13th Annual Trina Grillo Retreat:Trina: Looking Back and Forging Ahead

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Dean Jeffrey Brand, University of San Francisco School of LawRemarks of Dean Jeffrey S. Brand

University of San Francisco School of Law

March 26, 2011


I want to welcome all of you formally to the 13th Annual Trina Grillo Public Interest and Social Justice Law Retreat.   I say ‘formally’ you because many of you were with us last night for the kick-off wine and cheese reception that featured a keynote address by retired navy commander Beth Coye.  Commander Coye spent 21 years defending her country in the military, and resigned to defend the human rights of all Americans by helping to bring down “Don’t ask Don’t tell.”   I would be remiss if I did not thank Commander Coye in the morning light for her inspiring address last night!   America owes you a debt of gratitude!

I would also be remiss if I did not thank all who make this retreat possible, particularly the organizers led by the indefatigable Hazel Weiser and her troops at SALT and our own hardy souls in the deans’ office here at the University of San Francisco School of Law, including Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Erin Dolly, and Student Affairs Program Assistant Jillian Fish, to name two of the most prominent helping hands.          And thanks to all of the program assistants at all of the schools who worked so hard to put all of this together.

The 13th Annual!   That phrase in some ways is numbing.  It is a solemn reminder that it has been fifteen years since Trina Grillo, our colleague, friend and inspiration, too soon left the planet, three years shy of her fiftieth birthday.   That phrase – the 13th Annual – is also inspiring as it demonstrates the lasting power of Trina’s legacy and the persistence of the struggle in which we all engage and to which the annual retreat is dedicated.

Over the years, the title of each of retreat reflects an effort to help fashion a more humane and just world.   In years past, titles such as “Cutting the Edge of Public Interest Law”, “Poverty, Wealth, Status and Inequality”, and “Global Social Justice Lawyering” have graced the pages of retreat programs.  This year we galvanize around the theme “Human Rights:   at Home and Abroad.”   Despite changing titles, I think it fair to say that there is a common theme to all of the retreats – marginalized and dispossessed peoples around the globe are in a fight for dignity, survival and access to justice, and, we as law students, lawyers, and legal educators can and must play a central role as comrades in that struggle.   For me, that struggle is what the Trina Grillo Retreat has always been about.

Today, by my count, 12 law schools stretching from Washington to Los Angeles to Denver, bring together 30 professors, lawyers and activists to consider international human rights issues in a variety of contexts ranging from immigration reform to the rights of children to war crimes.   We come together to find ways to understand the issues and, perhaps most critically, to help our dedicated, inspiring students engage in the work that brought them to law school in the first place – pursuit of the common good.

I am honored to have the task of setting the stage for today’s retreat, and I would like to do so by answering the question:   who was Trina Grillo and what does she mean to us today?    The answer to that question inspires us to understand the responsibilities that come with our privileged positions as educated professionals and to use the tools of our profession to make a difference in the world.  As I answer that question I do so with caution: as a friend and a colleague, I know that Trina would have been the first person to deny that she should be a symbol of inspiration, her modesty and simplicity being among her most endearing virtues.  That said, her values and her way of being in the world remind us of all that we can accomplish.   My sense is that today we gather not to lionize Trina, but to use her example as a way to look within ourselves to gather the strength to maintain our focus on the difficult struggles in which we engage.   Deflecting the focus in that manner is something I am sure Trina would have applauded.

Trina’s biography is known to many of us:  law professor, activist, and scholar while somehow maintaining a work/life balance to be a loving, nurturing mother to her son, Jeffrey, and her daughter, Luisa.   Her essence was distilled from her multicultural heritage, Afro-Cuban on her father’s side and Italian immigrant on her mother’s side.   My sense, as Trina’s colleague, is that these roots bred an awareness of injustices in our society from the security of a large family, and, at the same time, from the insecurity of engaging in a world very different from her own.   Trina once wrote:

There were four children in my family.   At times it seemed to me that we were half the biracial population of the Bay Area.   We were stared at wherever we went, although it took me a while to realize that the stares were not always ones of admiration.

As Trina’s colleague, Professor Catharine Wells put it in a moving essay about Trina’s work and life, that feeling of strangeness never left her.   Listen again to Trina:

My race and my skin color have been issues that have preoccupied me for a good part of my life, and I see little prospect of this changing anytime soon.

Indeed, it never did change, but it hardly deterred her – as Trina graduated from Oakland Technical High, and wended her way through Radcliffe and Berkeley en route to her J.D. from Minnesota, suma cum laude and Order of the Coif, and on to a brilliant career as a scholar and professor at Hastings and USF where she was named the most distinguished professor by adoring and grateful students.

