Jill Habig and Affirmative Litigation Fellows | All Photos: Lisa Vortman Photography
Have you ever hosted a party and only anticipated a few people would show up, only to be pleasantly surprised when you had a full house? Well, that’s essentially what Ambassador Jill Habig experienced when she launched her newest fellowship, Affirmative Leaders Fellowship, at her org, Public Rights Project. Jill and her team anticipated an inaugural cohort of 10 and ended up with a cohort almost 3x that, capping off at 29 fellows. Talk about a party! It gets better -- 41% are P.O.C., 55% are women, and they’re spread across 23 offices.
So by now you’re probably wondering what this fellowship is all about and why so many folks wanted to be a part of it. Before we dive into that, let’s take a look at the founder of Public Rights Project, Jill Habig, and her background to get a better sense of why this work is important.
Jill’s first career was not law. It was ballet. Yes, you read that right. Jill Habig was 14 years old when she left home (a small town in Indiana) to attend an elite performing arts boarding school where she trained 5 hours a day, everyday. After high school she moved to NYC to pursue classical ballet as a career. Much to her dismay, after being in NYC for over a year she wasn’t considered thin enough for professional ballet, despite attempting to starve herself to achieve the ideal weight industry professionals were looking for. Realizing the long-term effects that an eating disorder would have on her life had she decided to pursue a career in professional ballet, she chose to pivot and relocated across the country to California to discover how she could make a lasting impact.
Here was Jill, a 20 something just out of law school determined to leave a legacy. A small town girl with tremendous courage and unwavering tenacity, Jill knew the power of legal strategy and the importance of doing good for historically marginalized and vulnerable communities. She knew she had to create something and after working for California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s office, she did. In 2017 she launched her nonprofit, Public Rights Project, and immediately got to work helping state and local government offices close the gap between the values expressed in our laws and the lived reality of our most vulnerable communities.
Of course that wasn’t the end of it. The cases Public Rights Project was encountering were focused around the three pillars of the organization: Civil Rights, Economic Justice, and Environmental Justice. Creating a talent pipeline for lawyers focused on this line of work was one thing but what about the other folks who’d been working in state and local government offices interested in the same thing? How could Public Rights Project equip those mid-career professionals to develop the skills necessary to do more good, proactively, for their communities? Public Rights Project created Affirmative Leaders Fellowship as the answer. The Fellowship provides one year of training and professional development, plus access to a national network of impact litigators within government, to current state and local government attorneys. This support enables fellows to initiate, expand, or deepen the impact of their office’s equitable enforcement work by addressing the urgency of racial and gender equity, federal housing and urban development, and overall protection of basic human rights.
Recognizing that the federal government that was once trusted is now failing us, in addition to the current political climate, Affirmative Leaders Fellowship has been introduced at just the right time. Guest panelist Jesse Newmark of Centro Legal de la Raza, describes the fellowship as highly unique, explaining, “As far as I know, something like this -- bringing together government attorneys from across the country to really focus on proactive enforcement for communities -- I haven’t heard of that happening before.” Last year, Jesse, along with his colleagues at Centro Legal de la Raza, and Oakland City Attorney Barbara J. Parker, secured a settlement with the owners of an East Oakland hotel that systematically violated state and local labor laws, including Oakland’s recently passed Minimum Wage and Sick Leave Ordinance. The housekeepers in that case had been denied overtime pay, sick leave, and rest breaks, in addition to being subjected to other illegal conduct. It’s because of organizations like Centro Legal de la Raza and Public Rights Project that the rights of vulnerable communities are protected. The Affirmative Leaders Fellowship was made to build capacity to do just that.
So the next time you consider hosting a party, think about Jill and her team, then add a few more place settings, because if you do it right (and you will!) more peeps will be sure to come!
Want more updates on other projects in the Public Service & Government passion area? Stay tuned with The Ambassador’s Circle @theacircle and be sure to follow Public Rights Project on Facebook @PublicRights Project and Twitter @public_rights
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Ambassador Jade-Olivia is a native Detroiter and storyteller who lives for chai tea lattes and tear-inducing laughter. She spends most of her time doing improv, being an IG comedian, and in search of the next best breakfast burrito.