Iván Espinoza Madrigal tells us about growing up in poverty, his career, the dramatic growth of Lawyers for Civil Rights during his tenure, how he thinks Boston will change in the coming years and more.read more
Tell me about yourself. Where you’re from and what events have shaped your life as you’ve grown into the woman you are today.
I’m originally from a small suburb outside of Cleveland, Ohio and I’ve been in Massachusetts now for about 12 years. I moved here for law school at Boston College and then stayed here because my career and my partner are here. I did my undergraduate degree in Georgia at Emory University.
Iván told me that you reached out to him, which was how you two met.
Yes, one thing you learn quickly in Boston is that even though it’s a major metropolitan area, the legal and advocacy community is very small. The legal community in Boston is strongly driven by personal one-on-one relationships and connections. I can’t count the number of times someone has called me and said, “Do you know a woman of color who does X, Y or Z?” Usually, it’s a very short list because we have a lot of work to do to diversify our legal field. And likely whoever I recommend, is the same person that would be recommended by others in our field. So, when I was still a fairly young lawyer, someone told me that I should meet Iván. We met and we hit it off very quickly in a way that was unexpected. I didn’t know then that he and Lawyers for Civil Rights would play such a huge role in my future.
So, he said that when a position opened up at Lawyers for Civil Rights, he thought of you.
Yes, and I think he’s too nice to add that I had already begun nudging him with one or two emails as soon as I saw the opportunity. That proactive behavior is one of the things that has made me professionally successful and a trait that I try to impart on a lot of young people: To be successful, you have to have the ability to set your ego aside. You have to really go after opportunities if you want them. And it’s much harder to do than people might think.
I’m a first generation college student. My grandparents raised me. And my entire family were steel workers; they worked in a foundry. In Cleveland, of course, steel is a big thing. My grandfather was the first Black president of the UAW Union in Cleveland, Ohio history. So, even with the lack of education and the lack of opportunity, this idea of being the master of your own fate, putting yourself out there, and being open to the possibility of hard work and even of failure, that’s what success requires.
What inspired you to do this work? You probably didn’t think about being a lawyer when you were a little girl.
No, when I was quite young I decided that I would like to be an ambassador, a foreign diplomat, in another country. Through high school I was also the President of our Model UN team because I was enchanted with the concept of foreign diplomacy.
As a person, I’ve always been very headstrong and social minded. As a result, people always said that I should be a lawyer. I did have lots of legal and social justice experiences in college that I sought out, working with people who were incarcerated, working with young people. I led the Emory University NAACP chapter during a time of racial unrest and through the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Still, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a lawyer or a litigator, per se, but I was always drawn to the idea of social justice through law. So, in college, I was doing an internship with a law firm called the Southern Center for Human Rights. And I had been doing work with incarcerated individuals who are HIV positive and seeking parole. And in Alabama, where I was doing this work, there was no right to representation for parolees. And there was still a lot of stigma around HIV and substance abuse… So, I had a pretty uphill battle trying to help people receive parole.
As a young person, one of the headiest drugs is making a difference. Recognizing that with relatively little energy and some determination, you can help someone and positively alter the rest of their life. It is a very profound feeling when you simply do your job and it results in real help to someone else. My first year of law school, I spent my spring break volunteering with detainees in Harlingen, Texas. Months later, I learned that the gentleman I had helped was released and allowed to stay in the United States with his two minor sons who were very ill. After that, I just never turned back. And I just thought to myself, let’s see how else I can be helpful and how else I can make a difference.
Did you have any mentors that helped you along the way?
I was always really awed about the fact that my grandfather, who was born in the late ‘20s, had accomplished what he did. And he was always very clear about the power of advocacy and collective action. And I think that eventually led me toward advocacy in some form, and I just sort of landed in the legal universe. My grandmother was the first Black female clerk of the Municipal Court of Cleveland. I always think about how fundamentally different their lives would have been if they had been born in a more modern time, when they might have had educational and other opportunities. I have the privilege of having opportunities that they did not, and when you see how much they did with less, it makes me feel like I have no choice but to build on that.
Where were you working when you first met Iván?
I was working with AIDS Action Committee, which is part of Fenway Community Health Center now, and is actually the largest HIV/AIDS advocacy group in New England. When I was doing HIV work, there were a lot of advancements in treatment, but there were still significant disparity issues in terms of connection to consistent health care and treatment. I worked with a lot of people who inject drugs, homeless youth, and trans women. All vulnerable populations that are much less likely to be connected to regular care and have related legal needs.
