As part of the official Women’s History Month in March, the Center for Asian Americans United for Self-Empowerment (CAUSE) hosted Women in Power: Leadership in Law and Justice, at the Omni Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Friday, March 18.
This “Women in Power” panel discussion featured some of California’s top legal experts: Honorable Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California, and the Honorable Jackie Lacey, District Attorney for Los Angeles County.
“Our mission is to get the Asian American community more involved through civic engagement, networking, and leadership programs, inspiring the next generation to rise forward and build a network, but also to give back to your community,” shared Charlie Woo, one of the founders and board chair of CAUSE. “We want young people tonight to meet our special guests, have a discussion, and see what advice they can share and give.”
“It’s so important to be at the table, to be a part of the big discussion. It’s through these kinds of programs that this can happen.”
The program was also moderated Honorable Holly J. Fujie, Superior Court Judge for Los Angeles County.
“I support CAUSE; I’ve done so for many years,” said Fujie, who was the third woman and first Asian American to serve as President of the State Bar of California, and who currently works for Ms. Cantil-Sakauye. “They’ve done wonderful work in encouraging leadership among Asian Americans, and I love that they empower Asian American young women with the work that they do, especially through this series.”
On the Chief Justice, Judge Fujie said, “She’s my boss! She’s been a tremendous role model for so many people, and she’s also the nicest person on the face of this earth…but that title is also shared by Mrs. Lacey. Jackie has also always been the most generous, kind, and supportive person I know.”
Through candid, engaging discussion, the panel and networking event continued CAUSE’s mission and tradition of empowering women to rise to powerful positions of leadership, especially in the legal fields still largely dominated by white males.
Introducing the panelists were CAUSE Executive Director, Kim Yamasaki, Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin, and Nielsen Vice President of Regional Community Alliances and Consumer Engagement, Betty Lo.
“Tonight, we discuss and celebrate women. These women have dedicated their careers to upholding justice, defending and protecting our communities. They are not only public servants, but community leaders, mothers, and mentors. They are decision-makers not only in the courthouses, but in their communities and homes,” said Lo. “This Women in Power event extends beyond just Women’s History Month. We [women] need ongoing inspiration, encouragement, and support…Nielsen is a long-time supporter of CAUSE and this program.”
Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye is the 28th Chief Justice of California. Sworn into office in January 2011, she is the first Asian and the second woman to serve as the state’s Chief Justice.
“When I first went to law school, they admitted so many males…and about two Filipinos a year,” Cantil-Sakauye recalled, with a smile. “When I first started practice, I went to the D.A.’s office, and they didn’t think that I would do very well because I was a woman…when I first became a prosecutor, I was also working with a male judge, male jury, male everyone. There was one other Asian female prosecutor on the case, and they all thought we were the same person. I was called a lot of names, those first couple of years. It was also very common for male attorneys to immediately interrupt me—but I showed them up and worked hard, and I fought my cases. Everyone kept asking me, when are you going to take the BAR exam? Every place I went, I had to prove myself all over again.”
Today, Cantil-Sakauye has served for over 20 years on California appellate and trial courts, and has been appointed or elevated to higher office by three governors. She and the judicial branch of CA are also involved and pushing for several initiatives, speaking up for those who need justice, including marginalized communities with cultural/language-access barriers.
“We need to ensure that the judicial system is fair and working for the next generation, that judges are impartial, that politics don’t get in the way of preserving the law,” she said.
Jackie Lacey was sworn in as the 42nd District Attorney of Los Angeles County in December 2012. Since the office was established in 1850, Lacey is the first woman and African-American to serve as D.A. in Los Angeles. Her top priority is keeping the streets of LA County safe, safeguarding children and seniors, and protecting the community from environmental crimes that threaten both health and livelihood.
“At first, they didn’t give someone like me a serious murder case—they didn’t think I was tough enough, because I was feminine,” Lacey remembered. “Now, I’ve been a D.A. for almost 40 years; I can wear pants and a dress. I think I’ve been blessed my diversity, my experiences growing up. You have to block out the noise and negativity. I want people to say, she was the first [African-American, female district attorney], but she also made a difference.”
On embracing her Filipino identity, the Chief Justice simply stated, “I take strength in my community. I like that I have this culture and bring others to it.”
Agreed Judge Fujie, “Leadership really takes courage. I was the first Asian woman in a large law firm in LA… I know how hard it is to be the one that is the first, to have that extra scrutiny on you. If there were lots of other Chief Justices that were Asian American, nobody would be paying attention to our Chief Justice [Cantil-Sakauye] and say this is what they’re like. She has been a trailblazer all along, and is somebody that you can look at and say, ‘if she can do it, even the most amazing person in the world, maybe I can accomplish something too.’ She is also the first person that will tell you, ‘Yes you can, and what can I do to help you’?”
Congresswoman Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA – 27th district) congratulated CAUSE on its accomplishments strengthening the burgeoning API community, especially in California.
“I’ve been attending CAUSE events since it began,” Chu said. “It’s important to encourage young women to be able to break the glass ceiling, to be whatever they want to be. Culture and the way we were brought up has a lot to do with barriers, so we have to get out of that mindset. Role models [like D.A. Lacey and Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye] are a source of encouragement for young women to be able to step forward.”
As the Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Rep. Chu is also helping to organize the upcoming Asian Pacific Islander heritage month of May, in Washington D.C. “It’s important for our community to see each other,” she shared.
“But we need to go beyond, where we are very comfortable, where we speak our own language. When it comes to political engagement, civic duties, other societal aspects of their engagement, we are limited…but heading in the right direction. The history of API immigration in the United States is getting longer and longer…other second, third, and fourth generations are bilingual and more involved. The challenge is now bridging the gap. You can only be empowered united in your cause, in your community, and your ethnicity.”