As part of our 40th Anniversary milestone we reached out to former staff and board, and law clerks and invited them to join us at various events, such as the annual ERA Luncheon. We also asked them to relfect on how ERA had influenced them, and to share some memorable moment of their time with the organization. What follows are a few of the recollections.
If you ever spent time working with ERA (staff member, law clerk, case co-counsel), or served on any of its volunteer committees we’d love to hear your reflections too.
My greatest moment at ERA was as a board member and chair of the litigation committee when we decided to bring a nation-wide class action against Wal-Mart for sex discrimination in their selection of managers. In the end, five members of the Supreme Court found that we didn’t meet the criteria for a class action because the decisions not to promote women were made by many individuals acting individually. It may not be in my life-time, but I do expect the Court to overturn that decision someday. I thought the District Court and Ninth Circuit were right that we had demonstrated a pattern and practice of discrimination sufficient to justify a class action. But the majority of our current Supreme Court have a hard time seeing sex discrimination, and an even harder time seeing race discrimination (except against whites). It’s a travesty of justice.
— David Oppenheimer, Law Professor, Berkeley Law
I was ERA’s first law clerk during my last year in law school (1973) before it became ERA. The firm was Davis, Dunlap, and Williams. Nancy Davis, Mary Dunlap, and Wendy Williams – three Boalties willing to take on a Stanford clerk – joined by Joan Graff to envision a law office devoted to gender equality. My favorite moment was Herma Hill Kay standing on a table and taking off her shoe, pounding to get everyone’s attention at a gathering to announce the funding to become ERA. But I also remember fondly many long conversations with all the staff attorneys about the evolving Supreme Court jurisprudence, life, and law. Here’s to another forty years.
— Stephanie M. Wildman, John A. and Elizabeth H. Sutro Professor of Law, Santa Clara University
Ruth Chance and my mother were dear friends throughout their lives and debating partners at Girls High School in San Francisco. It was a special pleasure to get to know Ruth during my time on the board. When Thelton Henderson became a judge, I succeeded him as the only man on the board for a short while. Amidst all the pioneering work and collegiality among board members and staff, there was a time when we had a serious financial challenge. Nancy Davis and her team volunteered to take a pay cut to keep the organization going. Institutionally, such a situation could not continue indefinitely but for that time, this action made a crucial difference, kept ERA alive, and reflected a spirit and sense of determination that makes ERA the prized and essential institution we celebrate today.
— Michael Traynor, San Francisco Lawyer
I served as a law clerk during a spring externship for my final semester of law school – up to the last day. During my time there we were a small team doing big work. That spring, the ERA team . . . was focused on the Bojorquez trial on behalf of a woman who had been sexually assaulted by her supervisor at work on the night shift, forced to keep quiet – and then the assailant was effectively promoted . . . The most exciting moments from a legal geek perspective was finding recent favorable case law about “me-too” evidence with which the judge and defendant were unfamiliar, and an “ah-ha” moment when I realized that, for all our parsing of the differences of a “foreman” or a “manager” and a “supervisor”, the Spanish-speaking client and her coworkers used different terminology altogether in describing their work relationships.
— Cora Rose, Americorps Attorney, San Francisco Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights
Working on fundraising and communications at ERA from 2003-2007 helped many of the still-hazy gender rights principles in my head meet hard reality. It was painful but powerful to see the reality that women are paid less than men, that women of color make even less, and that mothers make the least of all. That women and girls are the ones who leave school and jobs, not their harassers. That becoming a class-action plaintiff in a righteous lawsuit against Wal-Mart – or any company – takes courage and tenacity, and is the exact opposite of “frivolous.” And it was awesome to tell the media and the public all about it. In detail. With footnotes.
— Ingrid Tischer, Development Director, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF)
I first came to ERA as the Executive Assistant in the fall of 2008. I was new to the Bay Area and immediately felt welcomed by the warm staff. Although I’d taken women’s studies courses and considered myself well-versed in feminist theory, I had much to learn about the discrimination — and sometimes, violence — that women still faced in the workplace. I remember feeling stunned several times when I heard what some women workers had gone through and was proud to be part of an organization that helped defend the rights of women and girls. I moved to Barcelona, Spain in 2011 and have been teaching English and literature. Though the organizational and communication skills I honed at ERA have helped me in my current profession, what has stayed with me has been the awareness of just how much there is to do still to make this a better world for women and girls everywhere. I try to instill the virtues of equality in my students.
— C. Adan Cabrera, writer/teacher Barcelona, Spain
Congrats on ERA celebrating 40 years. I was around for the early 30’s (ERA Development Coordinator). ERA helped shape my future in many ways, as I worked there during my mid 20s–just starting out in my career. I’ve made it a point to ask about family leave policies during every interview I’ve had since leaving ERA. I remember Irma Herrera (former ED) telling me that family leave will never be a priority to employers unless it’s a priority to employees. I’ve been shocked by how many hiring manager don’t know what their policies are.
