Interning at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination: an Interdisciplinary Collaboration

By Emily Pipes, M.A. Student, Department of History

This past summer I had the opportunity to participate in an internship at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). This experience was made possible through funding from the Dr. Charles K. Hyde Internship Program scholarship, awarded by the history department of UMass Amherst. My internship was located at MCAD’s Boston office, which is one of four MCAD locations; the other three offices are located in Worcester, Springfield and New Bedford.

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The MCAD is the second oldest civil rights agency in the United States. The Commission began in 1944 as a result of what had been expected to be federal funding to create a Fair Employment Agency. The federal funding fell through in 1946, and consequently the Governor of Massachusetts at the time, Governor Tobin, allotted some state funding towards the effort. These state funds created the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practice in 1946, which later evolved into the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. The Massachusetts Fair Employment Practice initially only had jurisdiction over employment discrimination; however, today the MCAD’s coverage extends to housing and public accommodation discrimination. Furthermore, the Commission is also responsible for enforcing laws surrounding use of criminal CORIs in hiring and the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act.

The MCAD is the state’s chief civil rights agency, and its mission is to advance the civil rights of Massachusetts residents in the work place, and in various types of housing and public accommodations through law enforcement, outreach and training. The Commission enforces Massachusetts discrimination laws by receiving complaints from the public and subsequently investigating these complaints to see if Massachusetts discrimination laws and policies are being violated. In order for the MCAD to investigate a specific complaint, the Complainant must show that they have been discriminated against, or treated less favorably then someone of a different “protected category”. The categories that the MCAD protects are: age (40 and above), criminal records, disability, gender, gender identity, genetics, military personnel, national origin, race or color, religion, retaliation or sexual orientation. The Commission is more expansive in terms of its civil rights coverage than most other civil rights agencies in the country.

The MCAD works hard to ensure that it is possible for anyone in the Commonwealth to navigate its complaint-filing system. It is not required that an individual filing a complaint with the MCAD has any legal representation at any stage of the investigation. Furthermore, there is no cost to file a complaint at the MCAD, nor is there any cost to conciliate or settle a discrimination case through mediators at the MCAD. In congruence with the Commission’s mission of equality, and in order ensure universal access to every member of the Commonwealth, it is necessary that the Agency provides these services free of charge.

Each individual investigator working at the MCAD has roughly 300 cases assigned to him or her, and the MCAD receives 4,000 and 5,000 discrimination complaints every year. It takes on average 18 to 24 months for investigators at the MCAD to come to a decision for each discrimination complaint. Until a decision is made regarding whether or not discrimination actually occurred within a specific case, the MCAD serves as a neutral party. The work at the MCAD is demanding but vital to ensuring that discrimination laws are honored in Massachusetts.

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Needless to say, investigators at the MCAD have an enormous workload, which makes the role of interns even more crucial. All members of the MCAD make it known how appreciative they are of the work interns do and make sure that we receive a great deal of hands on experience. One of my responsibilities as an intern was to meet with the public to take their complaints. While this is one of the more challenging and time-consuming tasks at the MCAD, I found it to be the most rewarding. I listened as individuals recounted the allegedly discriminatory actions taken against them and then crafted their narrative into a concise report. This first step is critical, as this report follows the Complainant throughout the entire investigation. Through this work I learned how to find the information that would be most significant in an investigation, while leaving out superfluous details.

I was also able to play a significant role in the investigation process at the MCAD, and I was assigned a number of housing discrimination cases at varying stages in their respective investigations. Depending on the status of the case, I was responsible for requesting documentation and evidence from parties, reviewing case files, and drafting recommendations regarding whether probable cause exists. Finally, I also worked as one of two interns involved in legal research on a discrimination complaint filed by the MCAD itself. This complaint was a product of the MCAD’s testing program, which analyzes how selected individuals are treated as they seek employment or services to determine if discrimination occurs. I worked alongside another intern over the course of the summer to compile our research into a report and a corresponding presentation informing the Commission of our recommendations for the next steps in this case.

The experience of working at the MCAD has provided me with a useful skill set that will prove to be valuable as I continue studying and researching the history of American social policy. I learned about Massachusetts discrimination law and MCAD procedures. I had the opportunity to view discrimination cases at every stage of the investigation process, as well as witness how the MCAD applies discrimination law in various contexts. I observed mediations, public hearings and appeal hearings. I learned how to analyze data derived from testing and investigation in order to distinguish random sets of data from patterns of purposeful or systemic discrimination. I attended weekly “brown-bag lunches,” during which different members of the Commission would lead a discussion about a specific element of discrimination law enforcement.

Most importantly, my work with the MCAD truly solidified my understanding of how the academic disciplines of public policy and history can collaborate to foster positive social change. Since entering graduate school, my historical research endeavors have guided me towards an interest in American social policies. As an intern at the MCAD, I was able to hone my ability to historicize political problems by analyzing current social conditions and attempting to piece together the historical events which created modern-day society. As a history student, I aim to deconstruct traditional historical narratives and reveal the agency of overlooked groups of people. Utilizing archival material coupled with extensive secondary source material, my work as a graduate student revolves around collecting data and using the information I find to provide insight into the lives of largely unknown or misrepresented groups. By working at the MCAD I was able to see the modern-day applications of the skills I have developed through my graduate studies at UMass.

Understanding the history of discrimination, anti-discrimination policy and how these policies have shaped ideas of citizenship and identity, as well as the roles of race, class and gender in our society, was a very important component of my work at the MCAD. I believe understanding the repercussions of past anti-discrimination policies, both intentional and unintentional, is vital to understanding the policies we create and that the way we enforce these policies will shape the roles different groups of people play in our society. There are many discrimination cases the Commission is investigating that are the first of their kind and that will shape the future of anti-discrimination policy/enforcement. The way the Commission rules on these types of claims will determine how future cases will be handled; therefore, understanding the history of anti-discrimination policy and the profound effects these policies have had is very important.

There are many skills historians possess which are relevant to the work done at MCAD and to public policy more broadly. While there are some obvious dangers found in exclusively relying on the past to dictate the future, there is a great deal of helpful guidance history can provide to public policy. Historians constantly reevaluate and reinterpret the past, and these new interpretations need to be applied to present-day policy decisions. The internship at the MCAD was a perfect fit for me, given my skill-set as a historian coupled with my interest in social policy, and passion for economic, racial and gender equality, and it has helped me to become a better researcher and historian.

1 comment
  1. I particularly liked the third from last paragraph, beginning “Most importantly,” for showing how you see history and social policy coming together for you.

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