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 Awilda Peña, Civil Rights Officer Supervisor.

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

I have been with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights for 5 years as a Civil Rights Officer Supervisor. I enjoy wearing many hats. My primary role is to oversee my unit and make sure that I am guiding them to success as they investigate complaints of unlawful discrimination. I ensure that they remain neutral finders of fact that apply the correct investigative techniques in order to arrive at a sound conclusion. When necessary, I will intervene in particular cases to talk directly with complainants who have concerns about our process or their particular case. As a communications specialist, I oftentimes have challenging conversations with all parties to the complaint. People want to be listened to. After listening to them, I attempt to resolve their concerns so that the investigation can continue smoothly. My ultimate job, though, is to guarantee to coach my team so that they continue to have confidence in our process.
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Beyond that, I am directed the Spanish-speaking calls from Intake and conduct interviews on their behalf. I assist with translating documents from English to Spanish, while also support the onboarding of new Civil Rights Officers. I have even had the pleasure of investigating cases during periods of staff turnover and new hiring.

How did you come to join the MCCR team?

What led me here is that in early 2000, I was trained as a mediator and realized that it was a powerful opportunity to help people solve their issues and their problems by bringing people together to talk. As I did more mediations over the year, I became a trainer for mediators. Later, I built on this training, serving as the Shared Neutral Mediation Coordinator at the Department of Budget & Management, and also serving as a Police Liaison with Baltimore City for 3 years. Both of these positions were contractual. After these contracts were up, I decided to look for a more permanent position with the State because I felt it was the best way to serve the public.

In my search I came across the recruitment for the Supervisor position and knew I had to apply for it – it was the next step in my career. This position to me was the best opportunity to bring all of my skills together to serve a greater good. This position also gave me an opportunity to continue learning about different cultures and backgrounds – one of my greatest interests. All the while, I knew that joining this agency would enable me to be on the front lines fighting discrimination and abuse, both of which have no place in our society. Ultimately, MCCR, to me, was an opportunity to teach others around Maryland that we all have a voice and that powerful, meaningful progress can be made when we use it.

“Civil rights” is an umbrella term that encompasses many different issues, from anti-discrimination to due process to human trafficking and beyond. What about “civil rights” as a whole is your passion?

My passion is to bring awareness, to shine a spotlight on the issues that are being faced by individuals from all walks of life every day. Through awareness, we can work to educate people and empower them to be a catalyst for change and ultimately break the cycle of discrimination. We are all the same, we are all humans. Everyone should respect one another for who they are and their background.
Is there a particular issue within “civil rights” that you are most interested/active in?

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After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, I was motivated to start a nonprofit called “Pray for Puerto Rico”. We are in our second year as an organization. This group works every day to educate society on the facts about Puerto Rico, because lies and untruths are so prominent in our community conversations and news broadcasts, and believed by our elected leaders. For example, many do not realize that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and they are portrayed in popular culture as non-Americans.

We have done so much in our two years. One of the first things we did to provide relief to friends and family in Puerto Rico is to purchase and send power generators to them.

Our focus has largely been on displaced Puerto Ricans new to Maryland. With them we have:
-Directed women and children to aid that they need most, as well as provided resources (like food and clothing) directly to them thanks to the generosity of our supporters and the local business community.
-Assisting with placing families in their own homes and obtain work assignments so they can become independent and self-sufficient.
-Helping to enroll individuals in job training opportunities, health service, and additional education opportunities (especially English as a Second Language courses).
-Integrating children in the local school system by providing translation services to those that are new to the state.
-Accessing to mental health services to combat depression, trauma, etc. experienced as a result of Hurricane Maria.
Connecting individuals with other social services.

My living room full of coats for the upcoming winter season, as well as suits and dress attire appropriate for work interviews. Pharmaceutical companies have offered to donate medical supplies to those in need that can’t afford them. The organization even enjoys great support from local and state elected leaders.

