Unlocking the Power and Possibility of Local Enforcement of Human and Civil Rights: Lessons Learned from the NYC Commission on Human Rights

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Gurjot Kaur is Senior Policy Counsel at the NYC Commission on Human Rights.

Dana Sussman is Deputy Commissioner, Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs at the NYC Commission on Human Rights

If you ask most people in the United States where to go to file a complaint of discrimination or receive assistance from the government in addressing discrimination, chances are that they will not likely be able to tell you. For those who do have some familiarity, they may point to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal agency that handles workplace discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A smaller number may be familiar with their state human rights agencies or equivalent. Even fewer will have knowledge about local or city counterparts to the extent that these agencies even exist in their respective jurisdictions. While the federal government has certainly played a powerful and dominant role in furthering civil rights in the United States, the last several years have seen a rolling back of civil rights protections, through federal administrative rulemaking, Supreme Court jurisprudence, and executive orders and other mechanisms. Under the administration of President Donald J. Trump, the federal government has also flagrantly espoused rhetoric and policies that have led to an increase in bias incidents and violence across the country, inspired by a resurgent white supremacist movement.

When human rights and civil rights protections are deprioritized, underenforced, and undermined through federal action, local governments can be powerful incubators of new and innovative ideas for how government can protect its residents and also serve as a bulwark against the actions of the federal government This article proposes that local and state human rights agencies can and should prominently step forward to push the limits of their mandates, including: adopting a holistic and highly visible approach to combat discrimination in their jurisdictions; building relationships with advocates; steering the national conversation on civil rights; and continuing to create powerful legal precedents to protect society’s most vulnerable.

This article will focus on the strategies employed by the New York City Commission on Human Rights (the “Commission”) from 2015 to 2020 under the leadership of Commissioner and Chair Carmelyn P. Malalis, who helped revive a moribund agency and turn it into a national leader. The Commission’s progress during this timeframe has demonstrated that even with limited resources, a local human rights commission can play a prominent role in the civil rights movement.

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