Since you’ve been at Lawyers for Civil Rights, what are some of the cases that stand out for you?
There are three that stand out the most for me and for different reasons. I manage our police misconduct and employment discrimination work. One of my cases is on behalf of the family of Terrence Coleman, a 31-year-old Black man who was living with schizophrenia who was shot and killed when police arrived after his merely mother called for medical assistance. The police arrive with the EMTs and, due to a lack of training around de-escalation and how to deal with a presenting crisis associated with a disability, there was a shooting and he was killed. It is a wrongful death suit but also looks at the legal responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We filed this case nearly two years ago on the anniversary of MLK’s assassination. It is such an interesting case because it really highlights the current discussion about the need for police reform, particularly in regards to how police officers interact with someone who’s having a health crisis. The case is ongoing, and very meaningful to me.
That case is also a great reminder that police violence isn’t a new issue and Boston is not immune to these issues. I think a silver lining to COVID is that we are more tuned in to the media and to what’s happening than if we were all going about our lives in the most traditional sense, getting up and going to work as usual and then coming home. When we’re all confined to our homes, the media becomes and even more important window into what’s happening in the world. It is unlikely that the widespread advocacy and activism that followed the murder of George Floyd would ever have garnered that response if we were in a normal time, and people were not in a position to go out and demonstrate. So, it all came together in a fateful kind of way. But, just because we are now paying more attention to the issue of police violence, doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist long before.
Do you think we are in a kind of special time right now that represents an opportunity for change? You seem to be saying that.
As a civil rights lawyer, I fundamentally believe that progress occurs in small increments. Take for example the fight for voting rights for Black people in 1950s and 1960s. A lot of young people, particularly law students, ask me about the emotional challenges associated with my job and the constant awareness of injustice. And I always tell them, that my goal is to make a bad situation a little less bad. We sometimes do have to adjust our expectation of what a “win” is. If you can accept being part of a movement that moves the needle forward, but in small increments, then I think this is a really great line of work for you.
Do I believe that we are going to solve all the issues associated with law enforcement violence towards communities of color? No. It’s impossible to roll back everything we’ve been experiencing in one moment. But I do think it’s a good opportunity to move the needle forward just a little bit.
What was the second case you wanted to tell me about?
In the height of the #MeToo movement, I filed one of the first sexual harassment cases on behalf of low wage immigrant women workers in the restaurant industry. We filed this case against a prominent national restaurant chain on behalf of five immigrant women who were extremely vulnerable workers and who had extremely horrifying experiences with various levels of management in the kitchen industry. It is such an interesting industry because it is the “back of the house” and operates so independently. It’s long hours and very close quarters and a lot of the behaviors show up there because there’s no check system for it.
We filed that case with a press conference that was attended by 30 different media outlets. There were bilingual outlets there as well. Before the press conference, I asked the women why they were willing to do this. Was it because of the #MeToo movement or because of the women’s march and the attention that received. They all looked at me and said, “I have no clue what you’re talking about.” Their response taught me that the #MeToo movement, which has garnered so much attention nationally, was missing a critical perspective. Realistically, women who work on Saturdays and Sundays because they have multiple jobs and are primary caregivers did not attend the women’s march. They don’t use social media, so they’re not even aware of hashtags. They really had no personal connection to this movement and we wanted to change that with this prominent lawsuit.
How did you find out about the case?
A community partner that we work with very closely came to us because the woman also had wage theft issues. And what I find very often is that discrimination or harassment typically ends up being secondary concern to populations of color because it is such a regular experience and they prioritize legal issues that more directly affect their wages or ability to keep their jobs. So in this case, the issue of sexual harassment was uncovered while talking about a wage issue. The client’s described the sexual harassment as a normal part of their work day.
Although sexual harassment does not immediately seem like racial justice work, the issues are very much intersectional. One of the things that I appreciate about Iván’s leadership is the intersectional lens that he always brings to the work. There was something fundamentally different about the experience of a low-wage immigrant worker and the white women who were publicly sharing about their experiences with Harvey Weinstein. Class and race made my clients more vulnerable.
Just having that vulnerability come to light was important. For me, it was a powerful opportunity to give these women a platform. Otherwise, they never would have had that. They would never have appeared before the cameras in 30 media outlets, including prominent ones like the New York Times.
