‘Though the Commission’s mandate is simple—everyone should be able to live as their full selves with dignity and respect—executing that mandate takes investment, commitment, and resources.’
Today, I will step down as chair and commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, a post I have held since Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed me nearly seven years ago in 2014. The role was at first a bit daunting—I was not a city insider, did not have any government experience, and left a fulfilling law practice working with people who were chosen family. Perhaps most daunting, though, was the task ahead of me: return credibility to an important city agency decimated by decades of underfunding and neglect.
The Commission was founded in 1944 as The Mayor’s Committee on Unity following citywide protests against anti-Black racism. The entity that would eventually be known as the NYC Commission on Human Rights was created to “make New York City a place where people of all races and religions may work and live side by side in harmony and have mutual respect for each other, and where democracy is a living reality.“
In subsequent years that accompanied different name changes, the Commission’s powers and mission expanded to include civil law enforcement of anti-discrimination protections in housing, employment, places of public accommodation and other provisions, mandates to provide education and outreach, engage in research and reporting, and address intergroup conflicts. Remaining constant, however, was that the Commission’s prominence, size, and budget were inextricably tied to the priorities of each particular mayor in office.
The agency flourished under former Mayor David Dinkins, who saw the need to invest in human rights protections as a matter of public safety. Mayor Dinkins, our city’s first Black mayor, grew the Commission to over 300 staff. By the end of the Giuliani administration, the budget of the agency was slashed, leaving the agency with a meager 30-odd staff, a number that rose slightly to over 50 during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure. When Mayor de Blasio was elected, New York City demanded investment in the agency. Civil and human rights advocates called for a commissioner who could restore the agency to a robust, thriving venue for human rights, and I was appointed.
During my time as commissioner, Mayor de Blasio, the City Council and advocates for human rights throughout the city helped me increase the budget two-fold, allowing me to nearly triple the number of staff. Entrusted with this investment, I led the agency with a few simple tenets shared by the dedicated public servants who joined me: 1) everyone is entitled to dignity and respect; 2) government must be representative of and work for the benefit of the communities it serves; 3) transparency is non-negotiable; and 4) in advancement of human rights, nothing is impossible.
With these guiding principles, we focused on initiatives benefiting communities most vulnerable to discrimination and harassment. We set out to combat anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and anti-Asian racism, fought housing discrimination, and strengthened the NYC Human Rights Law to protect even more New Yorkers. We championed novel restorative justice approaches in law enforcement and community healing. We sought to create a venue where people with less resources were not relegated to discounted justice; over my tenure, victims of discrimination and harassment have received nearly $30 million in damages.
Some of the work I am proudest of is not quantifiable. We made it a norm for all Commission staff to hand out their individual contact information to the public at events, used public art to spread human rights messages, and made inroads with communities historically estranged from government. Our messaging resonated beyond New York City: an image from our campaign addressing anti-Asian hate covered Time Magazine, our legal enforcement guidance on hair ignited a wave of jurisdictions calling out the inherent racism of policing of Black hairstyles, and our rules calling out misgendering and deadnaming made it into Justice Alito’s Bostock dissent.
We advanced an ambitious agenda in the last few years despite a federal government hostile to human rights and an unprecedented pandemic thanks to the support of this mayoral administration, Council members, advocates, community members, organizations, workers’ centers, faith communities, businesses, employers who trust Commission staff, and people who believe that a strong and vibrant Commission on Human Rights is necessary. I have always loved New York City and have grown to love it even more because of the wide support for human rights from diverse communities who otherwise may hold divergent views.
Even with the strides we have taken we know that there is so much more to accomplish for human rights. Though the Commission’s mandate is simple—everyone should be able to live as their full selves with dignity and respect—executing that mandate takes investment, commitment, and resources. Even with the investments into the agency during my tenure, the budget and staff size are only a fraction of what they were 30 years ago. This affects case processing times for law enforcement investigations and makes it challenging to reach the 8.5 million people who call New York City home.
The pandemic laid bare longstanding inequities, and created many new ones, especially for undocumented immigrants and people caring for children and elderly relatives. Many Asian Americans still fear racist attacks during their daily commutes and Black people still experience the use of weaponized government systems against them. The epidemic of violence against transgender people has not abated, while people with disabilities still encounter challenges in accessing basic needs.
In a mere three months, New York City will have a new mayor, who, like their predecessors, will have the opportunity to give their imprimatur for a strong and funded Commission. New Yorkers must again demand increased investment into the agency to continue the upward trajectory started in the last few years. The New York City I love so much deserves it.
Carmelyn P. Malalis was the chair and commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights from 2015 to 2021.