Where are you from, and why there?
I grew up in Washington Heights, in the northern tip of Manhattan. My father, who was a Rabbi and Talmudic scholar, taught at Yeshiva University, so that’s why we lived there. Most of the people who lived there were from Puerto Rico so I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood. (In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first breakout play, is set two blocks from where I grew up.) I moved to Washington, DC, after college and fell in love with a city that had trees and grass and flowers. (And politics designed to make change, which spoke to me.) My heart now is split between DC and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where my spouse and I have a place. We were able to live in Rehoboth Beach all summer when we were both law professors. It’s a bit more difficult now, but I relish it whenever I can get there.
Which issue(s) do you work on/care about, and why?
I care about social justice writ large. I spent my early professional career working on disability rights, LGBT rights, anti-poverty work and a range of other issues. When I became a Commissioner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2010, I focused on the entire gamut of equal employment issues, including anti-harassment work, rights for pregnant workers and of course, disability and LGBT rights. I care about these issues because I believe that every one of us has a responsibility to make this world a better place than how we found it. Every generation should strive to achieve more fairness and equity in the world. I have always cared about being part of that effort.
How did you get involved?
I first got involved in social justice because of the family I grew up in. In one respect, it was a very narrow and parochial world. My parents were Orthodox Jews and my community was the Orthodox Jewish community. But my father was a Holocaust survivor and both he and my mother were professors and intellectuals. So I grew up with a commitment to learning and to using that learning to do good. In terms of the specific issues I got involved with, part of it was deliberate on my part and part of it was happenstance. I chose to work on AIDS issues in the late 1980’s because I was a lesbian and I saw my friends dying of that disease. Through my work on AIDS, I got introduced to the disability world and had the opportunity to become the lead lawyer drafting and negotiating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I got involved in anti-poverty work because I was fortunate enough to have Catholic Charities USA as a client of my Federal Legislation Clinic at Georgetown Law.
Then, at the EEOC, I had the opportunity to co-lead a task force on workplace harassment and work on a comprehensive report outlining steps that employers can take to prevent harassment from happening in the first place. I did this work with my then-chief of staff, Sharon Masling. When my confirmation to a third term on the EEOC was blocked by one Senator, the silver lining was that Sharon and I found a perfect location to move to: the law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP. We’ve been at the firm for a little over four months now and it’s been incredible to see how interested companies and organizations are in wanting to create safe, respectful, diverse and inclusive workplaces. That’s what we’re here to help them do.
What’s the biggest challenge for the issue(s) today?
The challenges are different for different issues. With regard to disability rights, the challenge is to change people’s expectations about the capacity of people with disabilities — at least, those with manifest disabilities such as being blind, deaf, or using a wheelchair. A second challenge is making people understand that there’s not a clear “us” and “them” with regard to people with disabilities. Many people with significant medical conditions do not self-identify as people with disabilities, even though they have a disability under the law. For example, I often make a point of coming out as a person with anxiety disorder, because I want to self-identify as a person with a disability and I want to help reduce the stigma around mental disability.
With regard to LGBT rights, the challenge is still around legal rights. It’s wonderful that a lesbian or gay man can now legally marry the person she or he loves. But in terms of an LGBT person being protected from discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, education, or medical care, the Supreme Court needs to rule this coming year that the EEOC was right to consider such discrimination as a form of sex discrimination or Congress needs to pass legislation establishing such protection. We will have to wait and see what happens.
And with regard to the issue that Sharon Masling and I are now spending many of our waking hours – helping employers achieve safe, respectful, diverse and inclusive workplaces – the challenge is how to help employers move past old ways of doing things into new and creative approaches. I think the interest and willingness are there on the part of many companies and organizations. Leaders know that this is the moment to make real and sustainable change in their workplaces. The challenge is to devote the time, energy and resources necessary to make that happen. I believe many employers will choose to do so. I’m an optimist that way – on this issue, as well as the others I’ve worked on.
Who are your most frequent allies? Any surprises?
I am a big believer in bipartisanship. I know it’s in short supply these days, but it has been a consistent hallmark of my career. During my work on the ADA from 1988 to 1990, I worked closely with Republican lawyers, both on the Hill and in business groups. Over the past two decades, businesses have been huge supporters of LGBT rights. In the LGBT cases pending before the Supreme Court now, over 200 major companies signed an amicus brief in support of protection for LGBT people. In my anti-harassment work at the EEOC, my closest ally was Victoria Lipnic, my Republican EEOC colleague. And now, my allies are management lawyers and employers who want exactly what I want —workplaces that are safe, respectful, diverse and inclusive. I believe there are an incredible number of allies all around us. We just need to be open to them.
What drives you?
A passion for justice. A commitment to equality. Love of people. It’s really as simple as that.
What do you want your career/advocacy to stand for?
I have always lived my life being authentic to who I am, who I love, and what I believe in. I would be very happy if my legacy was that I helped create safe spaces for others to live their lives with dignity, integrity and love.