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JANUARY 2012 NEWSLETTER - Hear Our Voices
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Women Lawyers Making a Difference:  Finding Alternative Ways to Use Our Legal Skills to Promote Justice, Equality, and Human Dignity

 by Stephanie A. Montaño 
 
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main[;]… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
–John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624)
 
On January 12, 2012, WLALA invites you to attend: “Hear Our Voices: Women Lawyers Making a Difference” and discover ideas and opportunities for getting involved. We will have a panel of women who are taking action by using their legal skills and training in alternative ways to protect and promote human rights and human dignity, facilitate restorative justice, and work to eliminate the injustices that exist on international and local levels. 
 
Join us to learn about: Hon. Valerie Salkin’s involvement with Jewish World Watch, an organization working to combat genocide and other egregious human rights violations around the world; Deborah Rothman’s commitment to Wells Bring Hope, an organization working to save lives by drilling wells and bringing clean water to people in West Africa; Executive Director, Janis Spire’s dedication to The Alliance for Children’s Rights, an organization advocating for children and youth who are impoverished and abused; Executive Director of the Center for Civil Mediation, Tobi Inlender and Jackie Mizrahi, who work with “The Shalom Project” to bring peer mediation to residents and staff at Beit Tshuvah, a recovery and addition treatment center; Co-founder, Laurel Kaufer of Prison of Peace, a program that provides communication, peacemaking, and mediation skills to inmates serving life and long term sentences; Lind Bulmash’s commitment to Girls and Gangs, a organization providing support and advocacy for girls involved with the juvenile justice system by providing them with opportunities to envision and build successful lives.
  
Every individual possesses human dignity – the inherent worth one obtains simply by virtue of one’s existence. The concept of human dignity has been used throughout history by philosophers and theologians to mark the basic level of respect and inviolable rights that all humans share equally. In addition, many modern international, as well as national, legal instruments promote the recognition and protection of universal human dignity. The Preamble of the United Nations’ Charter declares a determination “to reaffirm the faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Principle VII of the Helsinki Accords affirms that states shall promote the effective exercise of human rights and freedoms, “all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person.” 
 
Unfortunately, the lofty ideals of respect for human dignity and equal rights are not a reality for all. We live in a world where, in the last two decades, egregious human rights violations and mass atrocities have occurred on a daily basis in several countries – Darfur, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, just to name a few; where young children are subject to the injustices of poverty and abuse; and where individuals are without access to basic necessities, such as food, shelter, and clean water. 
 
These inequalities and violations of human dignity don’t just exist somewhere out in the world, far removed from our lives, they exist in our very own communities. For example, over one-quarter of the children in Los Angeles live in poverty. As attorneys, we have the skills, tools, and training to effectuate change and create a positive impact in the world. However, it is important for us, as lawyers, to realize that litigation isn’t the only – or even the best – tool available to institute change, facilitate peace and reconciliation, protect human dignity, or promote restorative justice. In fact, often times litigation alone is unable to accomplish such goals fully and meaningfully. However, as attorneys we have many other tools available to us such as: advocating for legislative and/or policy changes, community outreach, training in mediation skills, and education.
 
As a Los Angeles native, I can personally attest to the fact that violations of human dignity and equal rights in ‘the world’ are not just somewhere far away; they exist in and affect our local communities. My hometown of Glendale is home to the second largest diaspora of Armenians in the world, second only to Moscow. I grew up in this community, where many of my friends and acquaintances came from families that had fled to Glendale to escape religious and political persecution in their home countries. The concept of human dignity was not a lofty principle in my community, but rather was a basic right that people were willing to flee halfway across the world to experience and maintain.
 
Growing up in Glendale I also experienced firsthand the consequences of failing to respect others’ rights and dignity. Unfortunately, Glendale is a community that has experienced high ethnic tensions between the Armenian and Hispanic communities, tensions which boiled over into inter-ethnic conflict that resulted in the deaths of two young males, one from each community. They were not faceless or nameless individuals somewhere out in the world. They were my peers. One was a baseball player; I knew him; I passed him in the halls everyday on my way to fifth period. Both young men had their lives snatched away, when respect for human dignity and their inviolable human right to life were compromised by ethnic tensions and cultural ignorance. Both losses further engrained in me the very idea of respect for human dignity, for the importance of being able to live, believe, and be free from harm or discrimination based on your ethnicity, or religious or political beliefs. 
 
In these tragic and unnecessary deaths, the legal system was an important part of the process; for example, the trio responsible for the second boy’s death were charged and tried for murder, attempted murder, and street terrorism. However, much of the peace and restoration brought to our ravaged community did not come from the formal litigation process. It came from the on-the-ground movements implemented – by the Anti-Defamation League, which trained students to be liaisons of cultural awareness, and the S.P.I.R.I.T (Student Problem Identifying and Resolving It Together) Council, which addressed the ethnic tensions in our school and community – to alleviate the ethnic tensions by promoting peace, mediation training, cultural understandings, and the promoting the concept of respect for human dignity. Litigation alone, while important, would not have sufficed.
 
For those of us who find ourselves in the more ‘traditional’ practice areas of law, we have lost neither the ability nor the opportunity to make a meaningful impact, in a ‘non-traditional’ legal way, in the world or our community.
 
Stephanie A. Montaño is an associate with Dongell Lawrence Finney LLP and a WLALA Member.
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