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Fireside Chat: Fatima Goss Graves Talks About the Fight to Achieve Gender Justice

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Fatima Goss Graves is the president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center and a member of the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors. She has spent her career fighting to advance opportunities for women and girls and has a distinguished track record working across a broad set of issues, including income security, health and reproductive rights, education access, and workplace fairness.

When the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) was created, its vision was to advance the legal rights and protections for women through the courts. As the NWLC approaches its 50th anniversary, how has the organization achieved and expanded on its initial vision?

It is a unique time to work in our organization. The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) has been around for so long because there is a lot of work to be done in the fight to achieve gender justice in this country. Gender justice is not a new idea, but the way the movement has evolved is very nuanced. Now, we work in conjunction with an extraordinarily galvanized and energized movement to advance women’s rights. I think that women as a force right now are exceptionally powerful, and that is our superpower right now.

When you examine the course of history, you can watch how the fight for gender justice has evolved. We founded the NWLC in 1972. In 1972, our government passed Title IX. The passage was significant because it was at a time when the Supreme Court started to recognize the protections embedded in the Constitution. At the same time, the courts had not even begun to recognize sexual harassment.

When we think about the work we have been able to do over the course of almost fifty years, to make it a reality for people to work, live, and learn with safety and dignity, there is no question that we have made progress. But, we also know that we are in an extremely serious and deep fight for all of our rights. Across the Law Center, whether we are talking about reproductive rights, health work, advancing workplace justice, educational equality, or protecting low-income families, we know that our work is under threat. And so, we have this meaningful tension that we know we have made significant progress and that our country is motivated, organized, and ready to launch forward for more, but we are also still fighting to preserve fundamental rights.

Fatima Goss Graves, right, is interviewed by Equal Justice Works Communications Manager Heena Patel

Shortly after you became president and CEO, NWLC announced the creation of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund to extend legal resources to victims of workplace sexual harassment. What is the vision for that initiative? 

It has been exhilarating to work during a time where there has been a litany of defensive work, while millions of people around the world are having a cultural awakening around the issue of harassment and violence. And, it has been an enjoyable experience working with an organization that deeply partners with a large assortment of people. We have worked with activists, entertainers, attorneys, and more to create the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund. The TIME’S UP Legal Defense fund is housed and administrated in the law center. Together, we have built TIME’S UP, which is now its own full-fledged organization.

We launched the initiative on January 21, 2018. Since then, we have heard from more than 4,000 people seeking assistance, legal resources, and media resources to fight against the harassment and retaliation they are facing at work. We have heard from people across 60 different sectors—the entertainment industry, domestic workers, and health care—in offices at every level. Having a platform to provide resources for people everywhere has been a game changer.

Another hot topic in the news has been sex discrimination and sexual harassment of women in college. This is an area where NWLC has national expertise and a track record of accomplishments. What are your current priorities in this area? 

College sexual harassment and assault are issues that we have worked on again and again. Due to our organization’s start falling on the same year as the creation of Title IX, we have guided, guarded, and participated in ensuring Title IX’s promise of ending sex discrimination in education – that is core to our work.

Being able to understand how harassment and violence undermines the ability for someone to be able to learn and be in school has been an eye-opening experience. We have been able to deeply engage in the issues by taking on clients from K-12 to higher education, and work with student activists and allies to push schools and policymakers to be better.

NWLC has hosted several Equal Justice Works Fellows. What difference have these Fellows made to advance NWLC’s work? 

We have felt fortunate to have Equal Justice Fellows during different iterations of the NWLC. We currently have one Fellow and have had many others over time. Our current Fellow, Elizabeth Tang, has been doing extraordinary work on Title IX and sexual harassment at a critical time. She is on the team that may be going to trial this summer in an important Title IX case. We have been really lucky to have her here.

One of the most wonderful things about Equal Justice Works is that it manages to provide not only spaces and platforms for entry-level attorneys, but [it] also [helps] develop the public interest field. Equal Justice Works makes the field stronger by introducing lawyers to organizations that do the work they are passionate about, and building capacity at those organizations. The work we do is always under-resourced. It is always the case that we need more and more people. We are up against tremendous odds, but we would not be doing the work if we were not. Having new attorneys who are eager to learn and want to be part of the change is something that will stick with the organizations and the Fellows over time.

Why did you decide to become involved as a member of the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors, and how have you found the experience so far? 

It has been an honor to be part of the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors. It has been a fantastic experience. An extraordinary cross-section of people from the public interest community comprises the Board. We have judges, law firm partners, corporate firms, and people who are coming from the public interest sector sitting around the table and discussing the future of our profession and how we can get justice work resourced.

What advice do you have for law students and lawyers entering the public interest field who want to promote equality and opportunity for women and families in their communities?

I would say to follow your passion. People cannot go wrong when they follow their passions. And, when you are new in the field, there is a lot of different ways to do that. For example, if your passion is doing critical work for low-income people—I would do your best to find a place where you do your passion project. It does not need to be a job in a particular organization or a specific city. Every time that someone dives into something they are interested in, they learn something, build relationships, and make the space even better.

Sometimes it can feel like navigating the job search process is extremely difficult and hard to do. But, I think that it is a place where Equal Justice Works excels. The Fellowship program helps people find jobs that match their passions.

Overall, I think if you keep your passions at the front of what you are seeking, then I do not believe you will go wrong making decisions.

Speaking of following your passions—can you speak about your public service journey? You graduated from Yale Law School. Then, you clerked for the Seventh Circuit. After clerking, you began to work in a private practice. What was the bridge that got you into public service?

Throughout college, I had a lot of internships. I got my first internship for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights by going to a[n] [Equal Justice Works] career fair. After that internship experience, I kept interning during law school. I knew during law school that I wanted to do justice work.

Even when I worked in a private practice, I felt like I had strong ties to the civil rights community, and I took that seriously. When I moved to Washington, D.C., I was able to get a job at a law firm. While I was at Mayer Brown LLP, they allowed me to do a lot of pro bono work. They saw the value of pro bono work and encouraged the young associates to participate.

When I was ready to make the jump into public interest work, I saw that the NWLC had an opening and I went for it. From that experience, I learned that there are many ways to get involved with public interest, no matter your career. We have a saying at NWLC that you never really leave. This thought process is true in many ways. The work you do and the desire to help people will always follow you.

To learn more about Fatima Goss Graves and the rest of our Board of Directors, click here.

We are up against tremendous odds, but we would not be doing the work if we were not. Having new attorneys who are eager to learn and want to be part of the change is something that will stick with the organizations and the Fellows over time.

Fatima Goss Graves /
National Women's Law Center

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow