Fighting The Good Fights

  • Hispanic man standing in a stairwell smiling

“I’m proud to say that my love of defending our civil rights started at CCD.”

Paul Chavez
Executive Director
Centro Legal de la Raza
Paralegal AAS, 1997-99

For many young adults, their quest for an education begins when they recognize that their goals in life are limited by their current knowledge. For Paul Chavez, this awareness happened after his discharge from the Navy at the age of 23. As he was maturing and having more experiences, he rediscovered his love of learning and a thirst for knowledge that only college could give him.

With a GI Bill College Fund in his hand, he wandered around lost on the Auraria Campus until he finally found himself at the CCD Welcome Center. With the help of the Veterans Support Services, he embarked on the journey to discover exactly what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Dabbling with a variety of coursework in different departments Chavez had hopes of discovering a calling.

It was Professor Stacey L. Beckman, chair of the paralegal program, that saw something very special in Chavez’s work and attitude. Still unclear on his direction she made a bold recommendation that the ACLU bring him in for one of their highly coveted and prestigious intern positions. It was during this brief internship that Chavez had a galvanizing moment that solidified his goal to become a civil rights attorney.

During a client intake interview, Chavez was talking to a mother whose daughter was on a free lunch program at her elementary school. The kids on this program would get a cold lunch while everyone else got a hot lunch. As he listened to this mother he recalled being on a free lunch program as a child too, and the impact on his psyche. He recalled how it felt to have a different colored tray and to go through a different line in the cafeteria. He recalled, “I remember vividly as a kid who the red tray kids were and who the blue tray kids were and for the first time, I realized, ‘Oh, I'm a blue tray kid. We're the kids that don’t wear the nicer clothes and we speak with accents.’"

Under normal circumstances, this case would have been rejected by the ACLU, but Chavez felt so strongly that this was important that he was given permission to draft a letter to the school principal. In the end, he was able to create awareness and persuade the administration to change their policy. He won his first argument. On the last day of his ACLU internship, he received a phone call from the mother and her eight-year-old daughter who in her sweet voice thanked him. As he hung up the phone, he thought, "Yep, that does it, I need to go to law school."

“It was Professor Beckman’s incredible encouragement that helped guide my decision to complete my bachelor’s degree,” said Chavez. He continued on to complete his bachelor’s degree at University of Colorado Denver on the Auraria Campus and was accepted at one of the nation’s premier law schools, University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

Today, Chavez’s work protecting civil rights continues as his role as the executive director at Centro Legal de la Raza in San Francisco. In 2015, he received the highly prestigious award Attorney of the Year by California Lawyer Magazine in recognition of his work protecting the rights of immigrants and the dignity of the poor working Hispanic families of Northern and Central California.