In 2010, Chris Surfus founded The Council for Human Rights, and the founding Board incorporated the organization in the State of Michigan in March 2010. The organization was originally incorporated as “The Tolerance, Equality, and Awareness Movement,” or “TEAM” of West Michigan. President Surfus and Director of PR/Marketing Sheri Munsell began advocating for all-inclusive, anti-bullying policies at area school districts, including Kentwood Public Schools, Jenison Public Schools, and Hudsonville Public Schools. The Council’s service area involves thousands of students that are subjected to anti-LGBT anti-bullying policies, and bullying remains a serious issue in our schools today.
After addressing anti-bullying, The Council for Human Rights launched the “Speak Up! Panel Project Series,” which was a series of five discussion panels that addressed racism in society, LGBT inclusion, Native American History, and Human Trafficking. Approximately 75 people attended the Speak Up! Panel Project Series, and the events were a tremendous success for the organization. These events led to additional members joining our Board that helped to develop The Council for Human Rights. After the “Speak Up! Panel Project Series,” The Council’s Board and volunteers did a Day of Silence Photo Project, which raised awareness on the discriminatory history affecting LGBTQ persons.
Following the Panel Project and Photo Project, President Surfus and Director of PR/Marketing Sheri Munsell addressed the Holland Human Relations Commission on their proposed ordinance to include sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, and public accommodations nondiscrimination provisions. The Holland Human Relations Commission unanimously recommended to City Council to consider the ordinance, which ultimately failed. Organizations like Holland is Ready and Until Love is Equal have formed to continue to advocate for inclusive ordinance language on nondiscrimination policy.
In 2011, The Council expanded its community partnerships and outreach efforts. By 2013, we have outreached to 65 organizations and local businesses, and we have approximately 30 past sponsors. By July 2011, the organization gained international recognition for facilitating the Candlelight Vigil for the Grand Rapids mass murder victims (the murders were committed by Rodrick Dantzler). Approximately 1,000 people attended the Candlelight Vigil, and many more saw the news coverage by Wood TV8, WWMT-3, WZZM, and Fox 17 as the vigil was facilitated on live television by Council President Chris Surfus. The vigil was joined by members of the City of Grand Rapids Board of Commissioners and other advocates for our local community, and The Council for Human Rights partnered with the Grand Rapids chapter of the American Red Cross to provide disaster relief services. The following week, The Council for Human Rights organized a “human peace chain” to block the Westboro Baptist Church from picketing former First Lady Betty Ford’s funeral. The Westboro Baptist Church hate group
did not show up. The human peace chain was brought to public attention by local radio stations, including 104.5 WSNX, and it was covered by the Grand Rapids Press. On July 17, 2011, President Surfus completed IRS Form 1023 to apply for 501(c)(3) tax-exemption for The Council for Human Rights. By August 5, 2011, the Internal Revenue Service approved a rare, expedited, tax-exemption process for The Council, and The Council for Human Rights officially became 501(c)(3) tax-exempt on September 7, 2011. In September 2011, The Council for Human Rights participated in iTeams and Take Hold Church’s human trafficking awareness flyer campaign, which provided information to the public on how to identify human trafficking victims in our community.
In November 2011, The Council for Human Rights’ President participated in the Grand Rapids LGBT History Project, which was organized by the Grand Valley State University LGBT Resource Center, Kutsche Office of Local History, and the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy. In December 2011, The Council for Human Rights held fundraising events with The Pyramid Scheme, a local music venue. To date, The Council has had four public events with The Pyramid Scheme, and the events attracted total public participation of 500 attendees and greater than 15 volunteers.
In 2012, The City of Grand Rapids officially recognized The Council for Human Rights, under its previous name, as a Grand Rapids nonprofit organization. In August 2012, The Council for Human Rights built a coalition of community members and nonprofit organizations in response to verbal threats from the Black Hebrew Israelites in their picket of the East Hills Council of Neighbors’ event “Gay Day.” The community response was well-received, and the City of Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission and the FBI became involved in addressing the matter. Federal Hate Crimes charges were not filed against the Black Hebrew Israelites, but our collective effort amounted to dialogue on this issue as it affects our community. Our combined efforts stated that acts of hate and inflammatory language against marginalized groups will not be tolerated.
From 2013 onward, The Council for Human Rights began the process of changing its name from its previous legal name. The Council held a three year anniversary event, “It’s A Blue Party: Celebrating Cultural Empowerment” at The Pyramid Scheme. The event was attended by approximately 100 people. In 2014, The Council’s Board of Directors is planning future efforts, including ways to better position itself strategically and serve a larger population. The Council is inviting collaborative efforts from other groups, and it will begin proposing programming to foundations and other funders in the near future.
We have been successful in defending people who have experienced discrimination, bullying, and other violations of human rights. Notably, we have helped students at Comstock Park High School form a Gay-Straight Alliance. We closed our bank account at a financial institution (Chemical Bank) that did not adopt LGBTQ+ inclusive language in its nondiscrimination policy at our request. We advocated for the LGBTQ+ community all the way to the corporate leadership level. We are happy that Chemical Bank now has sexual orientation and gender identity in its nondiscrimination policy. We wish this bank well in its efforts to be an inclusive employer. We currently bank with Huntington National Bank, which has a strong history of supporting the LGBTQ+ community. They are rated 100 percent by the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.