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Building Bridges: Fullman aims to ‘close the gap’ of generational discrimination

Romona Fullman, right, is joined by her daughter Taylor West at a Black women lawyers event. (Submitted photo)

WILMINGTON — As director of the Delaware Division of Human Relations, Romona Fullman helps people who’ve reported instances of discrimination in housing and public accommodations.

She said people facing discrimination are often weary from continuously fighting unfair treatment for much of their lives.

Ms. Fullman said she and the Division of Human Relations aim to close the gap of generational struggles that marginalized groups often encounter.

“I understand systemic discrimination, oppression and racism, and the consequences of that, which may be that people are weary. They tried, they fought, they showed up for jobs, and they tried to get housing, and so you get weary over time and sometimes generationally,” she said. “There is a gap, and so we try to close that gap, just by making ourselves available and our resources available, and just being in the community.”

As director of the Division of Human Relations, Ms. Fullman is responsible for aiding the enforcement of state and federal fair-housing laws, as well as equal-accommodations mandates. The division also participates in the mediation of conflicts, such as hate crimes, police and community conflicts, school conflicts and state employment, according to its website.

She went on to explain that she’s witnessed racial discrimination impact her own family.

“My parents were educators, and they taught in segregated schools in St. Louis, which is where I’m from. My dad is from New Orleans, and so, you know, I’ve seen it. I’ve heard it from their stories and experiences,” Ms. Fullman said.

“(Education) is one of the key things that we do that I have passion about,” she said. “Part of the education that (the division) deals with is ensuring that Delawareans know their rights, on both sides of the issues, and so people that feel that they have been discriminated against or had been discriminated against, need to know what protections are available to them.”

Many people do not know whether the discrimination they face is prohibited under fair-opportunity and antidiscrimination laws, so it is Ms. Fullman’s job to ensure these protections are enforced.

“I think that people don’t know the specifics, and not just in Delaware, but in the nation. What they do know is when they are hurt and feel harmed, oftentimes, it didn’t feel right what they experienced. It felt wrong and hostile. So, they know that for sure,” she said. “But what to do about it and what is allowed and not allowed, they don’t always know.

“All of us have an obligation to help people understand if that hurt that they’ve experienced is protected under any law. Then, we should help them connect to that law and the rights that are available to them,” she said.

When discussing her duties as director, Ms. Fullman emphasized the importance of fair housing and the ways housing can impact economic inequity.

“People should live where they choose to live and not be bound economically. If you always wanted to live where there’s grass and trees and the like, you should be able to do that,” she said. “Sometimes, not having access where you live means that there are fewer jobs in the area, and if you don’t have transportation, where you live matters. It matters as it relates to your health status, your educational attainment, where the quality schools and quality opportunities are. They’re all impacted by where you live, so housing discrimination is really a critical component to economic equity.”

She also discussed how voter participation is intertwined with issues like fair housing because voting impacts what legislation is passed to give marginalized groups equal opportunities under the law.

“When we talk about being able to change your circumstances and being able to have better opportunities, you know, voting matters,” Ms. Fullman said. “We see the interconnectedness between the issues, and sometimes, that has to be just articulated. People have to know it’s not just housing because they can’t get a house if you don’t have a job. So, making those connections, and then if you have a barrier to employment, and if you’ve been incarcerated, or if you have other barriers, then maybe laws need to be changed, and you can participate in both changes by being an educated voter.”

Ms. Fullman graduated with a law degree from Widener University in 1984. While studying there, she also fought for racial justice within the university.

“Law school was like high school for me, in terms of, you know, it was very divided. I mean, it was a good experience. I was a leader (of) the Black law students who were trying to push for change, even to have a Black law school professor, so that work has been in me for a while,” she said.

When Ms. Fullman finished her law degree at Widener, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do exactly, but she knew she wanted to help the most people she could. To start, she knew that being an African American woman in workplaces that often were not diverse was important to her.

“I felt called on to try to have an impact, and sometimes, it’s just that people know you’re there. If they see someone that will listen to them, that is different. If they can stop you on the street and have a conversation with you, it’s different,” Ms. Fullman said. “And so, to be present in spaces that they’ve not been privy to, they kind of vicariously feel that there’s a voice in that space. I think that there were just too many tables and rooms that weren’t diverse enough for me.”

Before becoming the director of the human relations division, Ms. Fullman served on the Delaware Commission for Women for 27 years. She said serving under the two different divisions showed her how gender discrimination also intersects with other forms of discrimination like racism, an issue she focused on when working for the women’s group.

“These issues are interconnected,” she said. “Whenever we would discuss equal pay, it was important to me to understand and articulate the differences among women. We knew the different payrate between men and women, white men in particular and white women, and at a local level, it’s important to say that African American women make less, and Hispanic women make even less.”

In light of the recent issues of racial discrimination following George Floyd’s murder, Ms. Fullman said she is happy to see these discussions happening, but she also acknowledges the power inequalities still in place.

“I’m encouraged by the openness, but I understand that there’s still that power disparity, so then not everyone who’s talking about it can do a lot about it,” she said. “What I’m encouraged about is that people are actually moving mountains, if you will, and kind of stirring things, and so, the tables are changing.”

Ms. Fullman said she hopes more people will see that finding common ground with others can be powerful in understanding each other, despite our different backgrounds.

“There are many people who want better. And if we bridge those gaps (and) we are clear about how we are different because of where we live or what we look like, we’re clear about that,” she said. “But we often don’t have the opportunity to see how we’re similar. Who doesn’t want a high-quality education for their child? Who doesn’t want a job that enables them to provide for themselves and their family? So, if we have that basic understanding across issues, we can figure out solutions a lot faster and be more comprehensive in our approaches today.”