Updated: Mar 2
CCIJ’s Executive Director, Bianca Sierra Wolff talks about her experiences growing up as a Latina woman in the United States, and the ongoing struggle lawyers of color face while working to transform an outdated legal system.
Interview Conducted by Danna Castro Galindo
At what age did you move to the US and what are your most memorable memories from the transition?
I was actually born in the US, my parents both came here pretty young from Mexico. I was born in Arizona but we moved to the Bay Area when I was pretty young and I guess my first memories are always pretty much tied with the culture: living in the Bay Area but being different. My first language was Spanish at home and everything came from Mexico. Those were definitely my very first memories, the fact that we were Mexican but not living in Mexico.
Growing up as a bilingual child, how was your relationship with your native and learned languages?
I’d say for up until I was in my twenties, I felt very comfortable in both languages, Spanish and English. Apparently I did speak English with an accent when I was little because some woman [the parent of a classmate] was like, “I remember you! You had the cutest little accent when you came to our school.” Which is really a little offensive…. I have always been fully fluent which really came in handy with my family, translating things or interpreting for them. I think, specifically in my first couple years at school, because English was my second language, people assumed that I was slow. I went to summer school and got put into remedial English groups. And I remember thinking, even then, “No, I think I know this. I think I can do this.” But sort of feeling like there wasn’t that much expected of me and, as I got older, and lost my accent people were surprised that I did really well in school. I guess I’ll just end by saying that I love being bilingual, it’s been a huge asset to me. I wish I spoke more languages!
What inspired you to pursue a career in law?
I didn’t know that I always wanted to be a lawyer but I always liked reading and history and I always loved my culture, being Mexican. I was an international relations major in college because I could learn about Mexican history and political science and that definitely geared me towards law school. But, the story I always tell about why I ultimately became an attorney and do the work that I do is because my family was working class, very humble. Because we were working class, when I went to private school, I was always the kid on financial assistance and work study. Most of my friends were not Latino and their parents were well to do. We bought a house that had some construction defects that we didn’t realize and my dad went to one of our friend’s successful businessmen and said, “I need an attorney to help me because we’re having this issue with our house.” And this man said, “Well, you can’t afford my attorney.” So the attorney that he sent us to was just horrible and we ended up losing our case. I’ll never forget that because, to me, the lesson was: If you have money, and if you have status, you have a different system that’s open to you. If you don’t have those things, then this is the system that you get. I think that’s ultimately why I’m so passionate about the work that I do because I see a system that has two different rules and it’s not right, it’s not fair.
What do you think made you stand out in your undergraduate and law applications?
I loved school, I was very curious, and I did well in school which I think helped. I was always really passionate about the things I cared about but, unfortunately, my upbringing was not the easiest. When I was in elementary school my dad became very ill. He had a heart condition and he ultimately became disable. Around the time he became disabled and was on disability my mom lost her job and had to go back to school so things were really tight for us. I think, given the fact I always had to have a job, had to help my family with medical appointments and my little brother, but I was still doing well in school showed that I was able. Also my background showed that I was able to handle a lot of different situations. But the fact that it requires so much dodging obstacles and overcoming all these different things is very problematic. I think I was really lucky and fortunate, but I certainly don’t feel that people who didn’t go to the same schools I did aren’t as talented as I was. Things just lined up for me in a really great way and I am really grateful for that and think we have to keep fighting for people who don’t have those same chances.
How was your experience as a woman of color in law school, a predominantly white, male field?
Law school was really hard for me. I had always really enjoyed school and college. I think [law school] really radicalized me in a lot of ways because college was much bigger and you had a more diverse population. Whereas in law school, it was already a small group and a legacy kid doesn’t stick out the way a Black or Brown kid will stick out. So the questions were, “Who’s the affirmative action kid?” or “Who’s the poor kid?” You can figure out who that kid is right away.
Law school was really hard, I think people thought very highly of themselves. When I came in people had already worked at the top non profits or for the top professors or their parents were law professors and it was just really daunting in a way that took me years to recover from.
I lived in a dorm with three other law school students and I was the only one of color. They became very good friends of mine and they would share with me what people would say about the students of color. [These students] wouldn’t say it to me but they would say it to them. Some of the things that stuck out were someone saying, “diversity has no value to me.” Or we had a Black law professor who was a Supreme Court clerk and people said, “He’s terrible, he’s not even fit to teach high school English.” One guy said, “I know that I didn’t get into Stanford Undergrad – which I went to – because of Affirmative Action, they had to give my spot to somebody else.” Things like that just opened my eyes to systems of oppression and white supremacy and really changed the direction of my career and my life.
Can you tell us about the differences between working in the field and doing more executive director work?
I ended up sort of going in a direction where I don’t really practice. I believe I need to know enough about the areas my organization is involved in so I can answer questions and troubleshoot with my attorneys. I consider myself someone who has expertise in organizational capacity and management. As an executive director, I’m really focused on the whole well being of my organization. Attorneys often say, “Oh, I don’t like numbers, that’s why I became an attorney.” But I think that to be an executive director you should know numbers, finance, basic accounting. You should have an understanding of how much money is coming in and how much money is coming out. Also, development and fundraising. You need to create fundraising plans and grant writing. I feel that my job is to look at a nonprofit as a small little business with a mission. We’re not in it for profits, we’re in it to achieve our mission, which I love.
How have you dealt with the double standard that women can’t simultaneously be mothers and leaders at work?
I had a lot of help from my mom and my husband so I’ve been able to make it work. I’ve always been really committed to having my own career. I think about the example that I want to set for my daughter. I think that women make amazing leaders because we’re very smart and capable but we’re also more compassionate and can relate to people on a human level in a way that I think is really important. But the pandemic has been really hard. I feel very fortunate to work in a place that’s very supportive, where people understand my limitations. My kids interrupt all of my Zoom calls. People know that it’s better to schedule stuff with me before 2 because that’s when my kids are at daycare.
The thing that really breaks my heart is that so many women are leaving the profession to stay home because they’re at their breaking point. And then, if you add the fact that there’s already so few women of color it’s really hard. There’s only forty to fifty thousand Latina Attorneys in the entire country. There’s so few of us so a burden that you always carry is that you’re just one of a few in this profession. You feel like you always have to be the best and the most put together. Then you add being a parent and being the best parent that you can and it’s really hard. It always breaks my heart when a woman of color leaves the profession but I understand why. The stakes are really high and it’s hard fighting the patriarchy and white supremacy on a daily basis. I remind myself that I’ve come this far and I just need to take good care of myself: it’s a marathon not a sprint.
Finally, what’s one thing you would like to tell young women who want to pursue a career in law?
Don’t give up! We need you! – Having a really good support system is really important. I’m really close to my family and I have amazing friends who have always been there for me. Also, be kind to yourself. As a woman of color, when the stakes are so high, we expect so much from ourselves and when we make a mistake – I’ve seen this time and time again – women of color beat themselves up and they’ll end up not continuing and we’ll slowly start to whittle down. Just remember that we’re going to make mistakes and probably fail multiple times and that’s okay, that doesn’t mean that you’re not smart and that you can’t do it.