Employee Highlight - Awilda Peña

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 Terrence J. Artis, Assistant General Counsel.

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How long have you been at MCCR? What is your role/duties?

I have been at MCCR for approximately 13 years. My role is the Assistant General Counsel. In this capacity, I am an Administrative Trial and Appellate attorney. I litigate cases of unlawful discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations to ensure equal opportunity for individuals who work or reside in Maryland.

I also conduct trainings and serve as a presenter across the State of Maryland at conferences and seminars for employers, equal employment opportunity officers, management companies, landlords, and citizens regarding legal updates and best practices in civil rights.

How did you come to be a part of the MCCR team?

I previously worked for the Maryland Disability Law Center (now known as Disability Rights Maryland). My focus there was working with persons with mental disabilities. My professional focus has been in the areas of civil rights and disability rights. Coming to the Commission expanded my practice of law to include workplace discrimination.

What aspect of civil rights are you most passionate about? Why?

My passion for civil rights law allows me to blow the trumpet and pursue justice for the underserved and those who often cannot speak for themselves involving the law. My practice affords me with a voice to defend the rights of the marginalized and those suffering pain from injustice.

What cases have you worked on here at MCCR that have had the biggest impact on you, or have been (in your opinion) incredibly important to the welfare of Marylanders?

An incredibly important case that I litigated is Board of Directors Cameron Grove Condominium II v. State of Maryland Commission on Human Relations, 431 Md. 61 (2013). This was a significant fair housing case that was decided by the Court of Appeals (Maryland’s Supreme Court). It established the law in Maryland regarding an accommodation under Maryland’s Fair Housing Act. The Court of Appeals correctly decided that the burden is on the housing provider, not the complainant, to show that an accommodation request is unreasonable. Prior to this case, Maryland law had not spoken on this issue. I also was successful in a case before Maryland’s second highest forum the Court of Special Appeals. The name of that employment law case is titled A.C. v. Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, 232 Md. App. 558 (2017).

 

What about being a part of the MCCR team is most valuable to you/means the most to you?

I find that the most valuable aspect of working for the Commission is that I get to be part of a team whose charge is to ensure equal opportunity for all persons regardless of your skin color or address when it pertains to the state’s anti-discrimination laws. I feel blessed that I get to labor with a team that is committed to the agency’s vision of a Maryland that is free from unlawful discrimination. When I close the door at the office, the work I perform gives me satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment knowing that I have assisted or helped someone.

What would you say is the biggest civil rights challenge facing the State?

I believe that the biggest civil rights challenge facing our State and the nation is how to make housing more affordable. I think it’s a human right that a person should be able to live in housing that is affordable. Yet, affordable, safe and quality still remains out of reach for so many based on their skin color or social-economic status. National Public Radio (NPR) recently broadcast a story which reported that a 1 bedroom apartment in San Diego rents for $1700 a month. In certain areas of Baltimore, the rent is about $1400 a month. This means individuals are spending more of their hard earned money toward the basic necessity of housing; however, their wages have likely remained stagnant. The collision between economic development, gentrification, the lack of urban development, and the rights of citizens to live in affordable and fair housing is not only the biggest challenge in Maryland, but across the country. There is economic development in Baltimore’s East Harbor, Inner Harbor and Midtown. Meanwhile, working class, black and brown communities must reside under blight and lack of development. This pathology adds to the adversity faced in Baltimore City where I live. I strongly believe that everyone should have an opportunity to share in the economic pie which includes fair and/or affordable housing which can lead to other social ills subsiding.

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What activities do you engage in (charity, pro bono, etc.) outside of normal work hours that speak to your passion for the promotion and improvement of civil rights in Maryland/your community?

In May 2018, I was honored to receive the Daily Record’s Leadership in Law Award for dedication to the legal profession and service to the community.

I am active in my church where I conduct workshops on topics concerning the ways charitable organizations can remain compliant with state and/or federal law. And measures to adopt in order to reduce the chance of having a lawsuit filed against the church. I also volunteer with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service and the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland. With these organizations, I represent low income Baltimore City residents concerning wills, powers of attorney, drafting life estate deeds, and landlord-tenant issues.

Further, I walk with the Citizens on Patrol in my neighborhood. We canvass the community to ensure that we maintain a safe and quality environment for all our residents. We also identify any potential safety and security issues that should be addressed.

What influences throughout your life drive your passion for your profession?

What motivates me is my desire to serve. My faith in God is the foundation of my service in civil rights. Working in civil rights is a challenge. And it appears that sometimes you make progress and then it is erased. Because of my faith, I have hope that tomorrow can and will be better. You keep fighting and pushing and striving because there is a cause greater than me or my state agency.

My hero is my maternal grandfather Jesse Gray Artis. He was born in Wilson, North Carolina in 1910. He migrated to Pennsylvania around 1940. He raised 11 children Coatesville and persevered despite the obstacles that faced him because of his skin color. He worked for almost 33 years in the local steel mill and served as a deacon in his church. He was a man of limited means, but full of integrity, confidence and unfailing love for God, his family and community. Without question, he is the most influential person in my life and fuels my passion for justice and righteousness.

I hail from a small town in Pennsylvania named Coatesville. The minister, blue-collar worker, physician, teacher, funeral director, and the dentist all lived on the same block during my rearing. There was a strong sense of community. Everyone strived for excellence in the face of segregation. They always maintained passion and enthusiasm for making things better for me and others. I am truly the product of the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”. My roots still resonate with me today.