closely, sharing information and many members.
"It's vital to HREI for all human rights groups have a unified voice," she said.
She enumerated goals that have guided the institute's work.
First, HREI wants to maintain its presence in the community to build awareness of human rights for all and the value of diversity. Many visitors feel its presence shows that this is a diverse community, she said.
The second goal is education. HREI offers programs for K-12 students and supports opportunities for college students through internships and work study.
"Each day, we usually have 12 people in the building," she said. Students can gain experience in accounting, marketing, program development, event planning and administrative work as they support HREI's mission.
"We provide a variety of experiences," she said, "and they help us maximize our K-12 programs."
The K-12 program focuses on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations in response to the experience of World War II.
HREI partners with the diversity program at North Idaho College (NIC) and with the Idaho Commission on Human Rights.
They offer cultural education around such themes as Asian American and Pacific Islander Month in May, Hispanic Heritage Month and Native American Month in the fall. HREI also offers a multicultural summer camp. Elementary students attend the "Around the World" camp. Middle schoolers focus on advocacy.
On Tuesday, April 14, the annual North Idaho College Diversity Symposium for NIC students has a cultural identity theme. HREI partners with NIC to support a variety of opportunities that day.
"Each year, we also bring students, volunteers and others to the Hate Studies Conference at Gonzaga University," she added.
HREI's third goal is to facilitate challenging conversations in the community.
When CdA2030 and Envision CdA joined and held panel discussions on the city's future, they asked Jeanette for suggestions to include people not generally seen as part of the conversation.
HREI will partner with Safe Passage and North Idaho Now to bring awareness to the rape kit backlog, providing a safe space for this community conversation. HREI will host the video "I Am Evidence" on Thursday, April 23.
The fourth goal is funding sustainability. The biggest challenge is to maintain operations, pay salaries and cover the building costs.
Despite the overhead of renting from the city, the building is relevant to HREI's work.
In 2002, the Greg C. Carr Foundation awarded HREI a $1,000,000 grant as seed money to establish a human rights center. This allowed HREI to move in 2005 into its present space, a former railroad substation. The grant was not endowed, so that money is now gone.
"People and foundations love to give money to programs, not sustainability," she said.
HREI has previously had no long-term vision for an endowment, making meeting the $115,000 budget each year a challenge.
"The time is right for an endowment campaign," she said. "We hope to raise $20,000. We can do much more if we can continue operations. Then we can concentrate programs."
Jeanette's passion for working on human rights stems from her upbringing in the diverse population of the San Fernando Valley. It had year-round schools with many extracurricular cultural programs. Her friends came from many different cultural backgrounds.
California State University at Northridge, where she studied on a swimming and diving scholarship, was a melting pot.
"I never thought about differences. The people were my sisters, brothers and friends," she said.
In college, she worked in the Camarillo Parks and Recreation Department, running programs at different elementary schools. After college, she returned to that program to teach aquatics and manage a park with an aquatic center, a Boys and Girls Club and a baseball park. She values mentoring teens to college age, because they say what they think and accept responsibility."
When the housing market fell, her husband, who was a builder, lost his job, then found work in Coeur d'Alene. After moving from California, she became aquatics director at the Kroc Center.
"It was a God thing," she said. "It filled me spiritually and mentally to work for an organization that cared about and community."
Needing time to herself, she left Kroc and signed up for Leadership CdA, which helped her learn about the community and build connections. During that process, she realized there was a lack of understanding in the community about ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, and around LGBTQ issues, bullying and homelessness.
She began working as community impact coordinator for United Way in Coeur d'Alene, her first exposure to community organizing with nonprofits. For two years, she volunteered at HREI to help with events and review grants before becoming administrative program manager.
"I consider myself a connector and mentor," she said. "I champion diversity. I want to lift people to better places.
"At HREI, I take steps to assure its success and longevity, while we serve our community with the resources we have," Jeanette said.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February, 2020