BY ANDREA SAENZ
Antonia Hernandez decided to go to law school without knowing a single lawyer, inspired by walkouts at East Los Angeles high schools in the late 1960s where students agitated for better educations. “I went to change the world,” she told an audience of students Monday night. And through a career that includes being counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and now head of the California Community Foundation, Hernandez has had a major influence over the course of civil rights advocacy in America.
Hernandez spoke of her career path through legal services and impact litigation work, including an invitation from Sen. Ted Kennedy’s staff to interview for the Senate Judiciary position, although at the time she had no idea what the job entailed or how coveted it was. After working in D.C. both with the Senate and the D.C. office of MALDEF, Hernandez and her husband, now-California Superior Court judge Michael Stern returned to their home of California to raise a family. Hernandez ascended to the leadership of MALDEF and served as the organization’s head for 18 years, coordinating litigation, media outreach, and community organizing around education, voting rights, immigration, and many other issues.
Hernandez discused a wide range of issues, including scapegoating of immigrants, the problem of rising higher education costs, the presidential race, and affirmative action. She also warned against seeing the courts as the solution to all problems.
“The law is but a tool,” she said, “It’s a skill set. Lawyers are problem solvers. But litigation should be the last resort, because it’s the most expensive, and it’s like playing roulette. You only litigate when you’ve explored all other options.” She illustrated this by talking about the failure of a court consent decree against the L.A. school district to gain traction without efforts to organize parents to pack school board meetings to show support for it.
Hernandez also encouraged students in a wide variety of career paths. “I have a wide definition of public interest,” she said. “Public interest means U.S. attorneys – we need progressive attorneys prosecuting the laws – public defenders, city attorneys.” She also noted the value of having public-minded lawyers in the private sector. “There’s nothing wrong with a law firm. Make money honestly, volunteer, and give it back to the public interest. When I was raising money for MALDEF, I was looking for those rich Latinos.”
Above all, Hernandez stressed having pride in one’s work, and the importance of education and a sense of dignity for poor and minority youth. “What we need,” she said, repeating what she tells audiences of low-income children, “is a bit of attitude that we belong.”