After two years of hard work, we have been fortunate to be supported by a town and community that knows who we are and what we are doing. These strong community connections, especially with local businesses, is one of the biggest reasons for our continued success. It has also been exciting to partake in other social activism, like 2017 Unity March for Puerto Rico in Washington, DC.
What about being a part of the MCCR team is most valuable to you/means the most to you?

I am grateful for the flexibility that comes with the position, the family-feeling and tight-knitness between the entire staff. I believe in the work that we do. The team is incredibly committed and I want to be here to play my part. Over the last 2 years or so, we have received many more complaints from Spanish-speakers with limited English proficiency. Organizations, like CASA, and state agencies, like the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, & Regulation, are both referring many people individuals who may be victims of unlawful discrimination to MCCR, many times directly to me.
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Many victims of discrimination are being threatened by their employers with possible deportation if they stand up for their rights. I work with them to let them know that no matter what, the employer may have broken the law and MCCR has an obligation to look into it. While we have seen the increase in contact, the intimidation and threats are not always causing their inquiries to become formal complaints. We as a society have got to do a better job in protecting all victims of crimes in Maryland. I am proud to be working at MCCR because we continue to find ways that we can better protect Maryland’s most vulnerable individuals. Plus, the law that we enforce is especially relevant and necessary in today’s climate.

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

Today’s political climate has really shined light on the ugly truth of discrimination and bigotry that still exists in society. We are, in so many ways, going back to the 1950’s. We see today acts in 2018 that mirror violent discriminatory acts during the Civil Rights Era. Popular media (such as Netflix) has even developed programming to draw parallels between what is happening today and what occurred just a few decades ago.

Many leaders throughout America are causing our progress in civil and human rights to roll back. Standards of decency and respect have dropped, which can even be seen with how some reporters are relaying information in the news. I have seen reporters become very comfortable with using racist language in their broadcasts, so much so that it makes my stomach turn. This behavior is causing a lot of hardship for those individuals who dedicate their lives to equity, inclusion, and diversity. They themselves don’t know what to do, and they fear their intentions being called into question.

The biggest civil rights issue we face today is ensuring that we do not move backwards on the progress that we have achieved over the past few generations. There is so much work that remains to be done that we cannot afford to lose ground now. Peoples’ lives depend on our ability to build upon the successes of our parents and grandparents.

What do you hope to see MCCR accomplish in the next 5 years? What do you hope to be a part of?

My biggest hope is to see the agency increase its staff size while reducing the amount of time it takes to complete an investigation. MCCR is fortunate to have so many staff members who are truly passionate about our agency’s mission. I hope that through the continuation of their incredible work, we are able to make the case to grow our staff to the size needed to handle all of the complaints that we are receiving. Meanwhile, I take a lot of joy in supporting the Education & Outreach Unit that crisscrosses the state making inroads and building new relationships. While investigating complaints of discrimination is MCCR’s primary function, getting out in the community and meeting people, educating them on their rights under law and how to stand up for those rights is the best way to proactively prevent discrimination from happening in the first place. Despite the prevalence of discrimination and hatred, Maryland is still an incredible State that embraces people backgrounds. We as an agency have accomplished a lot in the past few years, and I want to continue doing my part with the team to build upon these successes.

Awilda Ropewalk.jpgMCCR recently conducted a Staff Development Day at the Genesee Valley Outdoor Learning Center. The goal of this in-service activity was to both provide an opportunity for the staff to build deeper and stronger connections with one another outside of the usual office environment, while challenging each staff member to step outside of their comfort zones and try something new. What was your biggest accomplishment from this opportunity, and what did you learn?

I enjoyed a lot seeing my coworkers come out of their comfort zone and build stronger connections with each other. My biggest personal accomplishment was walking the high rope. What it helped me to do was believe in my inner feelings and guts; to ultimately believe in myself. I wanted to turn back so many times while walking across the ropes but I found the inner strength to press on. And I did it. The feeling I experienced when I finished the course and got out of the safety equipment was overwhelming and indescribable.