EngagePerspectivesSelf Care, Community Care and Social Change: Civil Rights Law
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Self Care, Community Care and Social Change: Civil Rights Law

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, Executive Director of Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) joins host Dr. Lia Howard to discuss both the visionary, as well as the practical ways he fuels his work. Espinoza-Madrigal focuses on the legal needs of people who identify across intersecting lines of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and immigration status. Ivan’s insights and how to balance self-care and sustained social justice work through his ability to both grieve with and fight for his community, provides a wonderful entry into a broader conversation on the connection between individual and community wellness.

three hands outstretched towards each other

Before joining Lawyers for Civil Rights, Espinoza-Madrigal was the Legal Director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy (CHLP). As a summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he received a Juris Doctor from NYU School of Law, where he was a Root-Tilden-Kern Scholar. Espinoza-Madrigal has been named among the Top 40 Under 40 by Boston Business Journal, one of Boston’s Most Influential People of Color, one of Massachusetts’ 100 Most Influential People for the Latino Community and one of the Top 100 Influencers: Rising Stars Across the Nation by the Business Journals. He has received awards from the Boston Bar Association, the University of Pennsylvania, Centro Presente, Brazilian Workers’ Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Queens Pride House, NYU School of Law, and the National LGBT Bar Association. Espinoza-Madrigal was profiled as an “Emerging Leader Fighting For Justice” by the Boston Business Journal.

Excerpts from edited transcript.

Dr. Lia Howard: Espinoza-Madrigal has been named among the top 40 under 40 by Boston Business Journal, one of Boston’s most influential people of color, one of Massachusetts 100 most influential people for the Latino community, and one of the top 100 influencers, rising stars across the nation by different business journals. He’s received awards from the Boston Bar Association, the University of Pennsylvania, Centro Presenti, Brazilian Workers Center, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, Queens Pride House, NYU School of Law, the National LGBT Bar Association.

Espinoza-Madrigal was profiled as an emerging leader in the Fight for justice by the Boston Business Journal. So an impressive alum that we are so excited to have. Iván welcome. Could you tell us about your career journey since you left Penn? What work are you currently involved in and what led you to this type of social change?

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal: Thank you for having me. It is always great to connect with Penn and the Penn community. I remember my time on campus very fondly and I am still friends with many of the folks that I met with on campus, and it’s always nice to be able to share more about how one formative experience has been as a professional and also personally, my work has focused primarily on civil rights, racial justice and immigrants rights advocacy.

Really on the nexus of identity and constitutional protections, how people can exercise their rights under the Constitution, how people can make their voice heard, especially after incidents of discrimination and incidents of indignity and really making the constitutional protections that are vital in American society accessible to people of color, to immigrants, and to low income communities. That work has led me on a really amazing journey across a variety of different social justice movements and across different public interest organizations.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal: I started some of my public interest work with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), doing a lot of the immigrants rights advocacy in Texas and the southern border. Subsequently, I did a significant amount of work in the LGBT and HIV movement for Equality and Justice at Lambda Legal and at the Center for HIV Law and Policy.

At the time, working on a lot of marriage equality cases as well. And more recently, I have been running a nonprofit organization in Boston that provides free legal support to people of color, immigrants, and low income people, Lawyers for Civil Rights. As executive director, I lead a team that focuses on a wide range of different public interests and social justice work, which has just been incredible to do and to continue to foster and grow.

Most recently, my organization represents the 49 people relocated by Governor DeSantis in the state of Florida from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard. And we are providing them with legal protection and support.

Dr. Lia Howard: That is absolutely incredible work. I’m so thankful for the work you do and it’s so interesting to hear the wide ranging examples you have of it. Could you describe in more detail one of the problems you seek to address? And do you think civil rights are under increasing threat in 2022?

