The 2020 Boston Foundation Annual Report features 20 local leaders, making a difference each day through their work in what has been an unprecedented year for Boston and its people.Read More
Tell me about yourself and how you found your way to Boston and the work you are doing.
I was born in Costa Rica and I came here when I was nine years old with my mom, who is a single mother. My mom brought me and my brother to the United States seeking opportunities and a better future. When we arrived in the U.S., we lived in Chelsea, Massachusetts, not too far from where Lawyers for Civil Rights is headquartered now. My family moved to Chelsea because that’s where relatives were living, which is not atypical of immigrants, who tend to go where they know folks. My family lived on Carmel Street. At the time, I didn’t speak any English. It was my first time in the U.S. My mom also struggled to find work, struggled to really push forward with her American dream.
I grew up in poverty. For many years, my mother cleaned houses for a living. Eventually, my uncle came to the United States and he settled in New Jersey, and we moved to New Jersey close to my uncle. I look back and now realize it meant free child care from a family member. I went to middle school and high school in New Jersey, not far from New York in a town called Plainfield, which is very similar to Chelsea: a low-income community with a large population of people of color. Very working class.
I went to college at Penn. I was the first person in my family to go to college and the first person in my family to go to graduate school and the first person in my family to become a lawyer. And so I feel very lucky and privileged about that. I went to law school in New York at NYU.
I met my husband in Provincetown, which is sort of stereotypical for a gay couple. We met through friends in the summer of 2002 and we’ve known each other for 18 years. He was in architecture school at Harvard at the time. I was in law school, so we dated long-distance. But, because school was our main focus, and he was in Boston and I was in New York, we became friends. And then over time, the relationship grew and we were married. When we got married, Seth moved down to New York. I was still working in the LGBT/HIV movement and there were a lot of marriage cases going on around the country. I was working on the marriage equality fight, both at the Supreme Court and the state level. I was there when marriage equality passed through the judicial system in New Jersey through a lawsuit I helped to litigate. So, I worked on the New Jersey marriage equality case, but also the Supreme Court case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Seth moved down to New York and we lived there together for several years. And then the opportunity came up to run Lawyers for Civil Rights, which at the time was called the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. I was recruited for a position that was really interesting to me. And I was very eager to assume a leadership role in an organization that served people of color and immigrants because, as somebody who grew up in poverty in Chelsea, MA and Plainfield, NJ, I really wanted to be able to use my background and personal experiences as an immigrant of color and as someone who grew up in poverty to help shape the civil rights agenda. Leading from that perspective was very appealing to me. Seth is originally from the Boston area; he grew up in Wayland. Moving to Boston was an opportunity for us to be closer to Seth’s family.
We moved to Boston in 2015. For more than five years, I have been running Lawyers for Civil Rights. During this time, I have rebranded the organization to make it more modern and streamlined. We have also been involved in a lot of advocacy work, pushing for community education efforts with our grassroots and community partners along with minority-owned small businesses. I really have modernized the organization. When I joined the organization, someone commented that I was essentially inheriting “a Cadillac with flat tires and no engine.” I was inheriting an incredible organization that had played a major role in integrating the public schools, police department, fire department, and public housing projects in Boston. At the height of the Civil Rights movement, my organization was a leading player in the fight for civil rights and racial justice locally and nationally. Our accomplishments demonstrated what we could achieve using the court and the legal justice system to push for racial justice.
The organization had become a bit more quiet over time, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, which is understandable for a number of reasons. When you have overt racism and segregation, the issues are easier to tackle, from both a legal and community perspective. People see that kids are sitting in different schools and separate classrooms—and it’s easier to strategize and mobilize to address these blunt injustices, primarily by integrating these institutions. By the 1990s, there were essentially no more institutions to be integrated. That work was done. And so you really have to shift gears away from doing work that involved textbook examples of desegregation.
Organizations like Lawyers for Civil Rights, that have been around for 50 years, do go through these transitions where we are working on a particular set of issues or cases that essentially evolve. My organization had receded from the public spotlight for a bit because our traditional desegregation work changed as major legal and cultural shifts took place on the ground.
Today, we have a much more complex racial landscape, where things are not as overt; they are rather covert. It reminds me of a recent discussion around a housing report that the Boston Foundation commissioned along with Suffolk University concerning how qualified renters “need not apply.” As the report shows, racism and discrimination are much more subtle. If you have a Section 8 voucher and you show up at a house inquiring about an apartment, you really don’t know how the couple that came before you was treated. You also don’t know how the couple that comes after you will be treated. If White potential renters are being given tours, while Black people are being told that they’ve suspended operations altogether because of COVID-19, you have no way to know those differences and nuances. You really don’t know that you’ve been discriminated against. So it becomes much more challenging to shift the work around these modern day, 21st century issues of racism and discrimination.
