In a perfect world where all rights are respected and every law is obeyed, Tanya Hughes ’87 acknowledges, her job would be superfluous.
But the real world needs champions for people whose civil rights have been violated, and so Hughes and her colleagues at Connecticut’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities have plenty to do. That includes enforcing the state’s protections in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations; ensuring that state agencies comply with affirmative action goals and contract provisions such as set-asides for minority businesses; and educating Connecticut’s citizens about their rights and responsibilities under the law.
I’m constantly testifying in the Legislature, interpreting laws, working with attorney general’s office on different issues.
It’s a broad mandate for the nation’s oldest state civil rights agency, established in 1943. Hughes has led it as executive director since 2013, after having run one of the commission’s four regional offices.
“We have a really dedicated staff of people who are passionate about the work they do,” Hughes says. “We’re basically running a law office,” with 22 attorneys on staff in the commission’s Hartford headquarters and others working as investigators across the state. “I’m constantly testifying in the Legislature, interpreting laws, working with the attorney general’s office on different issues.”
Connecticut is historically progressive on human rights issues, and Hughes says her agency monitors and enforces the civil rights of people in 27 protected classes, from sex and race to religion and gender identity. The commission also investigates and prosecutes cases referred by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
There are also times when a pattern of discriminatory practices emerges, and Hughes says commission attorneys can initiate a complaint if they see systemic discrimination, forcing for example, a city or a prison to change its practices.
In addition, Hughes says, her office closely follows the state Legislature’s work, giving opinions to legislators, testifying in hearings, and proposing legislative initiatives when they seem opportune. “We try to be aggressive with our legislative proposals,” she says, including a current push to mandate anti-bias and anti-racism training.
As is typical of government service, sometimes the work means doing more with less. Hughes points to the sexual harassment prevention training the commission developed after it was mandated for state employees. They had just six months and a $3,000 budget for the project – but got it done, and the training website has had more than 300,000 visits in approximately one year.
Hughes has also pressed the case for civil rights as a member of Connecticut’s Racial Profiling Advisory Board, which studies law enforcement data such as traffic stops to identify systemic bias and enable police agencies to correct it.
As with so many UB Law alumni, she has made her career in public service. “Many successful African Americans have found their success through government service,” Hughes says. “You have a greater chance of being rewarded and compensated on an equitable basis for hard work – it’s truly based on merit.
“My dad was a politician, and many of his colleagues and friends were in public service. I’ve seen firsthand the commitment of government lawyers.”