Pittsburgh Commission On Human Relations Gives A Voice To The Voiceless

Jun 23, 2017

The staff of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations investigates allegations of discrimination throughout the city.

Carlos Torres was named the commission’s executive director in 2016.

90.5 WESA’s Margaret J. Krauss sat down with Torres to talk about his background and how individuals can make the city a better place.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MARGARET J. KRAUSS: One of the things I noticed is that you're not shy about handing out your business card.

CARLOS TORRES: I am not. Not at all. As a matter of fact, I encourage people to take my card. Even if you don't feel like you need it you may know someone who does. So by all means, please give them my information. I'm lucky enough that I'm the only Carlos who works here so it's not very difficult to get a hold of me.

KRAUSS: Reading a statement on the website, it says the commission is a law enforcement agency. Could you talk a little bit about the scope of the commission?

TORRES: Absolutely. So we get our powers from the Pittsburgh city code and we are charged with looking into instances or allegations of discrimination in three specific areas: employment, housing and public accommodations. Our jurisdiction is the entire physical boundaries of the city of Pittsburgh. And individuals or members of the community have a year from the date of the particular incident to file a complaint with us. Our services are 100 percent free.

KRAUSS: And what, ideally, do you need from Pittsburgh residents so that the commission can do its work?

TORRES: One of the things that I always tell people when I go to different community meetings or community events is, it is not your job to figure out if discrimination took place. That is our job. Trust your instincts. So, if something doesn't feel right, if you think that you're being treated differently because of your gender, your age, your ethnicity, because you have children, because you have a disability, because you may be a member of the LGBT community, because you are a survivor of domestic violence, any of those are what we call protected classes. So, if something like that has happened. The example that I usually use, you have been working for an employer for a couple of years. You have not had any bad reviews, but somehow you don't seem to be able to get a promotion. Or somehow you don't seem to be able to get a pay raise. But yet someone brand new, with no experience, gets highed and they get paid more than you. So why is that? We want to look at that.

KRAUSS: Do you find that people are nervous to come to you? Afraid that somehow it will make their situation worse?

TORRES: One of the answers to that particular question is that retaliation is also against the law. So for example, if a person files a complaint with the commission, whether it's employment, housing, or public accommodations and their situation becomes worse as a result of filing a complaint? We want to know. Because that is also protected under the law.

KRAUSS: You have degrees in history, public administration. You are an Army veteran. You served in community health for a long time and you are bilingual. How do all these things inform your executive directorship?

TORRES: All of those things kind of built the knowledge base that I needed to be successful at this job. The truth of the matter is that I personally have experienced discrimination because I am bilingual, actually. I was speaking Spanish and I was asked to leave a place. I have experienced discrimination by being openly gay. My experience working in the nonprofit sector, particularly in public health and doing my degree in public administration, has really kind of educated me in what government can do to protect the rights of its residents. But also what I can do individually to make sure that I am a champion of protecting people's civil rights. It is imperative that all of us are involved in giving a voice to those that sometimes may not have a voice or may not know where they need to be to have their voices heard.