— Jessica Cothran, Physician Educational Outreach Project Coordinator at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance
ERA is everywhere. Not only does it impact its clients’ lives, it is a rich mentoring network of awe-inspiring women attorneys. When I was an ERA staff member, ERA catapulted me into a legal career, and it continues to accompany me on my path. Every step of my career, even when coming back to ERA as a law clerk, the ERA family has always been just an arm’s reach away, guiding, mentoring and encouraging me and looking out for me as I continue to forge my own way as a woman in the legal profession. Thank you, ERA!
— Anna Gehriger, Associate attorney, Phillips, Spallas & Angstadt, LLP
I clerked at ERA during the fall of 1994. I spent most of my time working on the hotline taking calls from women who had concerns about their employment . . . Today, I am still performing a variation of my work at ERA in my current practice as a workplace investigator. I go into workplaces as an outside neutral to investigate complaints of alleged wrongdoing. I am still listening to people’s concerns (as I did on ERA’s A& C Line) and trying to help improve their work lives. My job at ERA was my first paid employment law position and I am sure it helped me land a summer clerkship at a firm specializing in employment law. Congratulations on reaching this milestone anniversary!
— Andrea Kelly Smethurst, Andrea Kelly Smethurst Law, P.C. Walnut Creek
Ruth Chance Law Fellows
ERA established a fellowship that allows a recent law graduate to spend one or two years at ERA as the organization’s Ruth Chance Law Fellow. We named the fellowship after an outstanding woman and a great source of wisdom and guidance during ERA’s earliest years. (To read more about Ruth, click here.) We know Ruth Chance would be as proud as we are of the fellows who have all moved on to illustrious careers, and who continue to advance women’s equality.
My fellowship at ERA was the first step in a 22-year career as a public interest attorney. At ERA, I saw the destabilizing effect that discrimination has on clients’ lives. Since then, I have devoted my career to helping people fight housing and employment discrimination. My work at ERA helped me see that when a client’s rights are vindicated, it isn’t just a legal victory; it is life affirming.
— Ilene Garcia (1990-1991)
ERA’s First RCLF, Attorney, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid
My time at ERA continues to influence me to this day, because it focused me on women’s economic security issues. I heard firsthand from women how gender discrimination cost them a job, a promotion, their dignity, their safety and/or their sanity. I saw how women’s financial security can help us escape violent situations or pursue opportunities that our mothers and grandmothers could only dream about. In my subsequent jobs I maintained a gender perspective in publications, media work, local collaboratives and policy advocacy I worked on, and I still see many issues through a gender lens.
I was charged with interviewing Wal-Mart class members to identify strong witnesses to consider putting on the witness stand. One day I spoke with this woman who was in the class, who didn’t know how much males were paid or how promotions were handled at Wal-Mart. I didn’t think she’d be someone we’d put on the stand, and as I was concluding the phone interview I asked if there was anything else about working at Wal-Mart she’d like to share. Her response was “I should probably tell you about the strippers.” She then went on to share how her store had strippers come into the employees break room early in the morning to celebrate certain male employees’ birthdays.
My most unforgettable memory is the morning that we filed the Wal-mart case. Another attorney and I were responsible for picking up the petition from the office early in the morning and taking it to the courthouse to be filed. We only had a short amount of time to get from the office to the courthouse, make copies of the filed cover page and get to the press conference at 10 AM. All the press packets were ready and we had tons of national media ready including CNN and Washington Post. I got up to the ERA office, put my key in the lock and…THE LOCK BROKE!! The key just kept turning and turning. Of course, I freaked out. This was before smart phones, so my options were limited. It was 7:30 AM — what was I going to do? I went to an office next door and for some reason, the universe was smiling on us and there was someone in that office so early in the morning. I was frantically going through their phone book looking for LOCKSMITHS. I remember screeching on the phone to get a locksmith to come to the office — someone finally came and DRILLED through the door so we could get in and get the petition. We made it in time but it was a close call!
— Aimee Durfee (1999-2001)
Program Officer Y & H Soda Foundation, SF Bay Area
I learned that advocacy does not just happen by filing motions in court. Rather, a lawyer can be an advocate through providing legal advice on the phone, mentoring law students, educating the community on their legal rights, and ensuring that their very own work environment is one that fosters balance and intellectual growth.
— M. Adrianne De Castro (2005-2007)
Desai Law Firm PC, Costa Mesa
I loved working with the interns and doing sexual harassment trainings for Arriba Juntos. It was incredible to have a group of construction workers (mostly male) agree that someone messing with their ability to support their family was wrong. I watched as they made the connection between sexual harassment interfering with work to interfering with someone’s ability to support their family.
— Rebecca Luz Mayberg (2008-2010)
Staff Attorney, Justice and Diversity Center, Bar Association of San Francisco
I enjoyed learning from everyone–all aspects of the org, from legal to communications to development . . . and really enjoyed the sexual harassment trainings I gave all over the place. That helped me become a much better and more confident public speaker, so in some ways, that was probably the most important thing for me . . . The Exotic Dancers Alliance came to us for help in the last few months of my time there. I found their issues intellectually engaging and was shocked by the lack of rights they experienced. This ultimately led to me founding the Sex Workers Project (NYC) years later. I turned into a real lawyer at ERA. It made me think about how to operationalize intersectionality in feminism. It confirmed how crucial communications is as a tool. It was a workplace where people were kind and pursued excellence.
— Juhu Thukral (1997-1998)
Director of Law and Advocacy, The Opportunity Agenda, New York
I learned a lot supervising law students, and left ERA with a commitment that any law students I work with will have a good experience. Working the A&C (Advice & Counseling) Line was extremely educational in terms of gaining substantive knowledge about the law, because we received many different types of calls. It requires you to figure out who you can help, who you can refer elsewhere. Most of all whenever I do intake I always want to give the caller something practical they can take away from that conversation.
— Darci Burrell (1995-1996)
Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, Oakland
A favorite memory was one day one of our firefighter clients brought her uniform and boots with her to the office. Not counting supplemental equipment that firefighters may need to carry such as axes and hoses, the uniform and boots alone weigh approximately 50-60 pounds. She allowed me to try on the gear to get a sense of how it is to move around while wearing it. I’m a pretty strong person but I recall stumbling to take a few steps and could not fathom having to run up and down flights of stairs or possibly carry additional weight in the form of extra equipment or incapacitated people. I already was in awe of our clients, but being able to literally walk in their (fire-resistant) boots for just a few steps was proof positive to me that we were representing true super heroes.
— Kelli Evans (1994-1995)
Senior Director, Administration of Justice, California State Bar
My experience at ERA solidified my desire to continue to be an advocate on behalf of women’s rights. I am grateful for the substantive legal training as well as the introduction to a broad and diverse civil rights community across the Bay Area committed to improving the lives of those most in need. I continue to rely on both the legal training and the many relationships ERA has opened to me in my work in the political arena.
— Betsy Cotton (1992-1993)
Director, close the gap CA
Whatever I decide to do, I know I have the tools to take on challenging situations. The beginning of this learning was at ERA, and it helped shape who I am today. I now work as a realtor and am very much a part of my community and connected to the core values that led me to do civil rights work. I especially love working with people in non-profit advocacy organizations in the home buying process. I help people make tough decisions about what’s possible for them. I help craft solutions that work for everybody — my clients and the other parties. Buying a house brings up uncertainty, fear, and unexpected challenges. I am a strong negotiator and a counselor and enjoy the challenges in my current work.
— Farrah Wilder (2002-2004)
Realtor, Pacific Union, Oakland
The Clarence Thomas hearings were happening when I was at ERA and the A&C line experienced a surge in calls from women all over the country with stories of their experiences of sexual harassment and discrimination. It was a challenge to keep up with the calls. It was hard to not be able to help so many women who lived in areas of the country with no access to attorneys/agencies in their area familiar with handling sexual harassment cases . . . ERA taught me to prepare, and prepare again, and to think creatively when trying to solve a problem. Sometimes the most you can do is listen attentively and validate someone’s experience. Even if there is nothing that can be done legally, there is always room for compassion.
— Jacqueline Ortega (1991-1992)
Executive Director, Oakland Beacon School
I learned the importance of multi-pronged advocacy. For example by running the A&C Line we knew what real people were facing in their lives. That helped guide our priority setting including our litigation and legislative advocacy work. I think it is so important for policy advocacy to be based on real experience. I learned how hard it can be to develop a litigation strategy – even in unjust situations like the attacks on affirmative action in California and the sexual harassment of exotic dancers. Getting to work on such important civil rights issues with an amazing team of committed advocates has definitely shaped my advocacy career and my life purpose. I have been a health advocate for almost 14 years and I’m most proud of the major role I played last year in drafting the California legislation expanding Medi-Cal to 1.4 million more additional poor Californians and simplifying the rules for the program.
— Elizabeth Landsberg (1998-1999)
Director of Legislative Advocacy, Western Center on Law and Poverty, Sacramento
Since leaving ERA, I am most proud of my work at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, an organization that grew from an ERA project. At NCLR, I oversaw the LGBT Elder Law Project and started one of the first transgender elder law clinics. I continued to advocate for LGBT rights through amicus/appellate briefs on family, constitutional, healthcare, immigration, and employment issues. I also coordinated the first anti-bullying campaign with the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. Despite immensely enjoying my work at NCLR, it was precisely the work at NCLR that sparked my interest to examine discrimination more closely by beginning a joint Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan. Ultimately, ERA provided me a strong foundation to fiercely represent clients in civil rights litigation and the courage to take risks personally and professionally to understand nuances of discrimination from new and different perspectives.
— Angie Perone (2008-2010)
Graduate Student University of Michican, Ann Arbor
Joannie Chang devoted her legal career to representing workers, women, and people of color. Following her year as a Ruth Chance Law Fellow, she joined the Legal Aid Society/Employment Law Center, and later the Asian Law Caucus. She was instrumental in the enactment of California’s Paid Family Leave Law, the first state law of its kind to be adopted in the United States. In her work with San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, she drafted rules, contacted employers, and handled public inquiries about the first-in-the-nation ordinance providing care for the uninsured at a network of clinics and hospitals. This law serves as a model for other cities.
In her 15-year legal career Joannie left a huge imprint and touched and improved the lives of countless people.