A Conversation with Our Board Members
NCYL Director John O’Toole and Communications Director Tracy Schroth sat down with three of NCYL’s board members to get their perspective on NCYL’s past and future. The board members were chosen based on their varied legal backgrounds, and tenure on the board, which ranges from 14 to 22 years. (Read all 14 board members’ full bios here.) They are:
Alexander (“Lex”) L. Brainerd, a private firm attorney for many years before becoming a member of the panel of Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services, Inc. (JAMS) in its San Francisco office. He has served on NCYL’s board for 20 years, since 1991.
Judith Z. Gold, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Project in Oakland, CA. Prior to that she worked at Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe in San Francisco. She joined NCYL’s board in 1997.
Board Secretary Christopher Wu, supervising Attorney for the California Judicial Council Center for Children and the Courts, and Executive Director of the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care. Chris’s first connection with NCYL was as a law clerk almost 30 years ago, in 1983. He has been on NCYL’s board for 22 years.
[To avoid repetition, we did not include the answers of every board member to every question.]
Q: What about NCYL attracted you?
Judy: I did a lot of pro bono work at Heller Ehrman and was very inspired by the work NCYL was doing. I had a conversation with John and was further impressed. I was truly honored to be selected.
Chris: I was a law clerk here in the summer of 1983 and continued to have a working relationship with NCYL after that, while doing civil litigation in Contra Costa County and then working for Legal Services for Children in San Francisco. One of the strongest reasons was the opportunity to work with a terrific group of people. I thoroughly enjoy my fellow board members. We get together a couple times a year and have great discussions about a wide range of issues. And, of course, children’s law has always been the focus of my profession. I also serve on the LSC board, as does John. On a national level, I’m on the board of the National Association of Counsel for Children, which has really spearheaded the growth nationally of children’s law as a specialty.
Q: How has NCYL evolved and changed over the years you’ve been on the board?
Lex: I feel that NCYL has gained tremendous momentum through the years that I’ve been on the board. It was doing great work when I joined, but it’s become more diverse in the things it does. In addition to the really substantive system-altering, class-action lawsuits, it’s taken on some individual cases that have been really compelling. The organization has also done a lot to raise the public consciousness around children’s issues. The San Francisco Chronicle campaign was fantastic. So I think NCYL has taken its core and expanded its capabilities and to reach out in many compelling ways in addition to filing lawsuits. I am impressed by the breadth of what NCYL does and the impact it has.
Judy: Early on, I perceived one of the important roles I could play on the board was to help with fundraising. When NCYL’s federal funding disappeared in 1996, NCYL was so successful in redirecting its fundraising efforts in a very short time. To my great delight, and respect, NCYL was able to do this without in any way doctoring or changing its mission in order to attract the money. It went on under John’s leadership being itself. Although NCYL has always been a national organization and was well known and well established when I joined the board in 1997, it’s even more so now. I have seen a tremendous development in our ability to use the press effectively and just get our name out there.
Chris: There’s also been a generational change in the staff of the agency. We are now enjoying a period of a having a really good core of experienced staff, young and old. Through all the staff changes and evolution over the years, John has been the constant. He was here when I was a law student, and now that we’re reminiscing about it, I realize that was a frighteningly long time ago.
Q: Which work/cases of NCYL’s over the past 40 years do you consider most important?
Lex: I always start with the Utah case (David C. v Huntsman). When people ask me what NCYL does I often use the Utah case as an example. The organization went into a very hostile environment and tried to address the horrible conditions in the foster care system there and did such an effective job. NCYL was able to get the governor behind its efforts and essentially revamp the entire foster care system in the state of Utah. It impacted the lives of literally thousands of children. The Katie A (Katie A v Bonta) case is also a very important case and will now ensure that foster children have access to vital mental health care. Those are two of the cases that really stand out.
Q: To what do you attribute NCYL’s success?
Lex: John’s leadership and the quality of the people who work at NCYL, as human beings and as lawyers.
Judy: A super staff, truly committed and very skilled. I’m jealous of NCYL’s ability to attract the quality of the fellows it attracts.
Q: What do you see as NCYL’s biggest challenges going forward?
Lex: The ability to continue financing its work without changing its mission, to keep doing the work it wants to do. This is a hostile economic and political environment, so financing is the most elemental obstacle for the future.
Judy: The economy threatens to affect everything. States and counties are taking their budgetary woes out on poor children. The concern is always that the gains NCYL has made could be taken away. The judiciary has also changed and it’s not one that is sympathetic to our cause. That’s also a challenge.
Chris: In California, the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are being realigned and that could change how children’s needs are met.
Q: What do you see as critical to NCYL’s success going forward?
Judy: The challenge really is collecting the data and information that will help persuade the decision-makers that what NCYL is advocating for is the fiscally prudent approach. Short-term solutions make good sound bites, but if kids get a stable, healthy start in life they will need less as they get older. It makes economic sense to address children’s problems earlier in their lives.
Lex: Fundraising. The political environment is so toxic. I don’t see the government solving its fiscal problems for a long time.
Q: If you could change anything about what or how NCYL does its work, what would it be?
Chris: Less time devoted to fundraising. Every nonprofit dreams of having a significant endowment which will afford them some stability, but that’s difficult to achieve. That being said, NCYL has done a remarkable job continuing to raise money and maintain a healthy organization.
Q: Do you have any thoughts about child advocacy generally?
Chris: In the past 30 years, child welfare law as a profession has grown up and NCYL had something to do with that. There are many more people and organizations using law and policy to advocate for children.
Q: Please talk a little bit about your experience on the board.
Judy: I love the board meetings. And it feels great to do what I can to help this organization thrive. As an attorney with the Public Interest Law Project, my work with NCYL provides a perspective that is helpful to me in my own work.
Lex: I really enjoy coming to board meetings. I like the people and the presentations by attorneys and other staff at NCYL. They are inspiring and thought-provoking. As I said earlier, I did a lot of pro bono work while I was a lawyer in the private sector. NCYL is my oasis, away from the private sector’s drive and lust for money.