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Meet the chiefs: The women leading Philly’s public interest law organizations

Deborah Gordon Klehr (left), Sue Vivian Mangold, Debby Freedman and Keir Bradford-Grey. March 6, 2018 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongPeople
In 2015, four of Philadelphia’s staple public interest law organizations appointed new directors within months of each other.

Keir Bradford-Grey left her post as Montgomery County’s chief public defender to take over the reins as chief at Philly’s Defender Association. Susan Vivian Mangold, a professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School, was appointed executive director at the Juvenile Law Center. Deborah Gordon Klehr was named executive director of the Education Law Center, where she had been an attorney for a decade, and Debby Freedman, who was serving as deputy director of Community Legal Services, was promoted to executive director.

The four women met that year at a celebration the Philadelphia Bar Association held for them called “Meet the Chiefs” and instantly hit it off.

“As a new leader, there are so many things you don’t know,” said Freedman. “All of us felt we were trying to learn many parts of complicated jobs all at once.”

That night, the newly-appointed leaders — who, for the most part, did not know each other well — decided to get together on a regular basis.

Mangold said she sent everyone possible dates for a breakfast meeting. Soon, a repeating monthly invite was on all four women’s calendars.

“We started talking and it was just a nice, genuine conversation about our fears, opportunities — things women talk about with each other that we may not talk about with the general public,” said Bradford-Grey. “I felt comforted knowing that there were women in this city taking on the same responsibilities I was taking on, and had the same thoughts, fears, visions.”

“We’re very fond of each other in a very sincere way. There’s no tension or challenge between the four of us. We have great respect for each other,” said Mangold. “We’re confidential in our conversations, so we’re able to share questions comfortably.”

Aside from sharing best practices around management and organizational development, the group has dug in deep on areas where their work intersects.

“We started to learn so much about each others work that we really didn’t know and finding areas where we intersect,” said Bradford-Grey. “We’re learning how our resources extend and how much greater they are with each other.”

That resource sharing has led to lots of collaboration between the organizations, particularly around truancy, an area in which all four organizations work. It’s also led to the Defender Association and Community Legal Services engaging in shared initiatives and mutual education around criminal record expungement. The Education Law Center has shared resources around board engagement.

"We're learning how our resources extend and how much greater they are with each other."
Keir Bradford-Grey

“While our organizations have different niches, there have been lots of ways in which our legal work and our focus on justice intersect and overlap,” said Klehr. “I have called them at different times for different needs.”

The monthly breakfast meeting provided so much value to the four women that they decided to approach The Philadelphia Foundation and request funding for a professional development group.

Over the course of a year, the group — including Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project co-directors Lauren Fine and Joanna Visser Adjoian and Pennsylvanians For Modern Courts President Maida Milone — were hosted monthly by the foundation, which provided structured support sessions on everything from fundraising to human resources to financial management, as well as access to two external advisers.

Although the year-long funded group just wrapped up, the monthly meetings — sometimes over breakfast, sometimes over drinks — continue.

And while Mangold said it’s not unusual for women to lead legal nonprofits (we can also think of Philadelphia VIP’s Sophie Bryan and formerly Sara Woods, the Philadelphia Bar Foundation’s Jessica Hilburn-Holmes, Women’s Law Project’s Carol Tracy and Public Interest Law Center’s Jennifer Clarke), all four women agreed that it’s helpful to have external peers who you can trust when you’re the head of an organization.

There's a tradition of mentorship that fosters 'very intentional' feminist perspective in the public interest law community.

“As women, we are often marred with the thoughts that having a high bar to reach, and so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed,” said Bradford-Grey. “Sometimes you need that person who can say that it’s OK if you made this mistake, it’s OK if you don’t know something.”

Freedman said there’s a tradition of mentorship that fosters “very intentional” feminist perspective in the public interest law community.

“There was a generation of women who came out of the social justice movement of the ’60s and ’70s who came into all these public interest law organizations really determined to mentor other women and kick down the door for other women to lead those groups. All of us have benefited from that,” said Freedman.

Women such as Education Law Center’s former Director Janet Stotland, former CLS Executive Director Cathy Carr and former Chief Defender Ellen Greenlee, she said, have passed the buck on to today’s leaders.

“The Philadelphia public interest community is really unique and special and collaborative,” said Klehr. “It seems to me that we’re really lucky that this is such a special place to practice.”

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