In the last few years, America’s most vulnerable have been hit hard. LGBT Americans are being targeted with bathroom bills, and President Donald Trump announced in July that transgender Americans can no longer serve in the U.S. military. Immigrants have endured the threats of ending DACA, building a wall to the south, and the banning of safe passage for some refugees. But regardless of the national political climate, New York City continues to lead the charge to fight for equal rights for all people. And the Chair and Commissioner of the NYC Commission on Human Rights, Carmelyn Malalis, knows that battle on a personal level.
Malalis’ parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines as a part of what became known as the Asia "Brain Drain” of the '60s. At that time, highly-educated people from various countries immigrated to the U.S. to find jobs in the medical and scientific fields. Malalis’ mother, a doctor, and father, a chemical engineer, met once they reached the U.S. and settled in central New Jersey, which was filled with Irish, Polish, and Italian Catholics.
In suburban New Jersey, her family was at one point the only Filipinos in the area. "We stood out as being different, because many people didn’t understand what being Filipino was," Malalis tells Bustle. "Kids used to ask me if I was black, Chinese, or Puerto Rican."
Malalis recalled other kids’ reactions to her family’s Filipino heritage, explaining that they would chase her down the street prodding her with chants of “ching chong,” misunderstanding that she was Filipino, not Chinese, while also adding in a derogatory remark. Or, they would tell her to go back to Puerto Rico, assuming her darker skin color meant she was from the Caribbean island.
But through the taunting and teasing, Malalis felt secure in her identity and her ancestry that made her different from other kids. “I never wished I wasn’t Filipino,” she says. “I never wished I was white, or wished I blended in. I felt very proud of who I was. I was upset that I was being chased, I was upset that people were making fun of me, but I never wished that I was somebody I wasn’t.”
"There seemed to be a pattern there."
She also channeled that attitude of acceptance of herself when she came out as a teenager at age 16. While her Catholic parents weren’t thrilled, she also did not experience the casting-out that gay teens sometimes feel from their families.
To those who question how she reconciles her own Roman Catholic faith and fighting for LGBT issues, she says, “my desire to fight for human rights and my desire to be looking out for folks who are vulnerable is based on my faith. It’s never been in opposition.”
When it came to her career, Malalis planned on entering the medical field like her mother. She started school with a pre-med major, but soon found that it was the seminar classes that discussed community and the challenges that affect vulnerable communities that truly sparked her interest. “It ended up being that I was taking a lot of classes that were like, ‘Women in the Law,’ ‘Blacks in the Law,’ ‘Gays in the Law,’” she recalls. “And there seemed to be a pattern there.”
So, she changed course and earned her degree in Women’s Studies from Yale University before receiving her law degree from Northeastern University School of Law. After school, she began clerking for a federal judge in Manhattan.
Although New York is lauded for its diversity, Malalis didn't see many other women of color practicing law in the city. So, she has been committed throughout her career to acting as a mentor to younger members and promoting diversity and visibility in the workplace.
"We have to be actually representative of the city."
Before joining the Commission, Malalis spent a decade at Outten & Golden LLP, where during her time she co-founded and co-chaired the practice's LGBT Workplace Rights Practice Group. Around this time, President George W. Bush supported a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
“I thought, you know what, if our chief executive is explicitly saying this part of the population is not as important, or does not have the same rights as that part of the population," she says, "that means that people who are in position of power — people that have access to resources — we really need to come out in support of these communities.”
Speaking to the managing partner of a firm, Malalis and one of her co-workers pitched an idea of a firm that focused on the needs of LGBT employees. And from there, the LGBT Workplace Rights Practice Group was formed.
Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Malalis to the Commission in 2014. Since she assumed her role as chair and commissioner in February 2015, Malalis has worked to shape an inclusive environment so that a variety of perspectives are valued in the organization. "I think in having [various] life experiences, people can add humanity and compassion and understanding to the positions they hold," she says.
The Commission is tasked with holding employers, landlords, government, and even the public accountable for discrimination and harassment. It also educates the public about their rights and protects people against discrimination based on race, color, religion/creed, age, national origin, citizenship status, gender, gender identity, and various other areas.
"It speaks to the values of diversity and inclusion in this city, where when ... we see that [people are] being attacked, we’re going to stand up for them"
In two years, Malalis has grown the staff from 55 to 131, with plans to add another few dozen employees this year. Altogether, the staff speaks at least 25 languages (prior to 2015, they spoke only six across the organization), and Malalis prioritizes hires who have experience working with various communities.
"I think if we’re going to be a government agency that is truly serving the people of New York City, we’ve got to actually look like them and speak like people in the city," Malalis says. "We have to be actually representative of the city."
Under her lead, the Commission has sent a message to New Yorkers that they are heard, they are understood, and they have rights. To kick off Pride Month in 2016, the Commission partnered with de Blasio to launch the nation's first government-led citywide ad campaign to protect trans bathroom rights. The ads, which were displayed on public transportation, phone booths, community newspapers, TV, and social media, feature two transgender New Yorkers urging others to "look past pink and blue."
Malalis is optimistic when it comes to the treatment of immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, and people of color in America, despite Trump's moves against them. "We have LGBT communities supporting Muslim communities. And we have Muslim communities supporting Jewish communities, and we have African Americans marching out there or raising awareness on behalf of immigrant rights," Malalis says.
"It speaks to the values of diversity and inclusion in this city where, when we see that people in our city — our neighbors, our friends, people in our communities, people that we go to school with, we go to work with — we see that they’re being attacked, we’re going to stand up for them.”
Regardless of the national mood or leadership, Malalis says she will continue to work through the Commission to protect the rights of New Yorkers.
“The very reason I came to the Commission on Human Rights is because I had skills and experience that I could use to help some of the most vulnerable people in New York City,” she says. “And if I didn’t think I could do that, then I wouldn’t be here.”