Employee Highlight

Employee Highlight - Atto Commey, J.D.

The Maryland Commission on CIvil Rights is fortunate to employ a diverse team of talented professionals from all walks of life. The Commission is pleased to feature Atto Commey, J.D., Civil Rights Officer.

What is your job title? What does that mean to you?

My job title is Civil Rights Officer Lead. To me, it is a very important title because we are entrusted to investigate fairly and impartially all of the complaints of unlawful discrimination that come to the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. Investigating complaints is primarily what we do here at MCCR. If we are going to get to the bottom of a situation, we must conduct an in-depth investigation to get all of the information needed to make a decision. Civil Rights Officers are the front line in enforcing Maryland’s anti-discrimination laws in Title 20 of the State Government Article. Our work is to ultimately see zero discrimination in Maryland.

How did you come to join the team at MCCR? When did you begin here?

I started 4 years ago in October, 2013. Previously I worked for the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. I really enjoyed the work in Indiana and wanted to continue it when I moved to Maryland. I had moved to Northern Virginia from Indiana because I wanted a change of scenery and I really liked this region. Because of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, my family and I chose to relocate to Maryland. We really like the State and love the City of Baltimore.

Who has inspired you in your life and why?

I would say the person that has inspired me the most as an adult is General Colin Powell. I look at his background and where he came from. To become the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later the Secretary of State is incredible. Also, when he speaks about what it means to be an American it means a lot to me. He often says that you can succeed regardless of your background and where you came from – it just takes hard work and determination. General Powell started off, I believe, in ROTC in community college and he achieved incredible feats and positions in his time. All the while, he never forgets his roots. In today’s world, he remains one of the greatest statesmen I can think of. He has his political positions and saw much of his success during to Republican administrations, but he always puts country before party. For example, he came out in support of Barack Obama in 2012 even though he is a Republican. He definitively talked about how important it was to support the best possible candidate for the position instead of towing the party line just because of your registered political affiliation.

What are some unique aspects about you? How does it blend in with your work? 

I think that coming from a country where opportunities are limited. I was born in and spent much of my life growing up Ghana. I’ve lived in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. When I immigrated to America at 25 years old, I didn’t even have a high school education. Now I have graduated from law school and have an amazing career in public service serving the State of Maryland. It humbles me and helps me to get along with everyone I work with. It helps me to give respect to everyone that I meet. Because of my life experiences, I have a unique perspective that enables me to relate to the many different people I meet every day from different backgrounds and walks of life.

I often reflect on what opportunities exist in Maryland that don’t exist elsewhere. For example, in Ghana you have rights guaranteed to you in the Constitution, but you do not have an agency that is responsible for protecting those rights. Consider, too, that a lot of people lack a civil education and are unaware of their rights, so those protections that exist are effectively only good on paper. We are so fortunate to have an agency like the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights that exists solely to enforce the State’s anti-discrimination laws. People from all corners of the State can contact us for help and we take do our job to thoroughly investigate these allegations. To me, that is very unique and different from most other places I’ve lived, and that makes my work here all the more important.

 
 
What challenges or hurdles did you face that had a profound impact on you while immigrating to the United States and making it your home?

Not being around my immediate family was one of the hardest things for me, but the cultural differences were difficult, too. For example, where I immigrated from you greeted everyone you crossed paths with throughout the day regardless if you knew them or not. That is not customary here. Additionally, seeing homeless people begging and camping out on the street was a challenge for me. On TV you get the impression that in America everyone is taken care of, everyone has a roof over their heads and food in their mouths, but I learned quickly that that isn’t the case. There are people here that need help just as much as the people back home do.

Having moved from Ghana to Nigeria and then the Ivory Coast, when I came to America and began the naturalization process I was more or less comfortable with the journey I was about to take. I had already experienced different cultures and gotten used to different norms and customs, so I was expecting it when I came to America. If I had not lived in other countries previously, I probably would have had a harder time adapting to American culture. In the Ivory Coast, too, I worked at the American Embassy for two years as a security guard where I interacted with American diplomats and Marines. That introduction to American culture also made it easier to immigrate.

How do you define success and how do you measure up to this definition?

Success to me means making a positive difference in someone’s life. Sometimes people do not get what they want from us. Many times when we investigate complaints there is not sufficient evidence to prove that an act of unlawful discrimination occurred. But we have a duty to conduct a thorough investigation to collect the evidence and render a fair finding. At the end of the day, when we can educate people about our process and the law in Maryland that is success. When individuals can live empowered with the knowledge of how they can protect their rights and where they can turn for help, we are making a big difference in their future. 

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Reflecting on your work and life experiences, what do you believe is the greatest civil rights concern or challenge presently?

It feels like many of the civil and human rights successes we have seen over the past decade or so, especially at the federal level, are being rolled back. We are fortunate in Maryland to have Title 20 and many other laws on the books that reflect our commitment to equity, inclusion, and respect. However, federal laws and policies are oftentimes what people in many communities across this nation depend upon to be able to provide for their families. New programs being put in place appear as if they are specifically targeting underserved communities in an effort to undermine them, not resolve any actual problem that is facing our nation. I think from all of this, we should take our right to vote very seriously and make a concerted effort to participate in every election. Voting is our strongest way of making our voices heard and shaping the policies that impact each and every one of us.

What do you want to say to the People of Maryland?

Some people may have the perception that when they come here they don’t get the help that they need. What they should understand is that our job is to make sure not a single person is discriminated against in the State of Maryland. In doing so, we collect information and conduct interviews. At the end of the day we collect evidence. Sometimes we may not have enough evidence to substantiate the claim. That doesn’t mean that you are wrong. They should always know and understand that the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights is committed to a State that is free from unlawful discrimination.​