Chapter One: Early Career
Lisa: And we’re recording. My name is Lisa Sonneborn, I’m interviewing Janet Stotland on September 14th, 2012 at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Also present is our videographer Abiodun Ogunleye.
And Janet do I have your permission to being our interview?
Janet: Indeed you do.
Lisa: Janet I wanted to start, um, by asking you a little bit about your background and early career. Um, firstly can you tell me your full name and your current or most recent title?
Janet: Um, well my name is Janet Stotland and my most recent title is as Executive Director of or Co-Director of the Education Law Center. Currently I’m on leave from the Education Law Center.
Lisa: And when and where were you born?
Janet: Uh, I was actually born in Florida in, in, uh, January of 1945. My father was in the military but I spent almost my entire life after that first six months in Philadelphia.
Lisa: Why did you become an attorney? What was it that attracted you to the legal field?
Janet: Well, I had always been concerned with and active around social justice issues, in the civil rights movement, in the anti-war movement but particularly in the civil rights movement and these were the issues that moved me and that I wanted to spend my life working on. In the ‘60s, which is when we’re talking my being in college and then eventually in law school, it was clear that law and lawyers committed to social justice issues could make a big difference. They couldn’t make all the difference, most of the difference was made by people on the ground putting their lives on the line but to the extent that people could turn if they were jailed, if they were discriminated against to lawyers who were breaking new ground on civil rights laws. Um, then it was possible to make a difference in that regard. It was really a golden age of the law. So it seemed as if, if I credentialed as a lawyer I could be useful too.
Lisa: Janet, when you were in law school the country was in the midst of tremendous change and I’m wondered who were the figures locally and/or nationally that most influenced you?
Janet: Well it was in great turmoil, the civil rights movement, really from the mid ‘50s up through the time I graduated from law school in 1969 and then beyond that but clearly the leading figure was Dr. King, Dr. Martin Luther King, and I don’t think there was anyone in the country with any sense of justice who wasn’t moved by him and the organizations that he founded and many other organizations that were fighting for, um, an end to segregation and eventually an end to the war but I would say that Dr. King was certainly the person of the greatest influence. And here we are at Temple near the Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Cecil B. Moore was a very important figure here in Philadelphia, um, in his very valiant efforts to desegregate Girard College. So he was also an influence.
Lisa: You were, as you’ve been describing, very aware, as most Americans were, of the civil rights movement. Um, were you aware in this early phase of your career or while you were in law school about the growing disability rights movement?
Janet: Actually my time in law school, which was 1966 to ’69, was a little bit before the, sort of the disability rights movement really got underway, that wasn’t until a little bit later. But I would say that my involvement with the disabilities rights movement actually began from the time that I started at the Education Law Center, which was actually my second, the second job. I’ve had two jobs in my life, one with the Community Legal Services doing poverty law here in Philadelphia and then subsequently in 1976 when I came to the Education Law Center, the center was already active at the beginning, here in Pennsylvania, of the struggle to get children with intellectual disabilities and other disabilities into the public schools and get them the kind of programs they needed. So with my arrival at the Education Law Center I became more familiar with and then engaged in the disability advocacy movement.
Lisa: Okay. Janet, we’ll talk about your work with the Law Center probably for most of this interview, um, but I wanted to (step) back for just a minute and talk about Community Legal Services. You were there for seven years, I believe. Um, Community Legal Services was based in West Philly where you lived and I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about the type of work you did there and what it was like to live in the community you were serving.
Janet: Well when I graduated from Penn Law School I received a fellowship which allowed me to work in any legal services program that wanted me. Since I was living in West Philadelphia, and still live in West Philadelphia, I wanted to work here in Philadelphia and I had a high priority, if at all possible, in working in the community in which I was living so that I was actually representing my neighbors and helping improve my neighbors lives and the community in which we lived. So I came as an extremely unskilled staff attorney into the West Philadelphia office and at this point Legal Services, which has been around now for a long time, was brand new. It was only two years old. So everybody was trying to figure out what this organization was and how it should function.
The West Philadelphia office, uh, neighborhood office, was the first of the neighborhood offices in Community Legal Services so it was, had been open maybe a year before. So it was a collective effort and work in progress but it was also very exciting because of its newness, because of the leadership it had which immediately insisted that I go out in my community to talk to groups, to work with individuals. And in the first years my work was, since it was a generalized civil law practice, which means that we handled any problems for low income, um, folks that were not criminal, that’s what civil means. And so we had everything, we had housing, we had divorce, we had, um, social security benefits, we had small estate problems, you name it, and of course, poor people had it like everybody else had it and they had us to go to. So this was very exciting. We were also right next to a very large State store so we had lots of visitors from the State store, um, but it was, it was, as I say, an adventure.
Uh, eventually I became involved in what we called urban renewal law and what that meant was we were right on the edge of the Penn campus and the Drexel campus, um, which, again, I still live in that neighborhood. Um, and one of the things that Penn had done, frankly, was tear down a lot of the local housing in order to expand in ways that were not so good and very bad for the low income communities whose houses were being taken. Um, Drexel was just starting to do the same thing at the point that I graduated from law school so one of my first big cases was against Drexel on behalf of my neighborhood and the groups in my neighborhood who were trying to persuade Drexel that there were better ways to expand its campus then to tear down the surrounding community. And eventually that case was settled to save a number of important buildings and streets in my neighborhood and I still think, when I ride past them as I do frequently, that, that my work and the work of many other people and many other individuals in that community saved that housing.
Um, one of the things that happened, that precipitated that litigation was that community groups and individuals sat on the bulldozers that were there to tear down the housing that Drexel was trying to clear in order to some extent to build buildings but in other respects to land bank land for future expansion, that happened many places in this country but that was happening in our neighborhood. So when they sat down on the bulldozers and the police were called to remove them that precipitated a whole series of legal maneuvers, which I then, and my colleagues at Community Legal Services and some of my friends from the Defendant Program were thrust in the middle of it. So that was my first big lawsuit and I’ve always said that our success was due to the fact that I knew nothing, that had I had any idea what the limitations of the law were and what I could really do or not do I wouldn’t have done half of the things that I and my colleagues did. But in our blissful ignorance we made arguments like well they can’t tear down these buildings because in order to do that they have to remove our folks and our folks can’t be removed without an injunction, which is an order to remove them, and that in the law injunctions come, are what are called equitable remedy, which there’s ancient, hundreds of years old doctrine that says you have to come to the court with what are called clean hands and our argument was that Drexel had been extremely naughty in all of its behavior to the community hence did not have clean hands and hence could not get an injunction. And it didn’t work altogether but it worked enough to save a considerable portion of the community.
About Janet Stotland
Born: 1945, Florida
Title: Executive Director Education Law Center
Advocacy, Civil Rights, Education