May 6, 2004
Civil Rights Goes Beyond Ethnic Lines
When the nation's largest and oldest Mexican American civil rights group selected a new leader recently, the committee that recruited her included the organization's chairman, a man who is neither a Mexican American nor an immigrant. Meet Joe Stern.
For Stern, the immigrant experience began at home. Growing up in a Cleveland suburb, he remembers his maternal grandfather regaling him with tales about coming to America as a poor Jewish immigrant from Austria and making his way here, despite anti-Semitism and the challenges of scratching out an existence in a new land. Arriving penniless in New York, Stern's grandfather eventually made his way to Ohio, where he went on to open a successful supermarket chain.
His grandfather's travails and triumphs helped the young Stern develop a lifelong empathy for immigrants. He decided that one day, he would somehow smooth the rocky road newcomers often face in the United States, a country whose attitude toward immigrants often rises and falls with the vicissitudes of the economy.
Today, 54-year-old Stern is a partner at the blue-chip New York law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP. He lives comfortably on the Upper West Side, jets around the globe and runs marathons.
But the abiding love of the underdog and quest for social justice Stern learned at his grandfather's knee never left him. That's why he contributes to such civil rights groups as the American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Defense Fund. It's also why he serves as chair of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a civil rights group fighting for educational equality and political advancement for the nation's 40 million Latinos.
A graduate of Yale Law School, Stern would at first blush seem an unlikely candidate to hold such a prominent position in the nation's foremost Latino civil rights organization. Although he heads Fried, Frank's Latin American practice, Stern speaks little Spanish, took only a few courses on Latin American history in college and has no Latino roots.
Still, Stern said the similarities between Jews and Latinos outweigh the differences; both groups prize family, self-improvement and have firsthand experience with the dislocations of immigration. For Stern, Judaism's emphasis on justice and making the world a better place have given him a strong foundation for his advocacy work.
"I don't think you have to be Jewish to have a sensitivity to the most recent wave of immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Latin America, but I think our immigrant experience may help," he said. "Again, I don't think you have to be Jewish to have a passion for civil rights, but it doesn't hurt. MALDEF is one of the foremost civil rights organizations in the country, and I do really believe that when anyone's rights are denied, we're all in danger."
Stern first got involved with MALDEF through his activist law firm, which has a longstanding relationship with the group. A director since 1991, he has worked overtime lately, playing an important role in the recent hiring of Ann Marie Tallman as MALDEF's president and general counsel.
"Joe's really stepped up and done right for this institution," MALDEF board member Frank Quevedo said of Stern's efforts in finding a new leader, who beat out 80 candidates and is expected to attract more corporate support.
Tallman's appointment represents MALDEF's break with the "last ties to any notion of ethnic nationalism and ethnic provincialism," said Gregory Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute. Although the group has long taken money from businesses and foundations, Tallman, an ethnically mixed attorney who speaks almost no Spanish and hails from the corporate world, symbolizes a more mainstream MALDEF, he added.
Stern, in his 13 years with the organization, has held a variety of positions, including heading the organization's fiscal and fund-raising committee. He became chair in 2002, just as the group opened a new office in North Carolina to serve the northeast. Stern's charm, intellect and ability to bring people together have earned him the respect of his MALDEF colleagues, board member and Washington attorney Thomas Reston said.
"It's quite evident from anyone who talks to him that his is not a rote, by-the-numbers interest in civil rights. It's a deeply felt passion and a deep commitment to fairness," said Reston, who successfully litigated on behalf of MALDEF in the mid-1970s to expand the Voting Rights Act to cover parts of California and the Southwest.
Stern's commitment to Latinos and civil rights is matched only by his newfound dedication to Judaism. Bothered by his ignorance about his own religion, he began taking classes at a local synagogue and became fascinated with the Bible and its meaning. At the age of 49, Stern had a bar mitzvah.
"I figured I should at least do what a 13-year-old does, and I'm very happy I did. It was a public way of embracing being Jewish," he said. "Judaism has made me a richer, deeper person."