Employee Highlight - Keith Merkey

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 Keith Merkey, Education & Outreach Associate.

How long have you been with MCCR and what is your role?

I joined the Commission in January, 2001, which would mean I have been with the agency for 17 years now. My current job title is Education & Outreach Associate. My duties are to educate people across the State on their rights under our law, while building meaningful and lasting relationships with new partners that can help us carry out our mission.

How did you come to join the MCCR team?

I joined MCCR after working in the non-profit sector for years. My previous jobs included training with Planned Parenthood. I was also the Director of Education for the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) Maryland. However, my passion has always been about hands-on teaching opportunities where I am able to interact with individuals one-on-one and share our stories. When I saw that this position was available, I jumped at the chance to apply.

2001 was also an exciting year for me personally because “sexual orientation” was added as a protected class to state anti-discrimination law in employment, housing, and public accommodations. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, being able to pair my passion for education alongside the advancement of civil and human rights for all Marylanders was an incredible opportunity that I could not pass up.

What has kept you with MCCR for 17 years?

What motivates me to remain a member of the MCCR team is the work that I do = I love teaching – and the people that I work with every day. Traditionally, if I really like where I work, I stay there. I am fortunate in my current role because I believe in what MCCR does, and the nature of my work means that every day is both interesting and exciting.

“Supporting the underdog” has always been a key part of my thinking and upbringing. Serving in a capacity to help those who may not know where to turn when they need help most allows me to do provide that support that, in many ways, feels like my life’s calling. By way of education, teaching others about their rights and how to make their workplaces and communities more equitable and inclusive for all all gives me an incredible sense of pride and purpose.

 After 17 years in this field, have things changed? Has progress been made?

Things have changed and for the better. Not only have “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” been added as protected classes to our anti-discrimination laws, but protections in employment have been enhanced for pregnant employees and new mothers, as well as interns. Meanwhile, more people have contacted MCCR for assistance with facilitating the important – and necessary – conversation relating to equity, inclusion, and opportunity for all. The Freddie Gray tragedy and the current political climate have been great motivators for people to better understand how they can be that agent for positive change. Progress has definitely been made, but so much work remains to be done. 

What is your greatest accomplishment with the Commission, or what is the most impactful program you have been a part of during your 17 years here?

That has to be one of the hardest questions to answer because of all of the incredible projects I have worked on over the years.

If I had to pick one, I would say one of the most important programs we have going is the Maryland Equity & Inclusion Leadership Program (MEILP). If I could choose a second, the Fair Housing Five children’s book project has become such an integral part in what we do now, especially because it is one of the unique ways we are able to build inroads into younger generations. Both MEILP and the Fair Housing Five are unique, innovative ways to engage Marylanders across many different intersections about their rights. They both also link us with like-minded individuals who can take back to their families, their jobs, and their communities what they learn, which supports us in promoting and improving civil rights throughout Maryland.

What would you say is the most influential factor(s) in your shaping your character and desire to be of service to others?

When I was 14 I volunteered at my church teaching Sunday School. I also worked in the library system all the way through college helping people access information and knowledge. Human and public service have been constants in my life. I was also raised to be a very independent thinker, so helping others discover and navigate information to accomplish their goals or help them grow has made me feel like I have accomplished something wonderful.

My grandparents and parents raised us under the devout Presbyterian value of never judging anyone because of their differences. They implored the importance of accepting and loving each other for who we all are as individuals. Name calling and treating others as “less than” were clearly unacceptable from an early age.

Being raised with that open-mindedness, I think, has piqued my curiosity and desire to learn about people and other aspects of life. Finding out where words in our language come from, learning about someone’s genealogy, engaging others about why they are who they are on that deeper level are things I both enjoy and value.

Our ultimate purpose is to do right by others – following “The Golden Rule”. That is my guiding philosophy and is the byproduct of my family, my experiences throughout life, and even my being raised in the church.

At the end of the day, I just love connecting with people. I love sharing bits of my life story and hearing bits of others’ life stories, and helping others.

What are the most pressing human relations/civil rights issues we face today?

I think that access to opportunity is the most pressing human relations/civil rights issue we face today. Whether it is affordable and fair housing for both the lower and middle classes, safe neighborhoods, good-paying jobs, quality schools, and health insurance, access to opportunity is oftentimes the singular indicator to whether or not someone is able to enhance their quality of life and support their families. Without this access, there is no way to move up the social ladder.

 What is the current state of civil and human rights?

People today are much more open and willing to have the conversation (albeit reactionary at times) about social issues and overall equality. What I have noticed through training is that while people still have many of the same questions that they have always had, they are much more willing to accept the answers and embrace what is necessary in order to enhance life for everyone. Additionally, there is much more buy-in from employers and community leaders to roll up their sleeves in order to do the work.

What do you hope to see MCCR accomplish in the next five years?

I would really love to see the MEILP program grow and expand. Last year was our first year and, despite the difficulties associated with building a comprehensive program from scratch, the end result was great success. Now working to recruit for the program’s second cohort, we’re figuring out how to build upon all of the successes while improving many of the challenges we only became aware of in retrospect.

Additionally, if we can emulate the interaction characteristic of MEILP and other initiatives provided by the Education & Outreach Unit across all of our outreach efforts, I believe MCCR will be in a strong position to respond both proactively and meaningfully to matters of civil and human rights at any given time. By bringing people together to have the necessary conversations (no matter how difficult) and to build lasting connections, we are building a Maryland where all feel like a welcomed asset.