The Orange County Register, Nov 24, 2017
By Deepa Bharath
Rusty Kennedy started working for Orange County as a human relations specialist in 1977, at a time when the county was beginning to deal with the political challenges that come with a dramatic change in ethnic diversity.
There were increasing numbers of Latino immigrants and an influx of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia fleeing wartorn countries and oppressive regimes.
Conflicts and divisions in local communities have necessitated Kennedy’s role — one that involves addressing issues of hate and bigotry, promoting reconciliation and, most importantly, connecting diverse communities with one another.
The 6-foot-6 Fullerton native known for his sage advice, colorful bow-ties and sense of humor, has been sought after as a mentor and guide by law enforcement agencies, community leaders and anti-violence experts.
Now, 40 years later, with hate crimes at their highest in years and rising concerns over Islamophobia and anti-LGBT violence, Kennedy, 65, has decided to call it a career.
On Dec. 20, he will hand over the reins of OC Human Relations, the nonprofit he has shepherded for the last 20 years, to Alison Edwards, who has worked beside Kennedy at the organization for about 19 of those years.
“During these years, I’ve been both vilified and celebrated,” Kennedy said. “But the one thing I can say with confidence is I’ve never been through uninteresting times.”
Kennedy says his work in human relations has been inspired by his parents, Ralph and Natalie Kennedy, both civil rights activists who fought against race-based housing discrimination in Orange County in the 1960s.
Kennedy wanted to be an engineer like his father, but switched his major in college to sociology. After graduating from the University of Redlands, he came to work for the county’s housing department before moving to human relations.
“I was so excited to find a job where I could do something that made a difference,” said Kennedy, who became the Orange County Human Relations Commission’s executive director in 1981.
Ten years later, he founded the independent nonprofit OC Human Relations, which has since partnered with the county commission to raise money for community-building, tolerance and restorative justice programs in the county.
In 1989, Kennedy started what would become the Bridges program, which aims to build inclusive and supportive school environments. It was born from an incident at El Modena High School in Orange, where student leaders performed a pep rally skit wearing blackface.
The Human Relations Commission intervened and organized a daylong seminar that allowed the students to explore racial issues. The students returned to campus and taught others what they had learned and produced a video showing the county’s racial diversity and the effects of stereotyping.
“I think students on campus realized the effect of what they’d done and others realized that it was done out of ignorance as opposed to bigotry,” Kennedy said.
But that was only the beginning of work that would continue for decades. After 9/11, Kennedy was instrumental in organizing an Interfaith Memorial represented by leaders of different faiths and attended by more than 1,000 at the Hall of Administration.
After the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man with mental health issues who was killed in a police encounter in Fullerton in July 2011, the commission helped bring together stakeholders including the city, homeless advocates, parents of the mentally ill, mental health professionals, Thomas’ father and residents, as well as the faith and business communities.
The commission issued a report calling for changes in police training and planned out a multi-service homeless shelter, which was approved after three years.
Under Kennedy’s leadership, the commission stepped in after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when protests erupted in Little Saigon over a storeowner’s poster of Ho Chi Minh in 1999, and most recently dealing with hate crimes against Jews, immigrants, Muslims, gay and transgender persons and other communities.
For 25 years, the commission has also published an annual hate crime analysis compiling incidents reported by law enforcement and community groups.
Moving forward, Kennedy’s successor says she wants to continue “bringing diverse and divergent perspectives together.” “Rusty has a lot to do with this organization being referred to as the ‘conscience of the county,’” Edwards said. “I look at us being an organization that’s not just providing facts and figures, but real experiences for people — being face to face with people in our communities.”
Edwards, who has served as the deputy director of OC Human Relations since 2010, also led this year’s #HateFreeOC campaign, an educational and awareness initiative to combat hate, bigotry, harassment and discrimination.
Over the last two years, Kennedy’s administrative style came under criticism by three members of the county Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Andrew Do questioned the intermingling of the private nonprofit with the county commission.
During an Oct. 31 meeting when three out of five supervisors voted to take direct control of three Human Relations Commission staff members, Supervisor Shawn Nelson directly addressed Kennedy who was seated in the audience telling him to “let go” of the commission.
If the Human Relations Commission is to continue, Nelson said, it would have to happen without Kennedy “steering the ship.”
Kennedy said Nelson’s comments have nothing to do with his retirement. He added that the county commission and nonprofit are now two independent entities. To this end, Kennedy moved the nonprofit’s staff members out of the county building on Grand Avenue in Santa Ana on Nov. 1.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, this week, praised Kennedy for his critical role in county human relations work for the last four decades.
“Rusty has helped our county through its growing pains,” he said. “At every turn where we’ve had the potential for civil unrest and social upheaval, he’s been there.”
Kennedy will be remembered long after his retirement for “his great alacrity with law enforcement and legal issues,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino.
“He has this ability to bring people together,” Levin said. “We could always count on him to put things in context, put people at ease and bring everyone together.”
And yet, Kennedy had the ability to step aside and shine the spotlight on community members, the unsung heroes, Levin said.
“Rusty has created models for hate crime data collection, tolerance training and school programs,” he said. “He’s had an impact beyond Orange County. In the area of human relations, he’s a legend. There will never be another Rusty Kennedy.”