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One Penn State student’s experience with Human Relations Commission: Kenneth W. Gatten III

Posted 5/29/18

Walking through the narrow, dark hallway, the two of us begin to think we may be alone. The floorboards, once finished and neat, are now cloudy gray and loose, bending and creaking under our …

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One Penn State student’s experience with Human Relations Commission: Kenneth W. Gatten III

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Walking through the narrow, dark hallway, the two of us begin to think we may be alone. The floorboards, once finished and neat, are now cloudy gray and loose, bending and creaking under our footsteps. The Middletown Borough Council hall feels haunted. Perhaps this is why an anonymous user wrote a 1-star review of the building on Google Maps.

It is empty because it’s a Wednesday evening, when — as the otherwise lively council is out of session — the recently formed Human Relations Commission meets.

Katelan Martinez and I are undergraduate students at Penn State Harrisburg. We have served as liaisons to the HRC on behalf of the university since early March 2018. When we walk in the room, we’re invariably greeted with enthusiasm by HRC members Mike Woodworth (chairman), Angela Lloyd and Rachelle Reid.

Since our first assembly as liaisons, the HRC has been eager to address our concerns. Whether Penn State students want a sidewalk to connect their dorms to a nearby plaza, or they would like a publicly funded transportation system, the HRC takes on our requests. We exchange ideas and make calculations. We correspond outside of borough hall. So far, the commission has planned several events and made some headway on the public transportation system.

My experience with the HRC has been brief but notable. I mentioned it during a recent job interview, and the interviewer remarked, “I’ve worked for a local government before. It’s slow, isn’t it?” My reply was, “Yes.”

And I wasn’t lying: it took over one year to even designate a Penn State liaison to the HRC. One afternoon, while going through a file cabinet in the Student Government office, I encountered a printed-out email sent from the borough council. The email, by then more than a year old, asked if the body would send a liaison to the council.

I had been elected to the Student Government partly to improve university-town relations, so I had to act. Yes, the email was ancient. The sender could have by then moved on to haunting Middletown Borough Council hall. But a mandate is a mandate, I decided.

Then, after months of deliberations between Penn State Harrisburg and the HRC, Katelan and I were designated as liaisons. But not before the HRC devised the Middletown Diversity Celebration, scheduled for Sept. 22 at the MCSO Building on Emaus Street. It pairs with the HRC’s commitment to expand community engagement in Middletown, which includes embracing diversity, as it were. It also introduces the many businesses of Middletown to the town’s residents.

It could be said that the event will bring the businesses to the people, rather than the people to the businesses.

The Human Relations Commission is very excited to plan the celebration, grand and colorful. Coming up with ideas during an HRC meeting, the event at one point seemed larger-than-life: a youth ballet would twirl; 20 stands would serve food baked, fried and boiled; dogs, up for adoption, would wag about; people would snap pictures in a photo booth. Others’ eyes were aglow as I envisaged the horror of having to console the photo booth company after a messy spill on its equipment.

Worse, what if a dog were to saunter inside the photo booth? These are the things, as a part of a local government, one must consider straight-faced.

The HRC’s willingness to act on its liaisons’ concerns demonstrates its flexibility and buoyancy. However, the Middletown Diversity Celebration exemplifies the HRC’s competency. It will promote communitywide interaction. It will encourage commerce. It will provide a genuine service to Middletown residents.

While the concept of promoting diversity may appear to be somewhat trendy and uninspired, the HRC is sincerely proud of Middletown, where its members have lived for many years. The commission believes Middletown has remarkable potential. The chairman of the HRC, Mike Woodworth, has stated this publicly — and I have observed this to be true.

In the eyes of some, local governments — or all governments, for that matter — are lethargic, run by pallid bureaucrats who do nothing more than fill out paperwork. This does not describe the HRC.

The commission does its share of desk work, but its members are energetic and creative. The HRC is committed to serving the residents of Middletown, and I’m convinced that its members, if not unmatched in their loyalty to Middletown, care for the town as few do.

Kenneth W. Gatten III is a sophomore at Penn State Harrisburg.