Indeed, her upbringing infused and informed her scholarship which has had a remarkable impact to this day, particularly her ground breaking piece The Mediation Alternative:  Process Dangers for Women, published in the Yale Law Journal in 1991.   That piece, like all of her scholarship, whether it was about gender or race or access to justice, reminded us to look objectively at a problem and at ourselves and to challenge assumptions that form the common wisdom.   That was her approach in the area of mediation where she exposed the coerciveness that women often face despite the so-called non-adversarial environment in which mediation took place.

It was also her approach in her ground breaking work developing academic support programs around the country.   In this area, as she did in mediation, she rewrote the proverbial book on how to provide effective support – knowledge which had a profound influence on my own work and career as her successor director of our academic support program here at USF, a position I would never have taken but for Trina’s mentorship and prodding.

Trina’s dear friend on our faculty, Professor Dede Donovan, who unfortunately could not be with us today, responded with these words when I asked her to reflect on Trina:

[Trina was] devoted to promoting equality for disadvantaged people, in the U.S. and in other countries around the world.  [she was] devoted to preserving differences, not to let[ting herself] or the communities [she] served be forced to assimilate into mainstream cultures that would wipe out the essence of who [she], and who they are.  Trina was passionate about her legal work.  She was passionate about justice.  She cared tremendously about the lack of equality in the United States and worked tirelessly to end it.  At the same time, she was passionate about nurturing her loved ones and her family.

Which brings us to this moment and the critical issue of what Trina means to us today:   for me, the lessons are obvious.   We must challenge assumptions, confront the truth, struggle to do the right thing, and find that delicate balance between celebrating who we are while at the same time seeking unity and comity among all of humanity.

We must do all of this knowing that we will not see resolution in our own lifetimes or perhaps ever.   And we must do all of this knowing that balance in our lives and care and love for our partners and friends must be the lifeblood that sustains us.

If nothing else, 13 years of Trina Grillo Retreats continue to teach us those lessons.  In the end, the Trina Grillo Retreat is really not about Trina, it is about all of us and our willingness to engage in the struggle that lies ahead – again, a proposition with which Trina would hardily agree.

I want to close with a special message to our students and by recounting a short vignette.   The message to our students is simply this:   these are very, very difficult times when the would-be assassins of your wonderful spirits lurk everywhere.   At USF, and I know at all the law schools that sponsor today’s retreat, we take seriously our mantra of educating minds and hearts to change the world.  We know how dedicated you are.   At USF, we’ve watched you deal with war crimes in Cambodia, fight child trafficking in Haiti, contribute to law reform in Vietnam, and confront migration problems in the Dominican Republic.  We’ve watched you fight the death penalty in five Southern states, participating in our Keta Colby Taylor death penalty project, and we’ve borne witness to your participation in countless justice projects all over California.   You – our dear students – deserve a great legal education to prepare you for the struggle that the Grillo Retreat celebrates.

So to our students I say simply this:   demand that education of your Dean, demand it of every professor you have.   As legal educators, I know that all of us – deans, professors and administrators – take seriously our mandate and are dedicated to seeing your dreams fulfilled.

And this vignette which reminds me of the difference that together we lawyers can make in the world and which reminds me of what today is all about.  Some years ago, in New York, I was walking down Broadway on one of those magical Manhattan evenings and I noticed that Laurence Fishburn was starring in a one man play on the life of Thurgood Marshall.  The play was simply titled “Thurgood.” On the spur of the moment, I paid my hundred dollars and sat in the seventh row center.

The back drop of the set was an American flag, probably 100 feet by 30 feet.  In front of it a simple counsel table and chairs replicating the supreme court itself.  Out walked Fishburn as Marshall at the end of his life, recounting the struggle for racial equality in America.

One moment in the play particularly struck me and, in retrospect, makes me think about today.  Marshall was reminiscing about his mentor, the great African American lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, the dean of the Howard law school, the architect of Brown v. The Board of Education, and arguably the greatest lawyer of the 20th century.  “I remember my first day at the law school,” recalled Marshall.  “old Charlie Houston walked into that classroom and said something I’ll never forget:  the law is a weapon – all you have to do is learn how to use it.  And that’s just what Charlie Houston taught us to do.”

And that’s what I hope this retreat inspires us to do:  to use the law as a weapon in the struggle for the common good.

At the end, the lead of Trina’s obituary that appeared in the Oakland Post on August 4, 1996 was startlingly sparse.   It read:

Dr. Trina Grillo, a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law died Monday morning, July 28, at Stanford Hospital from Hodgkin’s disease heart failure.   She was 47.

A poem written in her memory by her children movingly provides the texture.  Listen to these two simple lines:

She helped us to see the light in ourselves/

And helped us know it could be taught to shine.

It is in that spirit that I welcome us all and that we go about our important work today!