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Equal Justice Works Shares Diego Cartagena’s Remarks from the 2023 Scales of Justice Event

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On October 24, 2023, Equal Justice Works honored Diego Cartagena, the President and CEO of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, with the inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award. Read his remarks from the event below.

Good evening, everyone. I am truly honored to stand before you tonight as the recipient of the Equal Justice Works Inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the entire Equal Justice Works community for bestowing this honor upon me. To be recognized among the esteemed alumni who have dedicated their lives to advancing equal justice is deeply humbling. This recognition holds immense significance for me, not only personally, but because to me, this award—like everything Equal Justice Works does—is a reflection of the power of our—your—collective efforts in pursuing a more just and equitable society. My work in pursuit of equal justice has truly been a collective endeavor, supported by countless individuals and organizations, and I can’t help but feel that me standing here tonight is really more a reflection of their support, without which I would not be here.

Watch a recording of Diego’s remarks here:

 

 

Believe it or not, being here tonight has been quite a journey. I flew in a few days ago from Los Angeles with my family, but that’s not what I am referring to. No, my journey began nearly 45 years ago, and thousands more miles away, in El Salvador, when my parents decided they could not raise a child in a country torn by civil war. They decided to emigrate to the US, and once here they worked incredibly hard to eke out a modest living with one goal in mind: to give my brother and I the chance to build a better life than the one they left behind.  

Their hard work made it possible for me to attend UCLA, where I participated in the UCLA Law Fellows Program. This program takes undergraduate students from various walks of life, most of them first generation college students, and exposes them to law school classes, provides them with free LSAT prep courses, helps them draft personal statements, and provides countless other forms of support. With the help of that program, I was the first in my family to graduate from a university in the US, and the first to apply to law school.  

To me, this award—like everything Equal Justice Works does—is a reflection of the power of our—your—collective efforts in pursuing a more just and equitable society.

Diego Cartagena /
Recipient of the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award
President and CEO of Bet Tzedek Legal Services

I will admit to you, my first year of law school was less than stellar. But I was saved by my summer internship at the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice. My summer internship at LACLJ providing family law services to domestic violence survivors reminded me of why I went to law school. And it was during second internship with the agency, while under the mentorship of three brilliant attorneys, that I developed my fellowship proposal to provide family and immigration law services to pregnant and parenting teen parents.

My proposal was selected by Latham & Watkins, and I was offered an interview. I had never interviewed with a firm during law school, and here I was, being interviewed by one of the biggest. I was so nervous about my interview that on the way there I drove the wrong way down a one-way street for about a block before I realized what I was doing.

I must have done ok in my interview though. Even though Latham had already decided to fund a Fellow, they also decided to fund my fellowship. By the way, my co-Fellow is the head of Public Counsel, an incredible legal aid agency just a few blocks from my own, and she is awaiting confirmation to serve as a federal judge. Latham, you have good taste in Fellows.

Thanks to Latham, I established Teen LA, which stood for Teen Legal Advocacy. My very first client was Maria, a fourteen year old mother of twins whose paternal grandmother had perjured herself by claiming that my client had abandoned the children with her in order to get custody over them.  What had really happened was Maria had asked grandmother to watch the children during the day while she attended school. We won that case, and Maria’s children were returned to her. I’m proud of the fact that Teen LA went on for many years after my time with the Center, serving hundreds of clients like Maria. I’m also incredibly proud of the fact that at one point, the program was improved and expanded by my wife, another Equal Justice Works alum. She and my two children are here tonight, and I want to thank them for all their love and support.

Since my time LACLJ, I have had the honor of working with many clients and building many other programs. At The Alliance for Children’s Rights, I worked with dozens of colleagues to build an incredible network of pro bono attorneys that helped protect children from abuse and neglect. At Bet Tzedek, I’ve had the honor of working with legal aid leaders to help build a right to counsel program to represent clients in eviction proceedings, while working with law firm pro bono counsel from across the country to build a small business development program, and more recently worked with leadership at the County of Los Angeles to establish an estate planning program to serve communities of color in an effort to help preserve homeownership and promote intergenerational wealth in those communities. Throughout, I’ve had the honor of working with many law students to support their fellowships. In fact, I’m proud to note that here tonight are two Equal Justice Works Fellows hosted by Bet Tzedek.

Throughout, I’ve had the honor of working with many law students to support their fellowships. In fact, I’m proud to note that here tonight are two Equal Justice Works Fellows hosted by Bet Tzedek.

Diego Cartagena /
Recipient of the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award
President and CEO of Bet Tzedek Legal Services

And throughout, I have had the privilege of representing clients. Clients like Kathy, who years ago came to Bet Tzedek requesting immigration assistance. Kathy grew up very poor in a small town in Guatemala and faced daily abuse at the hands of her father until she escaped to live with her grandmother. When her grandmother passed away, rather than face returning to live with her father, she decided to travel, with no family, to the US to build a new life. I represented Kathy in securing legal permanent residency status here in the US, and every once in a while, she calls me to tell me how she is doing. This summer, she called me to tell me that she is now a real estate agent, earning enough to have a home for her and her two younger sisters who recently also fled Guatemala. In fact, my colleagues at Bet Tzedek recently represented one of her sisters in securing her immigration status.

Kathy called me with her great news not long after Verna Williams, the incredible leader of Equal Justice Works, called me to inform me about this award. Verna, my friend, please don’t take offense. Your call was special, but Kathy’s call was extra special. It was special because you could hear the pride and strength in the voice of this young woman who had faced the most brutal of circumstances and incredible odds. Kathy’s call was extra special because Kathy, and the countless other clients that fellows like me have represented, is what Equal Justice Works and this award are all about. And it is about each of you, folks like James Chosy, and the many people who have sat in those seats before you and who have together, through your support, made Equal Justice Works what it is: an incomparable force in the pursuit of equal justice. And I can’t thank you enough for your support. Because let us remember that the pursuit of equal justice is an ongoing effort—one that depends on constant vigilance, determination, and institutions like Equal Justice Works. While we have made significant strides, we cannot ignore the work that still lies ahead. Let us continue to fight for justice, challenge inequities, and amplify the voices that often go unheard. Let us move forward, together, inspired by this recognition, which is really a recognition of our collective aspirations and efforts, and working tirelessly toward a future where justice prevails for all.

Let us remember that the pursuit of equal justice is an ongoing effort—one that depends on constant vigilance, determination, and institutions like Equal Justice Works. While we have made significant strides, we cannot ignore the work that still lies ahead.

Diego Cartagena /
Recipient of the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award
President and CEO of Bet Tzedek Legal Services

Click here to learn more about Diego’s work and here to learn about the Distinguished Alumni Award. Click here to read more highlights from the 2023 Scales of Justice.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow