It’s the Right Thing to Do
“From the time I was a kid, being honest and respectful to others was always how I thought,” JoAnn L. Edwards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said.
Edwards, who grew up in Central Pennsylvania, firmly believes that everyone “deserves dignity and respect.” Because of that passion, she decided to pursue and successfully received her Bachelor of Social Science degree (with honors) and a psychology minor from Penn State University.
Upon graduation, she took a management position with a nonprofit agency that gave her the opportunity to assist others in their job roles. The CEO noticed her excellent people skills and, because the agency was growing rapidly, decided it was time to create a human resources director position—and asked Edwards to fill it.
“I created the HR department from scratch,” she said.
Some of the successful programs she implemented included the creation of an HR database; the development of a safety committee certified by the commonwealth; and the representation of her employer at unemployment and workers’ compensation hearings, resulting in the reduction of unemployment and workers’ compensation costs.
She held this position for 10 years, during which she received her master’s degree at St. Francis University in human resources management and earned a Senior Professional in Human Resources Management Certification from the Society of Human Resources Management.
“It was during this time that I made my first contact with Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission as I responded to complaints of discrimination that the agency received,” Edwards said.
Her next step was to serve as the central western regional director of human resources for Northwestern Human Services.
“In 2001, I was promoted … to the corporate vice president of human resources,” Edwards said. “I was the first woman to serve on this VP team.”
In 2003, the HR Professionals of Central PA recognized her as its HR Professional of the Year.
“I was very humbled by this recognition since it was given to me by my HR peers,” she said. “I have always understood and taught my HR staff that being a fair, decent employer attracts good employees since the reputation of the employer is positive. This not only helps the employer’s bottom line; it’s the right thing to do.”
In July 2011, Edwards was appointed to her current position as executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, a role that has given her much satisfaction.
One example of that feeling of satisfaction, she said, is the opportunity to “have a direct role in bringing justice to a complainant who has suffered unlawful discrimination, or in the alternative, to have a direct role in bringing justice to a respondent who has been unjustly accused of engaging in unlawful discrimination.”
On the downside, she has also been frustrated to “witness firsthand the increased incidents of civil tension in schools and between the police and community here in United States as well as around the world,” Edwards said. “While some progress has been made to combat illegal discrimination in Pennsylvania, we remain a state with the highest number of hate groups in the country.”
When asked to share a case of particular significance, Edwards was hard pressed to choose just one because “every day the PHRC handles cases of great significance to the individuals involved,” she said. “We are here to investigate and resolve cases that are not just high dollar value but also cases that are small in dollar value but are very important to the persons involved and/or with regard to the harms addressed.”
Because the resolution of a case involving PHRC usually involves training and policy changes, “the case resolutions typically reach beyond the individual aggrieved person to improve the situation for others and prevent discrimination going forward,” Edwards said.
One example Edwards did share was a case in which the PHRC, along with the Department of Justice, “investigated race discrimination complaints against [a swim club] in 2009, alleging that the club discriminated against a group of African-American children because of their race,” she said.
“A Northeast Philadelphia children’s day camp … had paid the club a fee to allow their campers access to the pool for the summer, but on the first day the children swam there, they reported hearing racial slurs. A few weeks later, the day camp received a membership fee refund for the children, prohibiting them from returning to the pool.
“The club settled the discrimination claims in 2012 and months later filed for bankruptcy,” Edwards continued. “The property was sold as part of the bankruptcy and, in a positive turn of the events, six Philadelphia-area clubs received money in 2014 from that sale to use for programming that benefitted minority youth and to help combat discrimination.”
It is important to Edwards that people understand just how real discrimination is to the people who are experiencing it.
“Discrimination makes folks very vulnerable, and in many cases they see the world differently because of the discrimination that they experienced,” she said. “Discrimination can result in the loss of a job or of a house or even retaliation against the individual, which is PHRC’s highest-filed type of complaint.”
Giving back to her community is important to her as well. After receiving her HR certifications, Edwards started study groups “so that peer HR professionals would have support and mentoring to prepare them to pass the certification tests,” she said.
“I taught civil rights and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission classes through the Mount Aloysius College Certification Program for managers at NHS Human Services and taught a human resources graduate class at St. Francis University.”
Edwards has also volunteered with the Dress for Success program, donating business clothes and teaching women who are reentering the workforce how to successfully write a resume and prepare for interviews.
Her desire to see everyone treated fairly and equally is the guiding force in every aspect of her life. Edwards knows that discrimination is “real and alive, and simply cannot be tolerated. I will continue to fight staunchly against discrimination and the practice of racism,” she said.
“Everyone deserves a chance, no matter what their economic status is or what neighborhood they come from.” BW