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal: Yes, absolutely. I think that civil rights have been consistently under attack, particularly over the last few years as we see encroachment upon voting rights and a dilution of protections for voters that were historically disenfranchised. But it’s not just in voting rights. It’s across so many different fields. When the pandemic hits really thinking through health inequities and health disparities and how that runs along lines of race and class, and how health care and health access are things that need to be more fully democratized across the country.

And then you look at other interventions that are really needed and urgent in our society. Think through, for example, the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and how slow reform has taken place, if at all. Many police departments continue with the same practices that led to George Floyd’s murder or reform in many police departments and states. It’s just been stalled.

And so you see across so many different arenas that instead of moving forward, we’re actually pushing backwards. And much of the work, particularly during the Trump era, focused on just holding the line, making sure that protections were kept in place. And so when we talk about social justice and civil rights today, I think we’re doing it from a context of urgency, and we’re doing it from a place where unprecedented challenges are before us.

Never before had a group of migrants, for example, been relocated by force and brought by government actors across state lines to be used and preyed upon as political pawns for an immigration stunt that is self-serving, but that violates the most basic civil rights and human rights, leaving families unattended on a tarmac practically with children as young as two years old with no place to eat or sleep.

I mean, this is how low we have gotten in the in the immigrants rights space. But these experiences and indignities have been replicated in so many different arenas, from voting to policing to health.

Dr. Lia Howard: I really appreciate the way you outlined in such really stunning detail what these indignities, as you put it. I could not agree more. And I’m yeah, I’m so thankful for the work that you do. I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit more about what is your motivation? Why do you do the work you do?

What drives you and helps you to continue to do this hard work of social and community change?

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal: As an immigrant myself, as an openly gay immigrant who was raised in a low income family, I was raised by a single mother who cleaned houses for a living. Much of my lived experience has been one of struggle and sacrifice. And ever since I can remember I always wanted to become a lawyer, to know what our rights were, to know what the landlord could or couldn’t do to us if we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent that month or to know what the police can do or not do to us.

If we were pulled on the side of the road for no reason. And this idea of knowing our rights and being able to assert them is something that has run deep in my sense of self and identity for as far as I can remember. And really it comes from a place of wanting to make sure that my mom and my family were safe.

As someone who even today continues to have undocumented family members, it is really important for me to think through how the law and the Constitution can be brought to bear in the day to day lived experiences of people without privilege and power. How we can help support a folks in the most marginalized of communities and in the most vulnerable of circumstances.

That that is something that I think about often, especially with the dynamics in my family, since I don’t come from a place of privilege and a public interest, lawyering has been a really empowering tool to be able to support others like the community that I grew up in, others like my family that are really in need of free legal support in this country.

We have so many resources, so many opportunities and so much privilege. And so much of that is stacked in favor of really privileged interests. And it’s not about making sure that folks have equal rights, although that is a critical component of the work that I do. But I think it is important to move beyond the theoretical laws in the books that may apply, move beyond theoretical principles that are supposed to be protecting all of us to really move into implementation.

Instead of talking about what are the laws in the books and how do we achieve legal equality I think it’s really about changing that conversation to achieving lived equality based on the lived experience that people have and challenging the law to be much more robust and comprehensive and holistic in the type of remedies and solutions that it provides for people who have been victimized, for people who are really vulnerable and need the protection, the legal protections that can be afforded.

I think that’s a really important distinction between legal equality and lived equality. And I make that distinction in my work based on the lived experience and background that I was just describing, particularly growing up in poverty. You know, it’s interesting. I’ve very often managed to to compartmentalize the work and to not necessarily bring it home. That changed a lot during the Trump era when we started working with the family separation crisis as mothers who had been released from immigration facilities without their children and who didn’t know where their kids were, they were coming to our office requesting support and needing help finding their son, finding their daughter.

Some infants that had been separated, just incredible harm. And these harrowing stories of being separated from your children at the border. And at the height of the family separation crisis, we worked with more than the intended families to reunify them. And the first family that we worked with, it was just, I mean, stunning because never before had the government taken children away from their parents at the border and then provided no information whatsoever about where the children would be.

