Helping Fill a Need

Liliana Zaragoza '13 Has Been Awarded the Inaugural John Payton Appellate and Supreme Court Advocacy Fellowship by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Where She Will Apply Her Legal Talents to Racial Justice Litigation and Initiatives.

New York, June 22, 2015—When Liliana Zaragoza ’13 was in the process of applying for a new civil rights litigation and advocacy fellowship at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, she reached out to Columbia Law School Professor Jack Greenberg ’48, the former LDF director-counsel who argued Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Liliana Zaragoza '13 has been awarded the inaugural John Payton Appellate and Supreme Court Advocacy Fellowship by the NAACP-LDF.
Zaragoza never had the chance to meet or take a class with Greenberg while she was a student at the Law School. But, after handling labor law cases for immigrant domestic workers in New York City during a two-year Skadden Fellowship, she decided she wanted to pursue her passion for racial justice through impact litigation and set her sights on LDF.
“I wanted to know how he ended up there,” she recalled. “It’s something I could have Googled, but nothing could replace the opportunity or value to meet him in person and hear the story from him directly.”
The 90-year old Greenberg told Zaragoza he joined LDF because he saw a need for equality advocacy and wanted to fill it.
“He said you have to go where you’re needed,” she said. “It sounds simplistic, but if you really want to do something, and there’s a need that you can meet, you should do it.”
The need was obvious to Zaragoza—she has long been interested in the intersection of xenophobia and race and has been an active participant in several marches associated with the Black Lives Matter movement to protest police violence against the black community—so she applied for and won the inaugural John Payton Appellate and Supreme Court Advocacy Fellowship. Named for the sixth president and director-counsel of LDF who died in 2012, the fellowship allows one attorney the opportunity to litigate cutting-edge civil rights cases in education, criminal justice, voting, and economic justice, as well as the chance to develop public policy and public education campaigns about racial discrimination. Zaragoza starts later this month.
She comes to the position after spending her prestigious Skadden Fellowship at the New York Legal Assistance Group where she spearheaded outreach efforts to domestic workers in New York City, educating housecleaners and caretakers—mostly women of color or women born outside the U.S.—about their rights under the state’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. She took several cases to court, including one in which a client was awarded a $150,000 default judgment for unpaid overtime.
“I’m very proud of that,” she said. “[The client] was amazed she was able to secure a judgment against her former employer in court. In some people’s minds, they say, ‘It’s not worth it; it’s only a little bit of money.’ But in the aggregate—after so many years—it can add up.”
Zaragoza was drawn to working with immigrants in part because her own mother immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Many of the issues Zaragoza engaged in on behalf of her immigrant clients are relevant to the work she will be doing at LDF, she said.
“Barriers to immigrants and to people of color often overlap,” she said. “I’m a first-generation American and a woman of color, but I’ve been very lucky in that I haven’t had many barriers. I want to be able to give people access to the promises and opportunities that my mom came to this country for.”
LDF is the perfect place to pursue that kind of work, she said. In fact, Zaragoza is just the latest in a long line of Columbia Law School faculty and alumni who have gone on to the civil rights organization. In addition to Greenberg, Professor Olatunde Johnson, Professor James Liebman, former Professor Theodore M. Shaw ’79, and the late Constance Baker Motley ’46 all devoted part of their careers to social justice work at LDF. Christopher D. Wilds ’15 will join Zaragoza as part of the latest Columbia Law School class there as the inaugural Herbert and Nell Singer Social Justice Fellow.
“There’s a rich connection,” Zaragoza said. “There’s a lot of intellectual firepower at LDF.”