Civil rights panel names leadership team after Arbulu firing, declares education ‘a civil right’

Michigan Civil Rights Department Interim Director Mary Engelman | Ken Coleman

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) named its short-term leadership team on Monday during a meeting in Detroit.

Mary Engelman, acting Michigan Department of Civil Rights director (MDCR), was appointed as interim director.

Meanwhile, Sylvia Elliott, director of the department’s office of legal affairs, was appointed as a special adviser to the commission. Both women were interviewed for the position of interim director on Oct. 14, as the Advance reported. However, the panel was deadlocked at that meeting.

Effort to appoint interim Michigan civil rights director fails

Engelman has served as the executive director of the Michigan Women’s Commission and deputy director of MDCR. Since August, she was in the role of acting director of MDCR. She replaced Agustin Arbulu, who was fired after making objectifying comments to describe women to a male staffer. Arbulu told the staffer in May, referring to a woman, “Check out her ass.”

“The commission recognized that Mary had done an excellent job for us as acting director under unusual and stressful circumstances,” said Alma Wheeler Smith, MCRC commission chair. “Her experience in administration and budget, as well as her familiarity with the personnel and current initiatives of the department allowed us to keep on an even keel. We saw no reason to take her out of a position where she has done yeoman’s service.”

Michigan Civil Rights Department Director of Legal Affairs Sylvia Elliott | Ken Coleman

Elliott has worked with the agency for 22 years – a key asset, Wheeler Smith added.

“We felt it would helpful to have an adviser to assist us in the process of searching for a new executive director,” Wheeler Smith said. “It was important to have someone with Sylvia’s depth of experience and a deep understanding of the department provide advice.”

Elliott also will assist the commission with the strategy of initiatives it might undertake. The body also approved a job description and posting schedule, as well as a process by which it will select a permanent executive director. 

Beginning Tuesday, the posting will be open for four weeks. The commission hopes to have the position filled by February 2020, Wheeler Smith said.  

Civil Rights Commission votes to fire Arbulu

During the meeting, the commission also unanimously approved a resolution declaring “minimally effective education” is a civil rights issue. A class-action suit brought by Detroit students is currently before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to determine if there’s a constitutional right to literacy. 

The resolution reads, in part: “We therefore resolve that the Michigan Civil Rights Commission finds public education to be a civil rights issue, and a minimally effective education to be a civil right.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.