Justice for All
In her new role as the first executive director of the newly established Los Angeles Department of Civil and Human Rights, Capri Maddox (JD ’01) will work to ensure that all Angelenos live free of discrimination
In February of this year, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Capri Maddox, former senior advisor to city attorney Mike Feuer, to be the first executive director of the Los Angeles Department of Civil and Human Rights. Under Maddox’s leadership, the department—the first of its kind—is tasked with protecting anyone who lives, works in, or visits the City of Los Angeles from discrimination. The department will investigate complaints of discrimination and initiate remedial action against those who deny equal treatment to individuals in private employment, housing, education, or commercial settings—the areas that the department oversees.
Maddox, an attorney who has served the City of Los Angeles for almost two decades, previously led the L.A. Board of Public Works, created the city’s foster care diversion program, and was the executive director of partnerships for the Los Angeles Unified School District. In her new role, Maddox will combine her lifelong passion for justice and desire to protect the rights of all individuals to strengthen the city’s response to inequality and build new partnerships to protect Angelenos from injustice. Here, she shares her outlook on the department’s greatest goals and challenges and the ways in which she hopes to make an impact on the city’s diverse population.
How did this role come about and what do you hope to achieve in your new position?
When this role was initially considered, the City of Los Angeles was responding to a number of reported incidents of discrimination that caught the attention of activist groups such as the Los Angeles Black Worker Center and the UCLA Labor Center. These groups were interested in representation to assist and accelerate the justice process for individuals who were wronged, particularly in the areas of commerce, employment, education, and housing. We have the ability to bring fines of up to $250,000 against people who violate these civil rights, particularly for aggressive violations that involve violence or harassment. These resources offer vital protections for L.A.’s Black and brown workers, women, immigrants, disabled persons, those who identify as LGBTQ, and diverse ethnic and religious groups who have the power to represent the city’s rich diversity in the workplace.
My ultimate goal is to address systemic racism and bias in the areas over which we have jurisdiction and to collaborate with the Commission on Civil Rights, Commission on the Status of Women, the Human Relations Commission, and the Office of Racial Equity on partnerships to combat hate crimes and level the playing field for people from all backgrounds in the City of Los Angeles.
What are some of the most pressing issues you and your team hope to address in the near term?
With the support of our City Council and law enforcement partners, we seek to immediately reduce the number of hate occurrences in Los Angeles. All groups are experiencing increased levels of hate crimes. From the onset of the COVID pandemic, hate incidents soared against the Asian-Pacific Islander communities by 100 percent. Since 2016 incidents of hate against persons perceived to be immigrants soared. Racial rants against Black people are caught on social media frequently. Anti-Semitic hate related offenses reached a 40-year high in 2019, essentially the highest numbers since the Anti-Defamation League has been tracking these stats. We are Los Angeles, the City of Angels, and we are better than this.
We are also focused on addressing discriminatory practices through legal remedies. When anti-bias training and racial harmony events aren’t enough, we need punitive tools in our fight for justice. Finally, we want to create more upward mobility options for underserved communities. For example, with Mayor Garcetti we’ll be seeking commitments from major corporations to hire, promote, and retain a diverse workforce through an inclusion and pay-equity lens.
Can you talk about a discriminatory practice that has had negative consequences on underrepresented communities in Los Angeles?
One such practice is discriminatory mortgage lending—being denied a loan because of race, ethnic origin, sex, or religion, which could impact a family’s generational wealth and economic trajectory for decades. These practices limit the ZIP codes in which people are able to purchase a home. They limit the school districts where their children attend school. They force people into living in areas with poor air quality due to surrounding businesses and facilities. Why? Because they turned in a mortgage application wearing the skin that God gave them. For example, Latino and Black families pay over half a billion dollars in mortgage costs compared to their white counterparts with the same credit score. Unfortunately, in America, your skin color speaks before you do.
Which aspects of your role excite you most?
Hate is prevalent in America—and that hurts—but I think more people are seeing just how destructive it is to our communities. I’m excited that we are taking the lead on bringing awareness to marginalized and often mistreated communities in Los Angeles. I couldn’t be more excited about taking part in the civil rights commission that focuses on discrimination enforcement to address issues brought to us by citizens, from complaint to resolution. I am particularly excited that we will be partnering with the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the Caruso School of Law to help with this effort by providing mediation services to residents in need in Los Angeles. I am also proud to implement plans for significant outreach and community engagement across the city, especially our antidiscrimination and hate-crime prevention efforts through bias-awareness training.
You said in a recent interview, “If we don’t fix racism now, we will never fix it.” Why is this moment so important and why is it different from other moments or movements in history?
Mayor Garcetti has said that we can either make this moment or we can miss it. I feel that at this time, we all know what is going on in America. We see it on social media. We have access to a 24-hour news cycle. Diverse groups are speaking out against the injustices they face on a daily basis, and I think racism has the spotlight right now. When I was a kid hearing about the civil rights movement, I thought I had missed the moment. I thought the movement ended with the stories from the ’60s. If we had known then what we know now, I think we would have done more to aggressively fight racism and discrimination. And, we would have likely found opportunities to groom more people to be civil rights leaders.
