Advances in the Lives of Latinos
President and CEO, California Community Foundation
No other private institution in the nation has done more to address poverty and social justice issues throughout the world than the Ford Foundation, which has affected the lives of millions through its work. My experience comes through the Latina civil and voting rights lens.
While a young attorney, I came to know the work of the Ford Foundation when I moved to Washington, D.C., to work as counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. In the late 1970s and early 1980s I worked closely with the organizations funded by Ford, working on the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1983. I also worked with those organizations working on reforming our antiquated immigration laws.
After leaving the Senate I began a 23-year career with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), where I learned that the Ford Foundation had been the lead funder at the organization’s inception and to this day continues to be a significant funder. Measuring the impact the Foundation has had on U.S. civil rights advances is not difficult when seen through the lens of some of the major cases involving civil rights.
What follows is a short summary of some of the milestones in the 1970s and 1980s that changed and improved the lives of millions of Latinos living in the United States. Many of these MALDEF initiatives were supported by Ford:
One of the earliest victories was adding the bilingual provisions to the 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act. This was a difficult struggle as there was strong opposition by some of the African American organizations that feared dilution of their efforts. In 1982, with the support of Ford, some of the opposition softened and we were successful in ensuring that the bilingual provisions were included in the 1982 renewal. This was just the beginning of a decades-long push to ensure fair voting rights for Latinos.
With the support of the Foundation in the mid-1970s, MALDEF worked with the U.S. Department of Justice to identify proposed election law changes that would have resulted in discrimination against Chicano voters. Through funding for attorneys devoted to voting rights cases, the organization also monitored jurisdictions required by the voting rights act to pre-clear election law changes with the Department of Justice. During this time, MALDEF filed several lawsuits to enforce the act’s pre-clearance provisions in Texas and New Mexico. Such experts as Joaquin Avila, Michael Baller, Jose Garza, Judith Sanders, Nina Perales and Tom Saenz worked to change the political landscape for the Latino community.
From 1978 to 1979, a campaign to gain Chicano representation on Texas county commissioner courts resulted in six counties improving their representation. The organization also joined forces with the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) and California Rural Legal Assistance to devise redistricting plans designed to improve Chicano political access in Texas and California.
By 1980, MALDEF was working with SVREP on galvanizing people to participate in the 1980 U.S. Census, which would lead to massive reapportionment of state, county and city election districts.
Voting Rights Act renewal efforts began in the summer of 1982. MALDEF's president and general counsel and its voting rights director testified before Congress and pursued public education and advocacy efforts in local communities, in partnership with civil rights, religious, labor and many other groups.
In 1983, MALDEF helped win new amendments to the Voting Rights Act establishing that election practices are unfair if they are discriminatory in effect, regardless of their purpose.
The 1980s were a period of significant achievements. Through Ford’s funding MALDEF was able to fight for the creation of the Fourth Congressional District in Chicago, a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court twice. Today, Rep. Luis Gutierrez holds that seat and is the senior member of the Illinois delegation in the House of Representatives. In New Mexico, MALDEF fought for the creation of the seat first held by Rep. Bill Richardson.
In California, MALDEF’s efforts throughout the 1980s and 1990s saw the growth of Latino representation. Specifically, MALDEF fought for the redrawing of Los Angeles City Council lines that elected Richard Alatorre, and in the County of Los Angeles it took a law suit to redraw the lines that elected the first Latina to the County Board of Supervisors, Gloria Molina. Today, the State Senate is led by a Latino, Kevin De Leon.
The Ford Foundation was and is the lead funder for fair immigration reform, though its support did not come without controversy. In the mid 1980s, because of that support, Sen. Alan Simpson, Republican of Wyoming, visited the Foundation’s then-President Susan Berresford to express his concern and displeasure. Yet MALDEF’s efforts throughout the 1980s to advocate for immigration reform led to the passage of the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986, which included the legalization provision that allowed millions of undocumented individuals to legalize their status.
And it is well known that the support of the Ford Foundation for affirmative action allowed not only MALDEF but also the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and others to mount a rigorous effort to defend this policy. These struggles continue to this day. MALDEF recognized the attack on affirmative action had weakened the law and, in Texas, through the genius of Attorney Al Kauffman, devised the 10 percent rule, which mandated that the top 10 percent of high school graduates be admitted to the flagship University of Texas at Austin.
I continued these efforts during my tenure as president and general counsel, including initiating at-large election challenges in New Mexico and California.
The Ford Foundation strategy to fund systemic change organizations like MALDEF, LDF, the Women’s Law Center and others has led to the development and support of many of the leaders of these movements, and I proudly include myself. The Foundation’s policies and funding have significantly improved the lives of the poor, the excluded and the vulnerable.
I have been privileged to have partnered and worked with many of the Ford leadership and program officers. As Ford was the lead funder for MALDEF during my tenure, I often commented that I had an office on 43rd Street. I made friends for life of Lynn Walker Huntley, Susan Berresford, Emmett Carson, Anthony Romero and many others. Now, as I lead a community foundation, many of the efforts we have implemented have modeled the work of the Ford Foundation.
While we accomplished much, I know more still needs to be done. We still see tactics designed to discourage the Latino and minority vote all across the country. At times, we take two steps forward and one back. Attacks on affirmative action, voting suppression efforts and calls for immigration reform underscore my plea to the Ford Foundation to continue funding these organizations.
But much more needs to be done.
Today, the disparity in wealth, the diminishing opportunities for low-wage workers, the dismal graduation rates of minorities—specifically Blacks and Latinos—and the continuing racial attacks speak to the need to keep funding these efforts.
I am optimistic about the work that MALDEF and other organizations continue to do in this field, and grateful for the leadership and support from funders like the Ford Foundation. With these types of sustained partnerships, I know we can work toward making the words in our U.S. Constitution a reality for all.