For 19 years, attorney Tanya Hughes has worked for the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. Before that, she was a prosecutor in New York. But in her new role as the CHRO’s permanent executive director, she sees herself just as much as a teacher. “We try to take on some of the current issues,” said Hughes.

For example, she hopes to launch a dialogue that will result in educating Connecticut residents of all types that it’s never acceptable to use the N-word, inside the workplace or anywhere else. “There’s a big cultural divide between the N-word on whether it should be used or not…It’s not appropriate anywhere, anytime,” said Hughes, and African American. She said that younger people tend to think the word is OK as long as it’s not used in anger. “They think it’s a term of endearment; it’s never a term of endearment,” Hughes said.

Hughes had been serving as the CHRO’s interim executive director since July, following the retirement of longtime executive director Robert Brothers, who had been at the helm for 20 years. Hughes, who for 15 years headed the CHRO’s Bridgeport office, was appointed to the executive director’s position on a permanent basis on Nov. 1.

“The Commission voted both unanimously and enthusiastically to appoint Tanya Hughes as executive director because our goal is to solidify our position as the nation’s leading governmental civil rights agency,” said Gary Collins, an attorney who chairs the nine-member CHRO board. “As we turn our attention to the development and execution of a strategic plan that will make us an even more efficient and effective agency, Tanya Hughes’ demonstrated leadership and ability to drive change will be the single most important component to our success.”

About 85 percent of the CHRO’s caseload involves employment discrimination matters. About 10 percent relate to housing, with the remaining 5 percent tied to credit discrimination or other claims. The commission runs on a budget of about $7.1 million each year.

A news release announcing Hughes’ appointment said that under her leadership, the commission received $227,000 in federal grant money to fight discrimination in housing. She has also put the CHRO in a leading role in the state’s newly established Racial Profiling Prohibition Project, holding community forums on improving relations between citizens and the police in the wake of the highly publicized profiling complaints in East Haven.

The release further noted that Hughes has been instrumental in increasing staffing levels. In recent years, budget cuts led to significant staffing reductions at the CHRO. The numbers dropped from a peak of 103 staffers into the low 60s.

According to CHRO spokesman Jim O’Neill, since Hughes has been on board the state Office of Policy and Management has approved three hires — a regional manager and two clerical staffers have been added. Also, two employees were promoted from the regional offices to the agency’s legal division. The CHRO is also in the process of hiring four new Human Rights and Opportunity representatives, whose wide-ranging job descriptions include community outreach, educational activities, analyzing data and evaluating efforts made by state agencies and contractors to comply with affirmative action regulations. And finally, the federal gramt will allow for the hiring of two more positions in the Housing Discrimination Unit.

Closing Cases

Collins said in a July interview that the next executive director will be called upon to improve the efficiency of the agency. He noted improvements under the former director that increased the number of cases closed out within the 370-day statutory deadline. Before 2011, the deadline was met in fewer than 70 percent of the cases. In the past year, the closure rate has improved to 94 percent. Collins is looking to build on that progress.

Hughes would also like to launch training programs and increase the commission’s visibility. For example, she would like the agency to develop a CHRO computer app that would offer information about the agency and anti-discrimination laws. “Our focus is on programs that will create understanding between people and reduce discrimination whether based on race, gender, disability or other factors protected by Connecticut law,” Hughes stated. “I am very excited to have the commissioners’ confidence to guide the commission into a new era.”

She would like to hold training programs at CHRO and elsewhere. “We will increase our external training efforts as well. We will be doing some ‘train the trainer’ courses for police officials in the new year around racial profiling and fair and impartial police practices,” she said.

The CHRO has faced criticism in recent years, as attorneys who defend employers in discrimination claims have argued that the agency has been improperly awarding plaintiff’s legal fees and emotional damages when it lacks the jurisdiction to do so. “The issue is currently pending litigation so it is best I not comment on it at this time,” Hughes said.

Hughes was born in Anderson, S.C., and raised in Buffalo, N.Y. She graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta and attended the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Law.

At the beginning of her career, she spent eight years at the New York City Department of Law, where she prosecuted child abuse and neglect cases. While there, she recalls appearing before Judge Judy Sheindlin, who has since made a career out of being a judge on TV. “That was 30 years ago,” Hughes said. “She’s exactly the same as she is on TV. She’s just as tough,”

Hughes left New York for New Haven after her father passed away; she wanted to be able to keep her mother company. She was hired by the CHRO in 1994 and served as an investigator and staff attorney before becoming a regional director, a position she held until this year. “Pretty much most of the work I’ve done is in the public interest sector,” Hughes said.

Hughes and her husband, Larry, have three children; two of them are adults and one a ninth-grader in a New Canaan school. Hughes has been active in a number of nonprofit organizations, including the southern Connecticut chapter of the Sickle Cell Disease Association and the Bridgeport Parent Leadership Training Institute.