As with the crisis we face with climate change, if we don’t address racism in this country now, we will experience greater storms. In this instance, the storms will come in the forms of community unrest and racial incidents that will happen more frequently and with more intensity. I truly believe that if we let this moment pass, we will miss it. If we don’t do something about it now, it sends a message to those that want to divide our country that hate wins. It also sends a message to the person that has been victimized by discriminatory practices that they don’t matter. Not taking advantage of this moment will expose many generations to pain and cause irreversible harm to communities of color and unrepresented people. It will discourage individuals from advocating for their communities and engaging in productive dialogue and participating on essential task forces. Everyone is at the table now, but we need to work together in this space because we are not sure when this moment, when we have the ability to address the inequities that plague this country, will come again.
One of your passions throughout both your personal and professional life has been promoting upward mobility initiatives. You are the face of your undergraduate alma mater’s upward mobility program. Why is this initiative so important to you?
Upward mobility programs at colleges and universities help more people reach the middle class and beyond after they graduate. As the Civil and Human Rights Department focuses on promoting racial equity and leveling the playing field in one of the most diverse cities in the nation, one of our goals as part of our equity and empowerment initiative is to create more upward mobility programming across the city. These programs act as a pipeline for underrepresented students to become the next generation of leaders. They make higher education more accessible for low-income students. I’m so proud to be the face of Cal State L.A.’s upward mobility program. These types of programs enable individuals from certain economic circumstances to not only reach college, but also prepare for their careers. Students receive targeted resources to help them find high-income-earning potential jobs, like careers in law, STEM, and other fields. They are provided opportunities to enhance their financial literacy skills, prepare for homeownership opportunities, or explore options to become entrepreneurs.
Many students and applicants also experience a huge cultural shift when applying to college, and the individuals that come from certain communities have to overcome the hurdles of what they might hear or experience at home. For example, when colleges and universities recruit first-generation students, they are also recruiting their families. Many families in immigrant communities are reluctant to accept the idea of their child moving away from home for college. Our upward mobility programming also supports the families of those applying to or attending college. As part of the racial equity initiatives announced by Mayor Garcetti this year, we are partnering with different organizations to execute upward mobility events and bring substantial differences in the quality of life to all residents.
In your role you also serve as the chief of COVID Response Equity. Can you discuss how this role addresses the disproportionate COVID-19 death rate within underserved communities?
When we think about COVID-19, or any policy issue, through an equity lens, we must first think about the tools we have and how we distribute these resources. Now, we are putting these services in areas where we are seeing the highest number of cases and disproportionately high death rates. If communities of color are exhibiting higher rates of infection and death, how are we making sure they are getting tested? If they are not getting tested, what are some of the barriers to testing? We begin to examine how people access important information and gather knowledge about the coronavirus. Is it social media? Is there a digital divide at play? Would flyers be more effective? Should we consider communicating with these communities through local press? Thinking about where and how we will reach targeted populations is extremely important to us. Your ZIP code or census tract number should not dictate whether or not you survive this pandemic.
Moving forward we will look more closely at some of these barriers, including language. We have already executed targeted campaigns to share COVID-19 testing options in various languages, making sure information was disseminated in print and addressed any language barriers. We have targeted low-income areas where residents have specific needs that aren’t always considered. Most testing facilities have drive-up access, but what about those individuals who don’t have a car or a driver’s license? So, we implemented a walk-up testing service that accepts any form of identification, which city staff has managed successfully. We placed pop-up testing clinics in areas saturated with housing developments to serve those individuals directly. These communities often have multiple families living in a single-family unit, so to tell a COVID-positive patient to isolate at home takes on a different form. We need to make sure people have the information and the tools to navigate what to do after testing positive as well, ensuring they have a toolkit such as food, PPE, and other basic resources. In addition, we are seeking resources to provide medical supplies such as a thermometer and pulse oximeters to families in need.
What does it mean to you as an Angeleno and as a woman of color to be leading this charge?
I feel a sense of responsibility to represent the best of our community in all that we do. I have felt that throughout most of my career, but I feel it more significantly now because so many people are counting on us. They know that I know that they are counting on me. In my previous roles I think I could have flown under the radar, but this is a defining moment. I knew that taking on this role was going to be a heavy responsibility, and the decision to accept the position weighed heavily on me. I couldn’t say no because there were so many people that had so much less than I had and did so much more to serve others. To have my community, particularly the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, the UCLA Labor Center, and Mayor Garcetti, ask me to take this on and to not stand up when the world was falling down would bring immense shame to all that I represent.
I am proud to be who I am as an African American woman, but I want to be very clear that I do not represent only one group of people. I am going to use this position to support all communities. While much of the attention right now is, rightfully, focused on the Black community in this country, it is not the only population that faces discrimination. This job grants me the honor of also standing up for the transgender, Jewish, Asian-Pacific Islander, Muslim, and disabled communities. I know what it feels like to be mistreated and to be “othered” with every breath in my body, and I want to make sure that we right some wrongs and level the playing field. Most of all, I hope with all my heart that we can protect all members of the mosaic that we call Los Angeles.