And when we were meeting with the families and starting the process of filing litigation against the Trump administration to reunify them, the stories were just harrowing, and everybody in the conference room in the office would just start crying as soon as the as soon as the mother started crying, everybody else would start crying. And I was the one in the room being like, okay, team, we have to keep it together.

Keep it together. We need to, you know, get the testimony. We need to write the declaration, we need to write the complaint. You need to be in federal court within 48 hours and and I was trying so hard to keep the team productive and centered under immense emotional duress. And then when I would get home at eight, nine, I would just start bawling and I would just start crying.

Unconsolably crying because it was almost like that entire day of keeping it together and holding it in and getting the motion done and getting the brief done and getting prepared to be in federal court with what I had been doing and running from task to task and not really providing a space for myself to process and trying to keep the team cohesive and so that we could be present for our clients, these incredible mothers that had gone through so much.

By the end of the day, when I got home, I was destroyed and wrecked and it took a while for me to really recenter. But the victories are, I think, one of the most important element here. And one thing is to do hard work and not to see results. Another thing is to do the work and then realize that within 36 hours that little boy is going to be back in his mother’s arms and that we secure did that.

And that was an amazing, amazing sense of accomplishment and of relevance amidst crisis. And so I have to say, some of the work I have failed to be able to compartmentalize. And I think that particular situation, the the mothers that were coming to my office at the height of the family separation crisis, the reason why it hit me so hard is because I kept putting myself in the shoes of the little kid.

One of the first kids that we reunited was a nine year old boy. He was the same age that I was when we came to this country, and I kept thinking of myself as that nine year old boy, you know, which is which is obviously disassociated. But but it’s a it’s that type of emotional connection, of personal connection to the work.

I think that makes me both very effective at doing it because I see my own mother and my own family in the work that I do. But it also has an emotional toll. And so often what I try to do is make sure that I am disconnecting from the work, taking vacation time and taking that seriously and getting a change of venue, getting a change of the environment so that I can step out of being in “on” mode and being in advocacy mode all the time and also incorporating day to day things into my work.

I am a runner. I run 3 to 5 miles every day. And that for me has also been a really grounding experience, something that it’s just me and the treadmill or me and the pavement and my music and just listening to something that is for me soothing and relaxing and being disconnected. Know whether it’s for as short as 30 minutes or for over an hour from being in front of a screen, from being in a meeting, from being in a conference call, being in that space of just running has been incredibly soothing for me.

And and one of the ways that I have managed to recenter, particularly as we go through day to day struggles and as we go through ups and downs in the work that we do, which is just the reality of any type of work.

Dr. Lia Howard: Ivan, I’m so glad you get a chance to run and restore and do the things that you mentioned, because I can’t imagine what you described of your whole team crying after hearing from a mother who was separated from her child. I can’t imagine how challenging that would be to keep the work going. When you are absorbing so much emotional duress.

And so thank you for sharing that. Another another question for you. So we’ve been thinking a lot at the SNF Paideia Program about what we’re calling concentric circles of care, how our self-care, community care and social activism are connected. We’re trying to better understand how an individual’s ability to be an effective change maker is connected to a wider circle of community wellness.

Can we draw strength from others as we fight for social change together? Could you share about how and if you’re able to look to the community you’re advocating for, to provide you with support when your individual efforts to change these rigid power structures seem fruitless and in essence does and can your community contribute to your own personal well-being?

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. I have so many examples of that and I think it is an interesting dynamic. During the very beginning of the pandemic, March 2020, as so many people were getting sick and as so many people needed to be rushed to the emergency rooms or ventilators, I started seeing that that was the work many community members were doing.

And in March, as we were sitting in our office, it’s highly privileged, of course, this lawyer’s thinking through how can we help seeing those examples of people supporting each other, creating the social safety net that so often is nonexistent for low income people or for vulnerable communities or undocumented immigrants? The community leaders were building that social safety net. And they were not just building it, but they were expanding it as the needs in the pandemic arose.

