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Lawyering for the Resistance: A Q&A with Sunu Chandy, National Women’s Law Center’s New Legal Director

In late August, Sunu Chandy joined the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) as our Legal Director. In her role, she’ll be on the front lines of the legal fights to defend the rights of women and girls during this critical time. We sat down with Sunu, a civil rights lawyer and poet (!), to talk a bit more about what brought her to NWLC Law Center, and how her work here will fit into our larger strategy to advance justice and equality for women and girls.

We’re so excited to have you join us at NWLC! Could you tell us a bit about your background?

Sure —  I learned about the importance of public interest work from my parents who are immigrants from Kerala, India, from growing up in Friends (Quaker) Meetings and from my days at Earlham College where I majored in Peace and Global Studies and Women’s Studies.  Following that, I’m grateful to have landed in fascinating and meaningful legal roles during the 19 years since my graduation from Northeastern Law School. Upon graduation, I represented unions and workers through a public-interest law firm in NYC and then joined the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in its Legal Unit in August 1999.  For 15 years I represented the public interest through EEOC federal litigation where we fought for the rights of women, people of color, immigrants, individuals with disabilities, queer folks and individuals seeking religious accommodations in dozens of lawsuits. I most recently served as Deputy Director for Civil Rights at the U.S. Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights, working to ensure civil rights compliance and enforcement in health care, health insurance, and other programs. Before that I served as General Counsel at the DC Office for Human Rights working to ensure civil rights compliance in the District in the areas of employment, housing, education and public accommodation. In all of these roles I have maintained close connections with community stakeholders and worked hard to remember who we serve.  In these government service roles or as part of any legal unit I worked hard with my teams to both maintain our integrity in making legal arguments while also pushing the law to where it needs to be. I am proud to be part of a social justice lawyering community alongside so many other advocate lawyers in DC and around the country fighting for social change.

Why did you decide to join NWLC in this moment?

I worked as a social justice attorney from within the government for several years including at two federal agencies and at one local civil rights agency. Often friends from advocacy organizations would ask how I managed the limitations in those settings and why I chose to work from that seat. I first went to EEOC because I wanted to be first chair on my cases and learn all I could learn from that angle and with that much responsibility.  It was scary at first to be up against very experienced law firm partners but it was an incredible learning experience. That said, I soon learned that the power of the federal government to do good is an important one.  For example, once long ago, an alleged harasser talked back to me in a deposition and said, “Are you saying that I harassed her?” and I said, “If by you, you mean the federal government, the federal government  concluded that you harassed her in this case.”  Even before EEOC, I saw the potential power of the federal government for good when I was at the labor law firm in my first law job. We took workers to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) who were being targeted by a nursing home for wearing union pins for an alleged “safety issue” while other workers wore all manner of pins. When the government agency became involved on our side, the nursing home backed down. I have witnessed hundreds of success stories where so many important federal civil rights agencies have fought for good and there are hundreds of career civil rights attorneys still doing that today as best they can.  However, given the national policy changes in the civil rights arenas, the appointment of top leadership with backgrounds opposed to the rights of many important civil rights communities and given the lack of civil rights commitment demonstrated by the President in the past several months, I welcomed an opportunity to fight for equality and justice from the outside.  I have immense respect and adoration for my career federal colleagues in civil rights divisions across federal agencies and am cheering them on and expect that they will be able to continue some positive areas of their work.

What have you worked on so far at NWLC that you are excited about?

I have enjoyed jumping in to help support in many of the program areas at NWLC. So far I am working with the Education team on a matter that is proceeding to a hearing involving a young woman who faced harassment at her school based on her race and sex, I am working with the Health and Reproductive Rights team on pending litigation and will be working with the Workplace Justice team both on matters in court and others pending with agencies. I am also excited to look at how best we can work to connect lawyers in the private bar who seek to represent women and girls in this moment with those seeking such services.  Finally, I am looking at opportunities for NWLC to file amicus briefs in important pending cases where the civil rights of women and girls are at stake — and there are many such cases. I am grateful to join such a talented group of attorneys and other dedicated program staff who are fighting hard for a vision that I share.  There is so much work to be done and I am finding committed, passionate and dedicated folks at NWLC who are fighting for all our vulnerable communities through the law and through the lens of gender.

What do you like to do when you aren’t lawyering for the resistance?

My spouse and I are proud parents of our seven-year-old daughter, who is starting second grade this year and she keeps us laughing and on our toes.  I also completed my MFA in Creative Writing a few years ago and still try to make time for poetry in my life. On that note, I am excited to give a shout-out to Split This Rock, a national social justice poetry organization based here in DC, as I am a board member there.  Finally, as my friends know I am a morning person and obsessed with one kind of exercise alone – spin classes – but do also try to find time for yoga and meditation to help clear my mind–and to balance out my love of trying out new restaurants on date night. I am also a member of the All Souls Unitarian Church and find that to be an important spiritual community for our family here in DC. Finally, I just turned over the leadership of a social justice federal employee support group that I started last November.  I try to build community wherever I go because we need each other as comrades given all that life throws our way — personally and politically. I am delighted to join an organization where I feel that spirit of kinship and unity of mission with the leadership and with everyone here. Thanks for taking the time to connect!