On her terms
Fear is not a factor for civil rights litigator Constance Rice
By Julie Riggott 10/19/2006
Constance Rice is a fighter.
In more ways than you’d think. Angry at herself for not fighting back when a man physically attacked her in college, she took up martial arts. She vowed to put the next guy in the hospital — and did.
But she actually prefers legal combat. Her fearlessness has made her one of the most successful civil rights attorneys in the country.
The outspoken Rice, a litigator and co-founder of the public policy and legal action group Advancement Project, has very clear views on equal rights and our failing democracy. She has spent her career fighting for social justice, urban peace, equal opportunity and upward mobility for the poor and disadvantaged, or, as Rice and her colleagues call them, “those left behind in America.”
Anyone who can take on government bureaucracy, police misconduct and gang violence has to possess guts, intelligence and ambition, though Rice is the first to admit that her seemingly bottomless well of courage isn’t always a wise thing to tap into.
“There have been times when we should have been afraid, but we don’t think to be afraid, and it would have been prudent to be afraid,” Rice said during a recent interview in the conference room of her Wilshire Boulevard office.
Rice co-founded Advancement Project with fellow lawyers Stephen R. English and Molly Munger in 1998 because she realized that it would take more than litigation to “make a bureaucracy permanently change how it treats folks at the bottom and to operate at a much higher level so that you actually end poverty rather than just palliate it.
“We kind of outgrew the civil rights organizations because we needed new capacities,” explained Rice, former co-director of the LA office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “We needed to be able to run elections. We needed to be able to get inside and sit on boards. You can get a whole lot more done by sitting inside a place and re-engineering it from the inside than you can by fighting on the outside.
“So we wanted to get inside the castle as opposed to trying to cross the moat and storm the rampart, which is what litigation is,” she said with a laugh that seems to punctuate many of her anecdotes.
Case in point: Rice went from suing the LAPD to working on reforms with Chief William Bratton when she was appointed by the Los Angeles Police Commission to lead a blue ribbon panel investigating the Rampart Division corruption scandal.
Of course, Rice, who earned her law degree at New York University School of Law, has experienced plenty of successes with litigation over the years. One of her high-profile cases involved unfair public policy in transportation in the ’90s. On the conference room wall, a poster of a can of sardines recalls the landmark battle for the Bus Riders Union: “No Somos Sardinas. We won’t stand for it.”
“We use our litigation to change systems, to help poor folks get access to transportation, housing, jobs, training, education — just remove barriers,” Rice said. “Trying to help the poor end their own poverty [has been] the goal of a lot of our cases.”
While working toward that goal, Rice has earned more than 50 awards for leadership and service. Among those are Civil Rights Lawyer of the Year in 1999 from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. That same year, California Law Business named her one of the state’s top 10 most influential lawyers. In 2002, she received the John Anson Ford Humanitarian Award from Los Angeles County. She received an honorary doctor of law degree from Occidental College in 2003. This month she was awarded the Racial Justice Award from the Pasadena chapter of the YWCA.
Though the list goes on and on, her accomplishments seem to be rewards in themselves. Next to getting three innocent men off of death row, however, Rice said her most important achievement was earning her black belt in tae kwon do. It was one of the hardest things she ever did.
“It’s an all-male world, and it’s physical combat. Women aren’t trained to do that,” said Rice, who convinced a South Korean instructor to take on his first female student years ago. “So not only do I do verbal combat and legal combat, but I do physical combat.”
That impulse toward self-preservation developed after a man physically assaulted her when she was a student of government at Harvard.
“I got mad because he wasn’t that big, and I should have been able to kick the crap out of him, but it didn’t occur to me because I hadn’t been trained to fight. Women are trained to be fearful of their physical space. It made me realize that the next time that happens, he’s going to end up in the hospital.”
With the casual laugh that she uses often in conversation, perhaps to deflect the seriousness of the issues she deals with on a daily basis, Rice said her next attacker did end up needing medical attention.
“Oh, yeah. I’ve been attacked several times. Men don’t manage their anger very well; they don’t manage their sexuality well, on the whole. There are a lot of wonderful men — but on the whole, men are a danger to women, they’re a menace,” she said. She then cited statistics about violence toward women and children: Statistically, women are safer on the street than at home because of the prevalence of domestic violence; a third of all women will be victims of some kind of sexual misconduct; and a quarter of boys and a third of girls are sexually approached and many sexually abused.
“Ninety percent of the violence that’s sexual and against children is done by men in our families who are heterosexual, and that’s across race and class,” Rice continued. “This is a male problem. Our gangs, 99 percent male. The gun violence, 99 percent male. So you know, it’s interesting to me that the elephant in the bathroom isn’t acknowledged; you can’t come to grips with it. ... If you frame the problem incorrectly, you’re not going to solve it.”
