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Bringing it all back home

In her new job, Wilda White pursues a lifelong passion for social justice

| 05 February 2009

Wilda WhiteWhite in her new law-school office. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

When Wilda White arrived at Berkeley as a first-year law student in 1980, she had a burning desire to be a civil-rights lawyer and was surprised, she now recalls, to find that the school offered "nothing for students interested in social-justice programs."

To fill that gap, the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice was created at Berkeley Law to train the next generation of public-interest lawyers. And now White, coming full-circle, has returned to campus as the center's new executive director.

For White, the position represents the realization of a dream she's had since she was a child: of working fulltime in public-interest law.

Says White, who earned her law degree in 1983, "I thought all lawyers were like Perry Mason, trying to get innocent people off, and like Thurgood Marshall, out fighting against social injustice."

Reality taught her otherwise: Public-interest law jobs, she learned, are few and far between. So she's spent much of the last 25 years as a plaintiff's attorney handling personal injury and discrimination cases, among others, and in business management skills that combined to make her the top candidate when the center went looking for an executive director late last year. She started in mid-December.

For the Henderson Center, bringing White aboard is prima facie evidence of its growth since a small group of faculty willed it into existence 10 years ago. She'll double the firepower of the center's management team, freeing Mary Louise Frampton, whose success in building and running the center left her stretched thin, to focus on her teaching and her role as the center's faculty director.

"It allows us to engage in strategic planning," says Frampton. "It enhances our ability to engage with the community and with the rest of the campus. In looking for effective ways to create a more just society, the law is just one solution. We can't do it in a vacuum."

'There was a silence'

The Henderson Center was created in response to the passage of Proposition 209, the 1996 state ballot measure that outlawed affirmative action in public institutions, leaving a palpable mark on the university.

"The number of students of color plummeted," Frampton recalls. "It also had the effect of discouraging any discussion about race and diversity. There was a silence."

The center began as a place where social-justice issues could be discussed freely, and where students and faculty interested in those issues could be nurtured, according to Frampton.

Three law faculty members Angela Harris, Eleanor Swift, and Rachel Moran (who is at UC Irvine this year) got it off the ground in 1999. Frampton, after 30 years in a civil-rights and employment-discrimination practice in the Central Valley, was brought in two years later as director. It was on her watch that the center was named after Thelton Henderson, a federal judge who she says "personifies the center's aspirations."

Henderson, who graduated from Berkeley in 1955 and from Berkeley's School of Law in 1962, went on the federal bench in 1980, earning a national reputation for championing the rights of the most vulnerable. He's defended the rights of state prison inmates to be given adequate medical care, protected dolphins from tuna-fishing nets, and required equal treatment of gay and lesbian employees by the U.S. Department of Defense. In 1997 he famously overturned Prop. 209, but his ruling was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeal. He is now chief judge emeritus of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The law school calls the center named for him the centerpiece of its public-interest program. Some law schools create a separate public-interest track, Frampton says, but "we decided not to, because so many students are interested, and we want to provide a variety of ways for them to be engaged."

A key part of the center's work that White now oversees is its schedule of public lectures, discussions, and symposia on topics that revolve around race, class, gender, and disability. For example, the center's biweekly Ruth Chance lecture series, named after a social crusader who was the only woman in Berkeley's law class of 1931, brings people engaged in current social controversies to the law school every other Monday.

The center also teaches students to identify the social-justice issues implicit in all of their courses and how to raise them in class.

"Students have a reticence to speak up in general, and especially around social-justice issues," says White. "It's hard to bring up. Social issues aren't popular."

Center research projects involve Berkeley Law students in the community. One current project is assessing the effectiveness of a restorative-justice program at an Oakland middle school, to see if changing discipline systems to emphasize taking responsibility can keep students off the path to suspensions, expulsion, and jail. Another project, a collaboration with the Graduate School of Journalism and the Oakland Tribune, is working to try to change the way the media reports on crime.

"A lot of what the Henderson Center does is train law students to serve the public," says Frampton, who will continue to oversee the center's research and community work in addition to teaching two courses and supervising scholarship.

Important conversations

As the Henderson Center's new executive director, White is taking over administrative tasks like budgeting and the day-to-day running of the center. A Harvard M.B.A. hangs on her office wall in the law school's North Addition along with her Berkeley and Boalt degrees and her legal licenses. And hanging alongside them is a framed dollar bill with "77" embroidered on it in large red letters, pierced by a needle still dangling a remnant of red thread a vivid illustration of the amount women make compared to men (a number that's changed some, but not a lot, since).

White got her professional start working for Legal Aid in New York, then came back to California and then spent five years with Sterns and Walker in San Francisco, where she rose to managing partner and represented plaintiffs in insurance, civil-rights, and personal-injury cases.

After getting her business degree, doing a stint as a newspaper reporter in Miami, and working for McKinsey and Company as a management consultant and along the way serving a brief term on the Oakland school board White still hadn't found the public-interest work she wanted. So she went back to representing plaintiffs in personal-injury, discrimination, and civil-rights cases as a partner in Walker, Hamilton and White in San Francisco, where she lives.

The Berkeley Law job finally brought it all home for White, who is most excited about the opportunity it presents to work with students. "They're so much more aware and alive in ways that students in the 1980s weren't," she says.

She gets charged up talking about a recent Henderson Center town-hall meeting that centered on the issue of class privilege. The discussion turned to the question of how class affected Barack Obama's ascendance to the presidency, and the students agreed that it had played a large role. They also expressed concern that because there's a black president, people would think there's no longer any need for equal-opportunity programs, White recounts.

"It's important to have these conversations," says White, "and no one else on campus is doing these things."