Public Advocate’s priority work and tactics are set not only to win today’s battles, but also to make sure those victories are sustained and improved upon for decades to come. For 50 years, Public Advocates has not just advocated for stronger educational policies, funding and legislation alongside our community partners, we have continued to monitor implementation and enforce the new legal rights we have won.
Nearly twenty years ago, Public Advocates filed an education lawsuit with co-counsel that resulted in a far-reaching and impactful victory that continues to shape the educational experience of 6 million public school students in California. It was a class action lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court in 2000 on behalf of 100 San Francisco students, including a San Francisco 6th-grader named Eliezer Williams.
In the late 1970’s Public Advocates’ attorneys fought a remarkable number of cases that honored their pledge to provide access to the courts and high-powered legal representation to people who rarely had it. Bracco vs. Lackner was just such a case which showed just how high the stakes could be. It involved the San Franciscan Convalescent Center, a nursing home that housed some 300 residents, many poor people in their 80s and 90s on Medicaid.
For major reform, for major structural change, you need to build political will. That is why lifting community voices is a cornerstone of Public Advocates’ work challenging the root causes of racism and poverty. In 2016, this resulted in an unprecedented partnership involving community groups in East Palo alto and Facebook to increase the supply of affordable housing in the Bay Area. Public Advocates won a tangible legal victory that beat back systemic racism and poverty through community partnerships and creative legal strategies.
With the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016, housing advocates in California knew an attack on federal fair housing protections would be coming and they went on the offensive. Sam Tepperman-Gelfant, a managing attorney at Public Advocates, suggested that the California legislature put a key provision of the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act – the duty to affirmatively further fair housing, or AFFH – into state law. AFFH is an unusual anti-racist law, requiring the government to take active steps to dismantle the racist structures of our housing system. After languishing for decades, this long standing legal requirement had been reinvigorated in 2015 with powerful new regulations adopted under the Obama administration.
“Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice.” —Former Governor Jerry Brown
Those words are at the heart of a sweeping education funding reform law that Public Advocates helped pass in 2013. The law, which created the Local Control Funding Formula, was a seismic shift towards equity in education funding. It sent more dollars to schools that served more high need students and it also gave parents and community members a legally mandated voice every time schools design their spending plans.
Public Advocates is honored to have among its alumni Bryan Stevenson, the internationally recognized public interest lawyer, civil rights and racial justice champion, and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, which tells the story of Walter McMillian. The book was turned into a 2019 film, Just Mercy, starring Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. The film is available for purchase or rental on Amazon Prime.
Carmela Castellano-Garcia fulfilled her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer when she was hired by Public Advocates in 1991, the year she graduated from Yale Law School. She became one of the managing attorneys who represented a multi-ethnic group of police officers in the case, Officers for Justice, that succeeded in eliminating discriminatory hiring practices of the San Francisco Police Department.
Ann O’Leary is a political advisor, attorney, and nonprofit leader who served on the Public Advocates Board of Governors from 2005-2011. She grew up in a small town in Maine, where her father was a labor union leader, and her mother was a social worker. As she relates in her March 22, 2021 post, My Next Chapter, which is the primary source of this story, Ann was inspired to a life of service by her parents, as well as by the election of President Bill Clinton, the fight to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act, and her commitment to universal health care.
Lois Salisbury began her legal career with Public Advocates in 1974. For the next 19 years, at Public Advocates, she fought complex cases related to civil rights, education, health and consumer protections. The wins were frequent and often groundbreaking.
Angela Glover Blackwell got her start in public interest law at Public Advocates where she was a managing attorney from 1977 through 1987. Finely tuned in to the community pulse and known for her unstoppable determination to right the wrongs she observed and had experienced herself, Angela led some of PA’s most impactful advocacy and litigation during her years at the organization. Among her most prominent issue areas were racial and gender discrimination in employment, access to healthy food in low-income communities of color, infant mortality and nutrition, and consumer protections.
Housing Now! is a broad and diverse coalition made up of more than 150 organizations building a movement in California to make housing affordable and to combat the displacement crisis that impacts low-income and communities of color the most. Public Advocates, a co-founder of Housing Now!, continues to work actively alongside coalition members. Public Advocates’ Michelle Pariset, PA senior policy advocate, recalls the founding of Housing Now!
In 2018, Karina Paredes, student engagement and policy associate at Public Advocates, attended her first Student Senate for California Community Colleges General Assembly, held in Ontario, California. As Karina staffed a Public Advocates information table, students from a campus group called SMAC (Students Making a Change) approached her to learn about Public Advocates. Karina ended up learning as much about SMAC as they did about Public Advocates. Founded eight years earlier, the group became instrumental in raising student voices issues critical to community college students all over California.
The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action is a grassroots, member-led, statewide community organization working with more than 15,000 members across the state. ACCE is dedicated to raising the voices of everyday Californians, neighborhood by neighborhood, to fight for the policies and programs they need to improve their communities and create a brighter future.
You can’t reimagine public education without trusted friends on the ground and inside the schools. For more than 20 years, Californians for Justice has played a vital role in Public Advocates’ work. Our success as movement lawyers has depended on the partnerships we’ve built with their brilliant students and organizers. Together we have delivered historic advances for students and communities of color throughout California– from the Greater SF Bay Area, to Los Angeles, the Central Valley, down to Long Beach, and San Diego.
This is the first out-of-town conference I’ve attended in over 3 years and—dare I say it? I’m excited! I’ll be co-presenting a bill that bans scholarship displacement benefiting over 1 million low-income students in California. I’ve been working on this bill for three years—well before my time at Public Advocates. There are things y’all should know: This is my first time away from my 16 month-old son, I’m three hours ahead of West Coast time, and I’m a museum fanatic.
Since joining Public Advocates in 2007, Sam Tepperman-Gelfant has worked with grassroots groups to build community power and fight for economic and racial justice in housing, transportation, and climate issues throughout California. He is currently a managing attorney on our Metropolitan Equity Team.
Months of work with community partners has gone into preparing for today’s State Board of Education (SBE) meeting on May 18, 2022. Today, board members will hear public comments on the California Community Schools Partnership Program (CCSPP) and approve the first round of community schools grants, which will provide millions of dollars to districts to create racially just and relationship centered schools. In 2021, the California legislature allocated over $3 billion for CCSPP to establish new and expand existing community schools.
Suzanne joined the Metropolitan Equity Team at Public Advocates as a Staff Attorney in late 2021. She works alongside community partners to advocate for housing justice, renters’ rights, and equitable land use policies. Previously, she served as Housing Policy Attorney for Legal Aid of Sonoma County, where she led campaigns to support community power building, and meaningful policy change. While there, Suzanne helped bring about a strong eviction moratorium and a $1.4 million right to counsel pilot program. Suzanne graduated cum laude from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in Political Science and received her J.D. from UC Berkeley School of Law in 2017 with a Public Interest & Social Justice Certificate.
Months of work with community partners has gone into developing a ‘train the trainers” workshop to ensure community members can meaningfully participate in the review of school districts’ spending plans. State law says funds are supposed to be invested into new or improved services and programs for high-need students, including English language learners, low-income students and foster youth. The goal of this workshop is to build community power through knowledge & understanding of the law.
Here’s a glimpse into a day of Cindy Gerges, a Staff Attorney at Public Advocates, who works with our Education Team.