Personally, Rice had good role models, both male and female, in her family. Her mother was a science teacher and her father a colonel in the US Air Force. But she has strong advice for women who might not have been so lucky.
“We were brought up to be independent and to defend ourselves. So if no one has given you permission, just take the permission. Take the permission to live your life on your terms. That doesn’t mean living your life like I live mine; it means giving yourself the freedom and the permission to claim what you want and then do it,” she said. “And don’t worry about what other people think; just do what you need to do to fulfill who you are. And if you don’t know who you are, then work on that.”
Rice has been similarly fearless and outspoken in her political opinions, but she emphatically said she has no interest in pursuing a career in that arena. “I could never be a politician. I won’t raise money.”
She finds the corruption of democracy so bad that she compared the system to a brothel. Her regular commentary on public radio’s “The Tavis Smiley Show” clearly puts her on the side of activists. Some of the top 10 lists she has recited on the show included 10 ways to lose the war on terror and 10 things Condoleezza Rice didn’t say in her testimony about the US response to terrorism before and after Sept. 11.
However, Rice has plenty of affection for the secretary of state, a second cousin she met a little more than 10 years ago.
“I admire Condoleezza. I just think she’s hanging around the wrong crew right now,” she said laughing. “Bush is making her look bad. She makes him look good though. Thank God she’s there, or we would have invaded Syria by now [laughs]. Good grief. No, I know she stopped it, she’s the reason that there’s any diplomacy whatsoever. We would have invaded Syria and Iran by now if Cheney and Rumsfeld had their way; they’re both crazy. So I see her as a very smart, stabilizing influence in a den of nuts in the White House.”
Though she has no political aspirations, the 50-year-old Rice pointed out an interesting facet of her current position: It requires what she calls “United Nations skills” in dealing with racial issues across the spectrum.
Though she believes that “tremendous progress has been made” in race relations and social justice, there is still a long struggle ahead. So in addition to working on police reform and overseeing school construction after launching a coalition lawsuit that won $750 million, Advancement Project is currently devoting its energies to healing racial strife. It has been helping the Muslim community protect its people and houses of worship since Sept. 11 and dealing with the worsening problems of gang violence.
Rice, whose ancestry is Native American, African and Scotch-Irish, has flawless light brown skin. Her family is directly descended from “slave owners and slaves and the Native Americans came in on the great-great level, so we’re 19th-century American blended.
“And the problem with that is people forget you’re not all of one or the other, so you don’t really belong to one or the other,” she added. “I mean, I am African-American, and that’s my home base, but I am very fluid and fluent and have the passports to go into all these other worlds.”
Rice previously worked with LA County Sheriff Lee Baca to find solutions for the race-related violence affecting the Pitchess Detention Center and implemented NFL Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown’s Amer-I-Can skills management program. But she still sees racial tension on the streets and in the jails intensifying.
“It was bad enough that the violence was by set or by sect or by gang. Now, you’re starting to have African Americans and Latinos shoot each other just on the basis of race, and that’s ridiculous. So I see the floor sinking, the dynamics getting worse in the underclass and in the prisons. You almost have to have racially segregated facilities — it’s that tense.”
Compounding the problem, Rice explained, is the shrinking middle class and the lack of jobs for unskilled workers. She fears we have written off the poor, and that can only lead to disaster.
“We’re going to become like a lot of Third World capitals: a city of haves and have-nots,” she warned. “We have a mass incarceration strategy. We just decided the folks at the bottom are never going to make it to the table, and we have jail for them. We have more people in prison than any other industrialized country in the world, including South Africa, and California is the capital for that nonsense. … So if you don’t fix it now, you will basically turn the ship of state on a permanent trajectory toward Rio, and beyond Rio is Mogadishu.”
While Rice can envision the worst, she has the courage to fight for a brighter reality. Advancement Project is one organization willing to invest in the community that our society would leave behind, both locally and nationally through its Washington, DC, office. Over the past nine months, it has been developing a plan for gang activity reduction in Los Angeles that will insist that all the city’s programs — from law enforcement to the schools — communicate with each other and work together, something entirely new to the system.
“We keep doing the same thing, and we have more gangs, so it’s a real sign of insanity,” Rice said. “So one of the biggest things that I’m working on right now is helping the city assess why we’re stuck on stupid. We’ve got a lot of people doing very good work, but it’s not to scale; it’s not based on best practices; it’s not based on research.”
As long as we leave behind a whole sector of our population and let government exist “to perpetuate power, to reinforce the structures of party and to distribute disproportionate public wealth to private interests,” Rice believes we cannot have a true constitutional democracy.