And when we started seeing the development of the safety net, we integrated ourselves into that safety net to provide legal support at every juncture that was needed. When the vaccines came out and they were only being provided in mass vaccination centers, we knew that low income communities and communities that weren’t fluent in English were not going to show up to a mass vaccination site.

And so doing a significant amount of advocacy to make vaccines accessible, the same goes with so many elements of what the community needed. And so the way I think about it is a community support structure and safety net that is built at really bottom up based on the needs of the most vulnerable. And that was beautiful to see.

I think that support structure also reinforces itself. If a group needed assistance with them because they were overwhelmed with distribution of vaccines, for example, we would send in volunteers to do that and to help them do that. And at some point, some of the people in vaccination sites in Massachusetts were surprised that the people running the community vaccination clinic were all these lawyers who had volunteered to do it.

But I think that’s what’s so beautiful about the community support structure that we were able to step up in ways that were really relevant and meaningful for others, and that when we needed help, others would step in as well. And so it reinforced each other in that way. And I think the important part about that is also to support the leadership of other people and to do that in very deliberate and intentional ways, making sure that you are taking time to make a phone call to a group that has been under siege because they provide food, and the number of people showing up at their soup kitchen is overwhelming and making the connection saying, you know, do you need help? Can we take care of this? What can we take care of to get it off of your shoulders? I think all of that is one of the most important pieces. And the same thing at my organization where I had board members and volunteers and other folks really generously reach out and say, look, we want to step up.

We want to help. We see you guys doing this in the trenches. We want to do it with you. And sharing that workload has been a critical part of providing support and creating an opportunity for folks who’ve been in the trenches to have help, to really have help, because especially during the pandemic and at the height of the pandemic, things in the community level were intense with the number of people being displaced from work, the number of children being disconnected to educational opportunities, the technology gaps, the health disparities, and a disproportionate amount of illness and death that was experienced in so many low income communities.

I mean, this has been a tough few years for community based groups and by extension for a group like Lawyers for Civil Rights that provides direct support to these community based groups. And so it’s been an intense year, but I think we’ve been able to get through it together because it takes a village and we’ve been able to join forces.

Dr. Lia Howard: I love hearing those stories of people coming together and collaborating for these these intractable problems. So great to hear. Last I just want to end here is talking about what gives you hope.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal: And there are many different things that give me hope every day. I have hope when I see young people starting to talk about the impact of climate on migration and start narratives surrounding climate refugees, which will be an important part of our future, and to see that there are already conversations forming around that shows the nuance and relevance of advocacy efforts that are being developed.

And now I also have hope when we win cases that other people doubt, and that is a really amazing thing. Most of my team at Lawyers for Civil Rights are relatively younger lawyers. Many of them are people of color, many of them are women. And to see them championing these cases that other organizations did not have the courage to handle, I think that’s a beautiful thing, especially in a profession where over 80% of lawyers, I think over 85% of lawyers are white and where less than 36% of lawyers are women, I think we’re talking about an incredibly diverse field.

And to see women of color in leadership positions in my organization and the amazing things they’re doing in the courtroom and outside of the courtroom gives me a tremendous sense of hope for the future in that just how we’re building lawyers for civil rights as an organization, but how we are building the movement for social justice and change.

It gives me hope when I speak to even people who are some of the most vulnerable among us, some folks like the Martha’s Vineyard migrants that we represent, who tell me I want to make sure that no one else gets treated this way and that they’re willing to go out there and speak the truth amidst so much vitriol, and that they do that not just to protect themselves and each other, but to protect others in the community.

That’s incredible. It is incredible. Incredible, incredible. And that gets me out of bed every day.

Dr. Lia Howard: Ivan Espinosa Madrigal, thank you so much for joining us today. Our talk was amazing and gives me so much hope. Thank you.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal:Thank you for having me.

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