Eva Paterson Speaking Truth to Power—#Roots2Liberation

During the Ella Baker Center’s 20th anniversary event, From Revolutionary Roots to Liberated Futures, we will have a panel featuring Eva Paterson, Patrisse Cullors, and Bryan Stevenson, moderated by W. Kamau Bell.

Eva Paterson is the co-founder and president of the Equal Justice Society, an organization that transforms the nation’s consciousness on race through law, social science, and the arts. Before founding the Equal Justice Society, she worked at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and led the organization’s work providing free legal services to low-income individuals.

When she was a 20-year-old college student at Northwestern University, Eva debated Vice-President Spiro Agnew, speaking truth to power about student protestors:

"You're doing us a great disservice because you're making people afraid of their own children...Yet they're your children, they're my parents children, they're the children of this country. Yet, you're making people afraid of them and I think this is the greatest disservice. There's an honest difference of disagreement on issues, but when you make peopel afraid of each other, you isolate people. Maybe this is your goal, but I think this could only have a disastrous effect on the country."

Eva Paterson Debating Vice President Spiro... by stringywhisky

While at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, Eva worked on a suit against race and gender discrimination by the San Francisco Fire Department, which succeeded in desegregating the department. She also has been a champion for affirmative action and immigrant rights, as well as a leader in campaigns against the death penalty, youth incarceration, and discrimination against lesbians and gay men. 

We are excited to have Eva on our panel at our 20th anniversary event because she has been and continues to be an inspiring force for social change across the country—and also because she played an integral role in the founding of the Ella Baker Center by providing one of our co-founders Van Jones with a space where he started Bay Area Police Watch. Below, Eva Paterson recounts her first impression of Van and the importance of Bay Area Police Watch:

What was your role in supporting the Ella Baker Center in the beginning?

It was in 1991 or 1992 and there were some law clerks working for us, and we were looking through applications for an upcoming temporary fellowship. One of the applications was a student from Yale and it had this crazy stationary attached to it of a man with about 12 dreads sprouting out of his head and we thought, “We have got to interview this guy.” And it was Van.

After that temporary position he was supposed to go back to the East Coast, but right before it was time for him to go, the acquittal in the Rodney King case happened. I told everyone who worked for me that they could go out and protest and do whatever they needed to do. I think Van was amazed that a workplace would allow time to go protest and that made him want to stay.

It all worked out for him because we’d just developed a Thurgood Marshall Fellowship program for a law school graduate and Van became our first fellow. Once that fellowship ended it was time for Van to leave again, but he wanted to stay.

So I told him that he could have this closet, a tiny bit bigger than a broom closet, but not much and that’s where he started Bay Area Police Watch and then it finally became the Ella Baker Center.

Why was it meaningful to you to open that space up to Van?

As a Black person running a business I had some space to help another Black person. It’s important to have a vision for the world you want to create, but many of us have to run a business. There’s a visionary part of a business where you can be both politically active and an entrepreneur as well and Van figured that out.

You see, an important part of this is that Black people were in charge of stuff. I’m Black and I was in charge, so I was able to give another Black person a space. As the president of the Lawyer’s Committee I could say, “We need to find this young man a space and there it was.” But, everyone in the committee wanted him, it wasn’t just me trying to help Van.

What made you take a chance on Van?

He always was a leader and as you can see with him now on CNN, he had a way of expressing profound thoughts in simple and effective ways. He really cared about changing the world in a positive way and it seemed like having an institution to combat police misconduct was necessary. Given the current movement, Black Lives Matter, they were ahead of their time.

What was the significance of Bay Area Police Watch?

I will say, what younger people did for a greater consciousness of the world is great. I have seen younger people start a new version of the Civil Rights movement with Black Lives Matter, they're saying, "this is wrong and we won’t stand for it.” I think that Bay Area Police Watch was the tip of the iceberg for that vision. And they [Bay Area Police Watch] were shining a light on very specific cases. 

Attend the Ella Baker Center's 20th anniversary event, From Revolutionary Roots to Liberated Futures, on September 8th in Oakland to hear Eva in conversation with our other panelists. Tickets are almost sold out—buy yours today!