A strong, funded human rights commission is essential for New York City
“Although the commission’s mandate is simple – each individual should be able to live fully with dignity and respect – carrying out that mandate requires investment, commitment and resources.”
Today, I am stepping down from my position as chair and commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, a position I have held since Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed me nearly seven years ago in 2014. The role was initially a bit daunting—I was not from inner city, not Has no government experience, left satisfactory legal practice working with the selected family members. Perhaps the most difficult task ahead of me is to restore credibility to an important city agency decimated by decades of underfunding and neglect.
The commission was established in 1944 as the Mayor’s Unity Committee in the wake of city-wide protests against anti-black racism. The entity that would eventually be known as the New York City Commission on Human Rights was created to “Making New York City a place where people of all races and religions can work and live side by side in harmony and mutual respect for one another, and where democracy is a living reality.“
In subsequent years that accompanied various name changes, the commission’s powers and mission expanded to include civil law enforcement to protect anti-discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations and other provisions, mandates to provide education and outreach, participate in research and reporting, and handle intergroup disputes. What has remained consistent, however, is that the commission’s importance, size, and budget were closely linked to the priorities of each mayor appointed in office.
The agency thrived under former Mayor David Denkins, who saw the need to invest in protecting human rights as a matter of public safety. Mayor Denkins, our city’s first black mayor, has increased the commission to more than 300 employees. By the end of the Giuliani administration, the agency’s budget was slashed, leaving the agency with a meager 30 employees, a number that rose slightly to more than 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 return the agency to a strong and thriving human rights venue, and I was appointed.
During my tenure as commissioner, Mayor de Blasio, City Council and human rights advocates across the city helped me double the budget, allowing me to nearly triple the number of employees. Having commissioned this investment, the agency was led by some simple principles shared by the dedicated public servants who joined me: 1) everyone has the right to dignity and respect; 2) the government must be representative of the communities it serves and work for them; 3) Transparency is not negotiable. 4) In advancing human rights, nothing is impossible.
Through these guiding principles, we have focused on initiatives that benefit the communities most vulnerable to discrimination and harassment. We set out to fight anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant, black, Muslim, and Asian racism, fight housing discrimination, and strengthen the New York City Human Rights Act to protect more New Yorkers. We have advocated for new restorative justice approaches to law enforcement and societal healing. We have endeavored to create a place where persons with lesser resources are not cast off to adversarial justice; During my tenure, victims of discrimination and harassment received nearly $30 million in compensation.
Some of the work I am most proud of is immeasurable. We have made it a practice for all UNHCR staff to hand over their individual contact information to the public at events, I used public art to spread human rights messagesand achieved successes with societies that were historically distant from government. Our message echoes out of New York City: A photo from our campaign takes on Time Magazine’s take on anti-Asian hate, our legal guidance on hair has sparked a wave of jurisdictions calling for the inherent racism of black hairstyles, and our rules calling for disinformation. And murder will make it into justice Alito Bostock opposition.
We have advanced an ambitious agenda in the past few years despite the hostile federal government and an unprecedented pandemic thanks to the support of the municipal administration, council members, advocates, community members, organizations, labor centers, faith-based communities, businesses, employers who trust UNHCR staff, and people who believe that having A strong and dynamic human rights commission is essential. I have always loved New York City and have grown to love it more because of the broad support for human rights from diverse communities that may hold differing viewpoints.
Even with the strides we have made, we know there is a lot to be accomplished in the field of human rights. Although the commission’s mandate is simple – each individual should be able to live fully with dignity and respect – carrying out that mandate requires investment, commitment, and resources. Even with the investments in 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 difficult to reach the 8.5 million people calling home in New York City.
The pandemic has exposed old inequalities, and created many new manifestations, especially for undocumented immigrants and people who care for children and elderly relatives. Many Asian Americans still fear racist attacks on their daily commute and blacks still suffer from the use of armed government systems against them. The epidemic of transgender violence has not abated, while people with disabilities continue to face challenges in accessing basic needs.
In just three months, New York City will have a new mayor, who, like their predecessors, will have the opportunity to give his consent to the formation of a strong and funded commission. New Yorkers must once again demand increased investment in the agency to continue the upward trajectory begun in the past few years. The New York City I love so much is worth it.
Malales is chairperson and commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights from 2015 to 2021.