Wednesday September 12, 2012

My Summer in Civil Rights

Law student Chip Neilson describes how he was rewarded by gaining practical skills as a volunteer with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission this summer.

This summer, University of Dayton School of Law students provided legal assistance to the poor and marginalized members of society with support from the Lisa A. Kloppenberg Public Interest Award, which helps support volunteer internships of students working in public interest law. To be eligible for the award, students agree to work 200 hours in the public interest internship without pay or course credit. 

Law student Chip Neilson writes about his experience working for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission in Dayton.

By Chip Neilson  

This summer, I had the opportunity to work with the Dayton regional office of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC), the state agency charged with enforcing Ohio’s civil rights statutes through investigation and cooperation with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. I spent 10 weeks working in both the employment and housing sections, and they both contributed to a unique experience overall.

The OCRC is an independent third-party investigator that gets involved when a charging party asserts that their civil rights have been violated by an employer, landlord, housing authority or mortgage lender.

I received hands-on experience leading factual investigations, driving settlement agreements between parties and their attorneys, and reaching legal determinations as to whether Ohio civil rights laws had been violated. Much of the work I prepared was sent to the Ohio attorney general in the event the matter went to litigation.

Many discrimination cases involve discrimination based on race, gender and disability (though there are many more bases listed by statute). While I’d like to say that I found no instances of wrongful discrimination during an investigation, that wasn’t the case. Unfortunately, I worked on numerous cases involving employers that wrongfully terminated employees, or landlords who wrongfully denied housing opportunities to potential residents.

However, in navigating the often contentious process of an investigation, a laser-focused light was shed on one of the most important yet most basic skills I’ll ever use as a professional: listening.

The facts of a case were hardly ever complete and emotions typically ran high, but listening to the person across the desk determined whether we found probable cause. Listening between what was on paper and what a party articulated in an interview created an environment where the right questions could be asked and the proper answers could be reached. Without listening carefully, the risk of cases being incorrectly decided would have been exponentially higher.

I’d like to think that I gave my time, energy and effort to the public interest this summer, but the practical skill and application I earned was my greatest reward.

For more information, contact Bob Mihalek, communication specialist at the University of Dayton School of Law, at 937-229-4683 or