“Our mission is to create a trajectory toward increasing the middle class, increasing upward mobility, increasing prosperity,” she said, “because the more prosperous an economic region is, the less friction, the less tension, the less crime, the less racial strife. That’s the key.”
To learn more about Constance Rice and Advancement Project, visit www.advancementproject.org.
Pauline Field | Occupation: Consultant
Background: Pauline Field proves the adage that tough times don’t last; tough people do. As the founder of the Commission on the Status of Women in Glendale, a city with an all-male City Council, she provided an outspoken voice for women in a town that’s often made headlines for sexist attitudes at the governmental level. And that outspokenness appeared to come back and haunt her in January, when the city ended the commission and ousted Field from her leadership role.
Recent Accomplishments: Field has refused to go away quietly, co-chairing the Fifty-Fifty Leadership group in promoting equal leadership opportunities for women and spearheading the launch of the Armenian Freedom Academy, which will bring a dozen women from Armenia to Glendale each year for in-depth training in leadership skills. She is also the chief operating officer of International Fieldworks, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in conflict resolution, executive coaching and business and operational development.
Indeed, Field has become a specialist in conflict resolution thanks largely to the battles she’s faced with Glendale City Hall. Yet her peaceful spirit shines through her work with the United Nations Association in Pasadena and as chair of its Advocacy Committee. Perhaps most impressively, she plans to motivate the next generation of female activists by establishing an annual conference co-sponsored by the Glendale YWCA and the Fifty-Fifty Leadership group.
“Glendale is still a sexist city, and in terms of pay scales, in particular for city jobs, the situation keeps getting worse,” said Field. “What I really would love to reiterate to a lot of different people is that the work of getting gender equity is not completed, and there’s still a lot of discrimination in a lot of endeavors. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Terri Ashley-MacQuarrie | Occupation: Educator
Background: Terri Ashley-MacQuarrie, who works for the California Virtual Academies, has always been a fighter. Born in the San Fernando Valley and raised in San Diego, her life wasn’t easy. She was raised by a single mother, and her teenage brother was murdered. Ashley-MacQuarrie dropped out of school when she was 15, but she eventually enrolled at Pasadena City College. Twelve years later, she transferred to Hope International University in Fullerton where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in human development. She continued her education at the University of Phoenix and earned a master’s degree.
Recent Accomplishments: Anyone whoever doubted the underdog’s desire to win never met Ashley-MacQuarrie. After witnessing prostitution in her backyard, an outgrowth of unchecked alcohol and drug consumption near the corner store, the 43-year-old mother of three and her husband took their plight to the Pasadena City Council. After showing them pictures of the sexual acts, the council convened the Nuisance Liquor Store Task Force, which convinced several local stores to stop selling malt liquor altogether. But it didn’t end there. The city asked Sen. Jack Scott, D-Altadena, to carry legislation enabling cities to take back control of liquor stores and what they can sell. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed that legislation into law in September.
“Like a lot of people, I was cynical about how much difference one person can make,” Ashley-MacQuarrie said. “Everybody is talking about how you can’t accomplish anything if you don’t have a lot of money. It was amazing and kind of rewarding and it restored my faith in how the system is supposed to work.”
Nazee Rofagha | Occupation: Wellness Educator
Background: The drive to empower women is in Nazee Rofagha’s blood. The seeds of her compassion were planted decades ago in Iran, when Rofagha’s grandmother, Shamsi Geranpayeh, was working to advance women’s rights in the country. Before Rofagha was even born, Geranpayeh had taken a public stand against the chador, the traditional covering Iranian women wear to veil their faces. She was also a counselor for women, helping them through marital problems and other personal issues. This spirit — part activist, part healer — was born anew in Rofagha, even after the family left Iran for the United States. “I think it becomes contagious, having someone kind around you,” said Rofagha of her time with her grandmother.
Recent Accomplishments: Since her move from Glendale to Pasadena in November of 2004, Rofagha has jumped head-first into community-led efforts to help and heal. Rofagha opened the Family Chiropractic Wellness Center in Pasadena with a mission: “to help as many people as I can and help them enjoy a life without pain.” This mission often takes her outside of the office. Today the Pasadena resident volunteers her services as chiropractor and wellness educator to organizations like the YWCA and the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women (LACAAW).
“I love educating women,” said Rofagha, who on a volunteer basis teaches women at Curves and children at elementary schools about health and healing. “I love to empower them. I really do encourage them to become the best they can as women.”
Rofagha shares her grandmother’s passion for fund-raising work as well. When her uncle began his battle with pancreatic cancer, Rofagha joined forces with cancer survivors and others to form the first Relay for Life in Pasadena in 2005, raising more than $10,000 to support cancer research.
