Nicole Austin-Hillery has long been recognized as a passionate, mission-driven, and committed civil rights leader fighting for the disenfranchised. As the newly created U.S. Program Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, she directs efforts to end systemic injustice within the United States. Nicole is a fervent advocate for progressive public policies addressing a wide range of human rights issues, from immigration to national security, criminal justice, and civil rights. Nicole has been blazing new trails and taking on unique challenges throughout her career. Before embarking on her current role with Human Rights Watch, Nicole served as the first Director and Counsel of The Brennan Center's Washington, D.C. office where she led policy development and represented the organization before Congress. Nicole pressed for substantive results through her testimony before the Executive Branch and various state and local legislative bodies, and lead conversations that prompted action through her widely-read opinion editorials for major news outlets such as Time Magazine, The Hill, and CNN.com. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and Howard University School of Law, Nicole has always fought injustice. She spent her early career as a civil rights attorney at the law firm of Mehri & Skalet, PLLC as part of the firm's civil rights employment class action practice. She also worked as the George N. Lindsay Civil Rights Law Fellow at the national office of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C. Nicole puts thought into practice through her wide and far-reaching pro bono service to the legal community. While many know her as the 2018-2019 President of the Washington Bar Association, she also has served as an Advisory Committee Member of the ABA Standing Committee on Election Law and as co-chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section's Defense Function Committee. Additionally, Nicole inspires the next generation of social justice warriors as an adjunct civil rights professor at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law and as a former Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow at Harvard Law School. Despite her busy schedule, Nicole has been an insightful contributor to Washington Council of Lawyers. She served as a past President and currently serves as co-chair of the Honorary Board Committee. Nicole is a long-time Washington Council of Lawyers board member and has been a fixture at our Summer Pro Bono and Public Interest Forum. In addition to serving as a breakout session panelist for several years, Nicole has moderated our keynote discussions for the past three years, leading conversations with Jonathan Smith, Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs in 2019, David Cole, ACLU National Legal Director in 2018, and The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017. Nicole is flawless in leading warm and engaging conversations that highlight current legal issues. She has also participated in our Racial Justice Series programs, including an examination of the events in Ferguson and how to address ongoing racism in the justice system. Nicole is a tireless advocate for those living in the margins of society. It is an honor to award the 2019 Presidents Award for Public Service to Nicole Austin-Hillery.
They say it's always the quiet ones. In our case, the quiet one is a force. Quietly, and without fanfare, Jen Swedish simply gets things done. Effectively. Excellently. Extraordinarily. As one of her fellow board members aptly stated, "She has a behind-the-scenes role that even most Board members don't fully see. But Jen has provided a critical service to Washington Council of Lawyers." Jen has been a member of Washington Council of Lawyers Board of Directors for 10 years. And for 7 of those years, she has served as our Treasurer. There is nothing glamorous or exciting about the weekend and late-night hours Jen has spent pouring over spreadsheets and reconciling bank accounts. However, it is vitally important work that ensures our financial stability and ability to serve our mission. She has fearlessly tackled the IRS's complex rules and regulations, always ensuring we are doing exactly what needs to be done. She is adept with Excel, creating pivot tables and using shortcuts to make the work easier. These may sound like trivial talents. They are not! Jen's work over the years has saved Washington Council of Lawyers thousands of dollars in accounting and bookkeeping expenses. A long-time board member said it best, "In a small organization, it is vital to have passionate board members who are willing to take on the difficult tasks. Jen has consistently demonstrated her passion for Washington Council of Lawyers through her long-time stewardship of our finances and her dedication to our success. She has been a key component of our leadership team, and through her efforts, has ensured our ability to meet any challenge." Jen contributes this valuable volunteer service while juggling the obligations imposed by judges, discovery schedules, and travel stemming from her active caseload as a full-time litigator at the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the competing demands of having and raising three precious children. (We like to think of them as future public-interest lawyers.) She also has been a key contributor to the work of our committees, especially the Personnel Committee. Her insights and financial acumen have helped the Washington Council of Lawyers make solid decisions so that we have been able to grow our membership, offer more trainings to pro bono and public-interest lawyers, advocate effectively for increased access to justice, and build a stronger public-interest community. Although Jen's work has been in the background, it is central to advancing our mission. Two of the four pillars of our mission are training public-interest lawyers and developing leaders in the public-interest community. Jen was supporting these pillars even before she joined the board by serving as a co-chair of our Mentoring Program. As an alumnae of the program herself, she has been generous with her time in advising other co-chairs on how to effectively lead the program, and serving as a panelist at Mentoring Program events. Our Above & Beyond Award gives us the opportunity to thank Jen for a thankless job. We are pleased to take public notice of her dependability and dedication. We honor the talents she has shared with us and the hours she has devoted. We are grateful for her contributions and thrilled to recognize Jen Swedish as the 2019 recipient of our Above & Beyond Award.
Every year, pregnancy-related complications kill about 700 women. That’s bad enough, but the racial disparity makes it even worse: Compared to white women, black women are three times more likely to die because of pregnancy. Ujima: The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community wants more people to learn about this gap and, more generally, that too many black women and black babies suffer avoidable deaths. Ujima provides culturally specific services and resources about domestic, sexual, and community violence. Says its Executive Director, Gretta Gardner, "We hope to bring awareness that will spur conversations in the community about how we have to rely on each other to reduce harm and raise awareness instead of relying solely on systems and institutions." So two weeks ago (on Monday, October 14), Ujima held an event at Busboys and Poets in Anacostia to discuss black maternal health and how it relates to domestic violence. The program was one of over thirty District events held in October for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Moderated by Ujima Senior Policy Attorney Megan Simmons, the panel featured two reproductive-rights leaders: Dr. Jamila Perritt (a local OBGYN and member of the District's Maternal Mortality Review Committee) and Jessica Pinckney (Vice President of Government Affairs at In Our Own Voice: National Black Women's Reproductive Justice Agenda). The panelists were blunt about the relationship between domestic violence and maternal health. "Many folks who will someday become pregnant or potentially become mothers or parents have often experienced some type of abuse or violence in their life," said Pinckney. And "there is no way to separate the trauma or that experience from both the experience of being pregnant and the experience of being a parent." In fighting these problems, the panelists stressed, there's no substitute for knowing about reproductive justice and its history. As Dr. Perritt explained, "If you don’t understand reproductive justice, you will continue to see inequities." And, she added, "you can’t understand the inequalities with medical care unless you understand the history." Because of this history, for instance, some African-Americans distrust medical professionals; that distrust can affect the quality of care delivered and received. As a result, doctors and other medical providers need to ask better questions to learn whether someone is a victim of violence: "You have to ask if something is going on." Unfortunately, quite a bit is going on. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, last year District domestic-violence organizations served an average of 589 victims—each day. Bit by bit, groups like Ujima are working to change that. Learn more about Ujima, Inc. here.