What was the third case that came to mind?
Last fall, I filed a class action suit against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, specifically the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (EEC). The case was filed on behalf of Black child-care workers who were negatively impacted by new expansive criminal background checks. In particular, the law removed existing employees with certain juvenile convictions—despite being 30-40 year old cases held by employees with 20 plus years of successful work in the field—from the child care industry in Massachusetts for life, with no right to appeal the decision. The failure to provide any right of appeal, no opportunity to tell your side, is crippling and a clear violation of due process.
We began to hear from lots of Black employees immediately after this law went into effect. Workers who had been in the field for decades and had successfully completed background checks every year; never had a problem. Our named Plaintiff, Tara Gregory, had been a child-care worker for more than 20 years, had always gone through a background check with no issue. But when she was a teenager, she had been charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, the dangerous weapons was her shoe. She got in a fight with a group of girls outside the Ashmont T station. And now, thirty plus years later because of the new law, she was told she couldn’t remain in her career of choice. No chance to fix it. No chance to be heard.
It turned out that there were quite a few people who had similar stories. And we filed this case on behalf of that class. The case was very successful. Our Plaintiff returned to work, our class was given an opportunity to appeal, and now EEC is proposing new regulations to change some of the problems with their background check policy. This case was a really good example of how things work when all of the pieces fall together and there is a clear legal violation. This law was clearly inconsistent with the current climate in Massachusetts, which had just passed the Criminal Reform bill and created expungement for juvenile cases.
So, we’ve been talking about you and your background and the amazing work you’ve been doing. As someone who’s been in Boston for 11 years, when you step back and look at the larger picture, are there specific challenges that you would like to see us take on? It could be a piece of legislation, it could be building a movement or something very specific. What do you think are some of the biggest problems that we have as a city?
I think there is a systemic issue, or maybe even a cultural issue, that leads to a lot of the inequities that we see in Boston. As an outsider, someone not originally from Massachusetts, it is very apparent to me that Massachusetts maintains a myth that it has achieved the status of a progressive community—that progressiveness and Boston go hand in hand. And I think the problem with perpetrating that myth is that it discourages people from feeling that they have to do more work and continue to make change. And that is one of the things that I find you really have to shatter, time and time again, to be able to look at the inequities we see in every space of life. Diversity is an issue in every sector in Massachusetts—lawyers, judges, police officers and more. It’s very apparent that those racial disparities exist everywhere. And I think we have a hard time here just rolling up our sleeves and continuing to do the work. As a community, we cannot afford to believe that a progressive community cannot also shelter systemic racism and clear racial disparities.
Shattering that myth is really critical to all of our work. There is more and more disparate impact litigation, the work that looks at those disparities, but there isn’t a lot of funding or support out there for developing diverse experts in this field. There isn’t a pipeline, in my opinion, of diverse experts in a lot of these spaces, such as voting rights experts. That is going to be a challenge as we look at the future of litigation as a vehicle for change.
Boston is just not the kind of place that wants to rock the boat. You asked the questions earlier about what kind of leader can be successful in Boston. I think it takes a real visionary and I think it takes someone who is very courageous; because there is a real resistance to doing things differently here. You need somebody who is willing to shake things up. There are some cities, like D.C. or New York, that are more transient and you see that more often there. Here, it can be very insular. It is very homegrown. And I don’t think you see those rabble-rousers that I think Boston needs to move forward. We are starting to see much more of that on the local political scene in Boston and that is very exciting. We need a whole army of rabble-rousers here though, in every field.
That’s one of the things that’s so exciting about being a part of Lawyers for Civil Rights. We are developing a full army of legal warriors who are going to demand change through the use of courageous legal action. We’re going to make people uncomfortable. But it’s good trouble and it is good for this community.
Are there other qualities that you think are important for an effective leader?
Being courageous means having a willingness to imagine the world as you think it can be, rather than how it is, and to fight for that vision. It also takes a really empathetic and community-grounded person. It takes a person who is not only looking to make the world what they want it to be, but rather what the community actually needs. One of the best aspects of LCR is that we are truly community-driven. We don’t wake up in the morning and just decide what kind of case we should bring and hat will make good law. It’s a much more community driven process, where our community partners come to us and say, “I have a problem and I have a ton of people who have it; it’s something we’re all seeing. What do we do about it?”
We have a real arsenal of community partners and they know that when they call us, we’re going to pick up the phone and be willing to brainstorm.