Mary Dee Romney | Occupation: Office Manager, Public Schools Activist
Background: Mary Dee Romney has for years been a consistent and vocal critic of Pasadena Unified School District affairs, and twice ran for a seat on the Board of Education. Her interest in public schools developed 15 years ago while a volunteer for Reading Friends of San Rafael School, a literacy project that she helped save from being scrapped by the school board at the time. Romney was especially active during the work of the Charter Reform Task Force on School District Governance, which called for numerous voter-approved reforms that to this day have not been fully implemented.
Romney and her husband, attorney David Romney, both sit on the board of directors for the West Pasadena Residents Association. She is a Ventura County native and graduated from Santa Clara University with a degree in history.
Recent Accomplishments: That the future of Pasadena’s public schools has recently become a hot topic for community discussion is music to Romney’s ears.
Being an active participant in schools affairs “should be the civic responsibility of every adult,” she said.
Never one to give up a chance to get her point of view across, she remains focused on issues of school governance reform.
“Too many people either have given up or been sidetracked before the job has been done. Now the city is stepping in with talk about being a partner with the district, an impossibility due to the clash of cultures and priorities. Before more folks give up, we need to recapture the intent of the reform work,” said Romney. “The community is beginning to understand the close relationship between budget accountability and success in academics. There’s more of an interest and an increased understanding of how things work.”
Sole Teramae | Occupation: Parent and Activist
Background: Sole Teramae is living proof that you don’t have to be rich, famous or a politician to make a difference. Though she was born in Lima, Peru, Teramae has lived in Pasadena since 1982. She sent her eldest son to private school. But when it came time to send her second eldest to school, she and her husband chose Washington Middle School since private school tuition had become more expensive. She was shocked to see such a drastic difference in both the quality and parental involvement at Washington. Furthermore, she learned from the principal that the Pasadena Unified School District had plans to close the school, which serves a poorer, more ethnically diverse community.
Immediately, Teramae felt compelled to fight the closure, organizing meetings, making countless phone calls, sending emails and writing press releases, which she sent out to the local media. “Everyone said, ‘It’s going to be closed. It’s already a done deal,’” Teramae said. “I had to fight them with fire, so I got the media involved.”
Teramae took her activism one step further, organizing a march on the school board, which included labor leader Dolores Huerta, as well as hundreds of community supporters. Thanks to Teramae’s diehard persistence and dedication, Washington remains open.
Recent Accomplishments: Teramae is the first to admit that, despite her success with the march, local schools and the community in general still face major obstacles. One cause Teramae has taken on is providing physical education programs to local children. Los Angeles-based Kids in Sports inspired Teramae and she now works with the nonprofit organization, setting up sports leagues with the YWCA so that kids pay $15 instead of $75. “But still, we don’t have a ‘no pay, no play’ mentality. Everyone is welcome to participate,” Teramae said. Her recent labor of love is organizing a volleyball league with six teams, which include 23 girls from Washington.
“It wasn’t until 1999 that I realized that I could make a difference in the community, and I did. Before 1999, I never felt like I was part of the community because I sent my son to private school,” Teramae said. “When a community comes together and works toward certain goals, it can change things. I did it for my kids, and I did it for my neighborhood.”
Marijune Wissman | Occupation: Alhambra Correspondent, The Citizen’s Voice
Background: In a town without its own newspaper, Marijune Wissman has emerged as an important voice for the people of Alhambra — covering just about everything, including local politics, crime, city planning and social happenings, in her monthly column over the past 10 years.
The 82-year-old Wissman has lived in Alhambra for 46 years and began her writing career with the subscription monthly after writing for Monterey Park’s American Legion Bulletin.
During World War II, Wissman graduated from the University of Chicago and worked as a stenographer of highly classified documents for Manhattan Project scientists, including Niels Bohr. Her husband, Frank, is a retired Navy flyer, LAPD officer and professor of police science at El Camino College. They have three children.
Recent Accomplishments: Wissman could write about anything in her column, but she chooses to report and analyze local news in order to maintain an independent and critical voice for those who care about their city but can’t make it to every council meeting.
“Without an independent newspaper, residents know very little about important changes in the development of the city,” said Wissman. “I try to editorialize on different big subjects, but I also try to get in little neighborhood gossip-type things going on, and sometimes inject a little humor.”
In February’s The Citizen’s Voice, Wissman showed she could throw some punch into an otherwise happy affair. She reported that organizers of this year’s 15th annual Lunar New Year Parade in Alhambra prohibited members of Falun Gong — a spiritual group not only banned but reportedly rounded up and tortured in Mainland China — from marching, as well as all other political and religious groups.
That was fine, she wrote, except that the parade still carried a lot of politics: “Just who, then, are those politicians who make use of the celebration to get some ‘face time’ with the public? Calling them dignitaries does not change the fact that they are, indeed, political entries,” she wrote.