When I stepped into the organization in 2015, I was really charged with reigniting it—putting air in the tires and an engine in the car—and finding out what this “Cadillac” can do in response to 21st Century injustice—using a different set of strategies, tools and perspectives. One of the things that I’m really proud of is that when I came in, we had a relatively small staff and we also had a relatively small docket. It was a team of five. Now we’re a team of 12. There were a handful of cases in our docket when I came in. Now we have close to 50 cases. We don’t measure growth in one or two percent upticks. We measure it in 200 or 300 percent—even fivefold/tenfold—depending on the area we’re talking about.
When I came in, we used to get a handful of calls a day requesting free legal support. Over the past years, it has grown incrementally. We quickly started getting 10 or 12 calls a day. And several years later, we were receiving 20 phone calls a day, then 40 phone calls a day. And now, since the pandemic hit in March, we are receiving over 80 requests for legal assistance a day. It’s astronomical. The more work you do, the more you showcase what you can do and how relevant you are, particularly at the community level, people start keeping you in mind as opportunities arise.
For example, when the family separation crisis happened at the southern border, we very much felt the impact in Boston. We’re not based on the border; we live, work and litigate in Boston. When the family separation crisis started happening in Texas and states along the border, we thought it was terrible, but it seemed far removed from where we are working and operating. But then parents started getting released without their kids and some parents were ending up in Boston and Chelsea, where my family first arrived back in the 1980s.
All of a sudden, affected parents started calling us and saying: “We’ve seen you in the news; we’ve seen you in the community, and we know that you take on really bold and courageous cases, really complex cases. We really don’t know where to go. We really can’t afford a lawyer.”
Within days of the family separation crisis, we had a mother sitting in our conference room in Boston, fighting back tears, and telling us about how she was separated from her nine-year-old son at the border—and she was asking for our help.
This is an example of the type of thing that emerges organically at the organization now. It’s not that we have to go out and look for these cases; they just come to us because of the reputation and partnerships we have built over the past five years. When COVID-19 hit, people knew they could come to us because they see us in action in the community. They see us providing free legal services. They turn to us because they trust us and they know that we get things done—and because we’re free. So, it’s a constellation of factors that really drive the demand for our work.
There has been tremendous demand for our work over the past five years and I think that’s a testament to our community-driven model. When our community partners call, we take our marching orders from them in terms of what they’re seeing on the ground and how we can be of assistance. We’re not sitting in an ivory tower thinking hypothetically about what might be good for the community or what to do in court. Far from it. We’re sitting in a room with our clients and community partners and we’re directly hearing from them. I think that model has been at the heart of our growth and our engagement at every level, whether it’s with community groups, like the Chelsea Collaborative or Centro Presente, or major institutions such as City Hall and the Boston Foundation.
You’ve told us about yourself and your journey to the leadership position you’re in now. What kinds of qualities do you think community leaders should have?
This question makes me think of a number of different things. It’s interesting when people say, “Iván is a leader.” I don’t really think of myself as a leader. I think of myself as a lawyer. I feel very flattered. We tend to think about leadership as something that is only available to certain people. I grew up in poverty, survived domestic violence, and lived through personal and family hardship, including having undocumented family members and having family members involved with the criminal justice system. I don’t come from the type of family or background that you would typically associate with someone who is a leader. I come from a background of struggle.
Well, many people think you are a natural leader. You took an organization that was in a slump and you turned it into a very dynamic and important one. This is why people are seeking you out for major discussions about the issues that are challenging our city.
I am definitely driven and I have grit. I embrace that. I think it is so important for me to give back to a society that has afforded me so much privilege. Most of the kids that I used to play with in Chelsea or in my apartment complex in Plainfield, New Jersey have had very different life trajectories. I would say that my work has focused on lifting as many people out of poverty as I can, and supporting as many people who grew up on the same block that I did to be able to have opportunities. As I grew up, we struggled to make ends meet. We didn’t have health insurance. And running through my mind as a 9- or 10-year-old kid is: “What can the police or landlord do to us?” My desire to be a lawyer really comes through that strong impulse to protect my mother, to protect my family, and to make sure I know what our rights are.
This impulse catapulted me professionally. I see my mother in the cases that we file. I see my family in our advocacy work. That’s what drives me, the push for equity, diversity, justice and fairness. It’s very deep rooted. It comes from a desire not to just make sure my mother is safe—free from discrimination—and treated with dignity and respect, but also making sure that everyone else in the Black and Latinx community that I grew up in can have those opportunities and protections.
I think a lot about lifting others up. And I mean that in every sense. I am making sure that I use my law degree—and privilege—to help everyone in Chelsea through all of the different facets of our work. Whether it’s housing security, eviction protection, anti-discrimination, policing or voting rights. All of these issues interface in complex ways with communities that have profound and complex social and economic needs. It’s important to me to lift up as many people as I can. I am driven and I have a really strong sense of community: We must be community-driven and community-centered as we do our work.
I think of Sophia Hall, whom I’ve identified as an emerging leader for this annual report, in so many different ways. Right when I got to Boston and we were doing work and starting to make headlines, Sophia reached out to me. She was a relatively junior lawyer and she said, “I want to talk to you. I want to have coffee with you to learn more about the work you are doing.” You might think that I get a lot of calls like that, but I actually don’t. It’s unusual. It really stands out when a law student or junior lawyer reaches out in that way.
I was impressed by the fact that Sophia had the initiative, courage and confidence to reach out. And then, when we chatted, it was clear to me that she was ambitious—which I very much related to—and that she had a demonstrated commitment to public interest work. She felt very strongly and passionately about using her law degree in the public interest. At the time, she was working at AIDS Action, providing free legal work for low-income people with HIV. I was impressed that she was doing something that wasn’t “marquee” work; but it was much-needed work that far too few lawyers actually step up to do. She was interested in my perspective as a person of color because she is a woman of color in a profession where only approximately 36 percent of lawyers are women and when you layer that with race, just about five percent of lawyers are Black. It is not an easy place for a woman of color. Who do you tap as a mentor when few attorneys actually look or relate to you?
I wanted to stay in touch with her and about five or six months later, I had an opportunity to grow my team and I contacted her immediately. It’s tough to get a job at LCR. It’s a rigorous process involving our staff and Board of Directors, including high-powered lawyers. It’s very competitive. You’re not just being grilled on your legal skills and credentials by demanding and accomplished corporate lawyers and public interest lawyers, you also have to demonstrate rare abilities. To work at LCR, you need to be able to interface with a family living in a housing project in Roxbury—and you also have to be able to seamlessly leave that meeting and operate in a board room in downtown Boston. And you have to do it gracefully with legal expertise and cultural proficiency. It’s a high bar.
Sophia aced it; the staff and Board of Directors loved her. Having her on my team now for four years, it’s not surprising to see her move up the ladder in very quick succession. She’s part of our management team now and if I were ever to step down, I think she would be a serious contender for my job.
Just one example of her leadership: When the #MeToo movement started across the country, Sophia was concerned about the perspective of low-income women who were not being heard. There were no conversations about women of color. There were no conversations about women who clean office buildings and who would get sexually harassed by their superiors late at night in an empty office tower. Sophia was deliberately and intentionally driven to add that important layer to the conversation.
Within a matter of months, Sophia had connected with low-wage, back-of-kitchen restaurant workers. She identified five women all from McCormick & Schmick’s in the Faneuil Hall location. All of them had been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. She started working with them and helping them feel comfortable about sharing their story, including going public with their stories. When Sophia filed the sexual harassment case against the restaurant, it was the first time in the country that people were talking about #MeToo in the context of low-wage workers, including women in these highly vulnerable positions. Even for famous actors and big wigs, it is difficult for them to deal with these issues. Now, just think about those at the bottom of the totem pole! Sophia’s work was really astounding in terms of working with the women, and working with the media and the court. At every turn, Sophia understood that for us to have a victory, it’s not just about winning in the court of law, it’s also about winning in the court of public opinion. And we need to be in the business of not just changing legal precedent, but also changing hearts and minds. These are complex dynamics, but not for Sophia. I often forget that she is just eight years out of law school because she is absolutely a force to be reckoned with.
It’s so important to have stories connected to litigation. But it’s not something taught in law school. It’s more an art than a science. This is challenging for many, but it comes very naturally to Sophia. I am also drawn to the fact that, the commitment to be community-driven, is really strong in Sophia.
Her leadership as a woman of color is very important. We’re in one of the most segregated professions and yet her leadership really does stand out. If I had to go to war, Sophia would be a critical part of my team.
As we pull back, beyond the exact work that you’re doing and your thoughts about Sophia, do you feel that, because of the incredible crises we’re going through now in this country, it might just be a time of potential change on a really deep level?
Absolutely. As a starting point, I want to thank the Boston Foundation for all its incredible work and support, particularly in the current climate. This is a time of significant change and reckoning—not just locally and regionally, but nationally. I think it’s really because of the concurrent and overlapping pandemics. The health crisis. The economic crisis. The racial justice crisis. With families unable to make ends meet, it shows us how weak our safety net really is, and how many families are just one paycheck removed from starvation or homelessness. And that’s not an exaggeration. Many businesses are just one week away from shuttering. It shows how vulnerable so many people are.
I think the current climate will dramatically remake our society and country as a whole. I have no doubt about that. We are living through a seminal period right now and it will be reflected in the zeitgeist and consciousness of the country for generations to come.
To give an example, approximately one-third of the families in Springfield, Massachusetts have no access to the internet. When you think about that, the pandemic is going to set us back for generations. Just think about the kid whose education has been interrupted because a family doesn’t have internet access. Think about the people who will be made homeless.
I think we will need a lot of rebuilding and repair work. And that means rebuilding economically, rebuilding academically through schools, rebuilding so many facets of our lives and communities. I see the Boston Foundation at the heart of this process.
The way Boston looks and feels will most certainly change. I came to Boston five years ago and I’m still shocked at how much the city pivots around a persistent and obsolete White/Black binary. There isn’t enough acknowledgement that there have been significant demographic changes, such as the fact that Boston is 20 percent Latinx. One in every five Bostonians is Latinx, but at many tables and in many conversations, there is still this persistent White/Black binary that essentially makes one-fifth of the city invisible or irrelevant. In far too many institutions, the White/Black binary is innate and ingrained. And then when you add the fact that 10 percent of the city is now Asian, there’s even less acknowledgment of that fact. I hope we’re slowly moving in the direction of not only acknowledging, but embracing differences.
We also need to dedicate more time and thought to what these demographic changes mean long-term for Boston. If you look at the Boston Public Schools, you see that almost 45 percent of the students are Latinx and over 85 percent of the students are students of color. We have to think creatively and strategically about how we are engaging this growing diversity in Boston at every level—whether it’s politically or economically through workforce development. How do we make sure that these demographics see themselves reflected in the halls of power and in the institutions that are supposed to be serving them?
The other big opportunity for Boston is the census data when it comes out next year in 2021. I think the census data will help push us in the direction of not just acknowledging the demographic changes, but also developing new strategies for services that we should be deploying to fit our new demographic reality.
The city has also become so gentrified over the past few years that it’s almost impossible for working-class families to remain in Boston. That’s a big challenge: how we avoid becoming San Francisco or Manhattan. How can we continue to grow with equity? At LCR, we are pro-growth and pro-development, but it has to be equitable growth and equitable development. It’s really heartbreaking when I talk to a young kid in Roxbury who says they can see the beautiful skyline from their neighborhood, but they’ve never been in one of those gleaming towers. That is crushing.
How do we go about doing this? The Boston Foundation often contributes by releasing data, such as the housing discrimination report that you discussed with us through a webinar, the “Changing Faces” report, the “Boston’s Booming, But for Whom”’ report. What are some other things we can do?
I think data and report dissemination are critical and I applaud the Boston Foundation. The foundation is also a convener. You have the power to convene. You’re a household name and extremely well respected. If you build it, people come. I’ve actually seen more of this over the past year, which I’m happy to see: more convenings, even if it’s virtually. It’s critical because when the Boston Foundation speaks, people listen. It is one thing for me to say that gentrification is a problem. It’s another thing for the Boston Foundation to convene people to discuss gentrification in Boston. The messenger is critical. I think the conversations the foundation has convened surrounding diversity, inclusion and equity, and about the state of the city across different arenas are incredibly beneficial for other players. People are looking to the Boston Foundation for this type of thought-leadership and guidance.
The foundation could also bring together grantees that are in the same portfolio and field to create opportunities to coordinate work. That happens on occasion, but I don’t think it happens enough. It varies based on program areas; some may be more inclined to do it than others. But I think that type of coordination is important. I’m aware that TBF doesn’t want to be seen as directing the work of the grantees—so there’s sensitivity there—but I think opportunities for grantees to come together to strategize can be really valuable.
At Lawyers for Civil Rights, a lot of our work during the pandemic has been in collaboration and coordination with community partners. That has happened organically. But I could see instances where the Boston Foundation could have a gathering of people working in the same space. This can have a catalytic effect. It fosters collective action. It allows for coordination of strategies and resources.
There are also some technical things that many of us in the nonprofit world don’t necessarily have. I can see the Boston Foundation, for example, helping to support communication strategies for smaller community groups without the relevant expertise or bandwidth. Data, reports, public and grantee convenings, communications strategies—all of these would be meaningful things that the Boston Foundation could be thinking about as we operate in this new world.