Chapter Five: Inspirations and Reflections on Career
Lisa: So, talking a little bit more personally perhaps, I’m wondering who’s been an inspiration to you, Janet, either professionally or personally?
Janet: Oh, so many people. So many people. Um, I would say one of my biggest influences is my Co-Director of so many years, Len Rieser, um who in his quiet, deliberative, brilliant way has taught me what excellence is and what it means to be truly creative. It is in the nature of lawyers, many lawyers, in legal training to think of the direction between problem and solution as the shortest distance between any two points. Um, my, Len has taught me that successful outcomes have lots of off shoots and that you have to be open to doing things better at every inch of the way, I’m not as good at it as he has but I would say that he has been a huge influence on me in terms of my legal career.
I mean, one of my problems when I first started practicing law, as I said I was very young, very inexperienced and thrust into leadership positions extremely early in my career and there were relatively few mentors around. There were relatively few women, there were eight women in my law school class of 180, you now know what the numbers are, so there were very few women around, the public interest law was a whole new thing, not 100% but, you know, public interest law as you would recognize it now with all the groups to do it this was 1969, that was a long time ago. So, um, it, I’ve learned from my colleagues some times as they were learning but I would say that Len has been my biggest influence. And then of course there are many great leaders in this community, Tom Gilhool, um, some of them are more or less my age peers, Tom is a little bit older but who have done, uh, forceful, creative, vigilant, persistent work and I think the whole community of people with whom worked have constantly taught me and mentored me.
Lisa: What about your work gives you the most satisfaction?
Janet: Well, I think that feeling I make a difference or have made a difference or hoping I’ve made a difference in some individual lives. Um, when I end up in a public forum making a speech or something it’s not infrequent that someone comes up to me and says, you remember me? I called you in 1986 and you told me what to do. Sometime I do remember but in any case they say, well you know he was six then but now he’s in college and he’s doing really well and you really helped. What’s odd is, sometimes it’s the very smallest thing that makes a huge difference and I’ve always said you never really know, um, sometimes you find out and it’s gratifying but you never really know where you’ve really made a difference. You just sort of plug away, do the best you can, cast your bread upon the waters and hope somewhere, um, you’re being of some assistance.
But I, I once said to one of my younger colleagues, I always thin-, I sometimes think that there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of effort put out and the amount of benefit. Sometimes I’ll do a ton of stuff and at the end I can’t really see how I’ve made much difference. Sometimes it’ll be one phone call or some small thing or a presentation at a meeting or some encouraging words that really changed a family’s life. So I hope there have been more of the latter then the former.
Lisa: Is there any particular work that you’ve done or worked on by the Education Law Center that you feel like you can say I’m proudest of this?
Janet: Um, I think the reason it’s hard is because what I’m proud of is our body of work. I don’t think that any one thing that we’ve done or any lawsuit that I’ve brought or any set of regulations or any single publication but I think we have been persistent and I think even just in the description of the litigations you can see how things which may not appear to fit together at the time, to some extent fit together, um, and that in the course of that 40 plus years that the Education Law Center has been doing its work, together with and supported by families and advocates, I think that in aggregate we’ve moved the system forward and we’ve helped kids. So I think it’s more that than any single moment that stands out to me. I mean, there’s, there are specific families that I remember helping that move me particularly but I think in terms of what I feel is, if I’m leaving a legacy the legacy is the body of work.
Lisa: Do you have an ideal vision for education that you could summarize?
Janet: Well, for education, my ideal image for education of kids with disabilities is the same as my image for public education. That we have rich, well supported, adequately funded school, public schools, where teachers are well trained, collaborative in the way they approach their teaching, that they are educated to teach diverse learners of all kinds, and are competent and willing and anxious to do so. That we have classrooms that are welcoming for kids with all kind of different needs and challenges and abilities and that we as a society recommit to our public schools, which is our future. And, uh, it’s a little discouraging in recent years as I think there have been things that have functioned under the label of school reform, quote unquote, such as vouchers which I think are really an abandonment of our public schools and I think an abandonment of the public schools is an abandonment of this country’s future.
Lisa: How would you then describe your frame of mind? Are you discouraged when you look to the future, when you try to guess what the future will hold?
Janet: Well, I’m not gonna say that I’m never discouraged but I am gonna say that basically, um, public interest work, reform work, social equity, social justice work is the process of pushing the rock up the hill and it’s gonna fall back and then the job is to not give up the first, second, tenth 50th time that it slips back a little and to believe that, generally, in the aggregate over time we’re moving it from the bottom of the hill closer to the top of the hill.
I’m a basically optimistic person, I believe that that’s a necessary qualification for anyone who does our kind of work. Um, I, I was never under the delusion that it was going to be easy or quick, uh, and I, and certainly we are in, in many respects particularly here in Pennsylvania with regard to public schools and other things that are important to people with intellectual disabilities and other vulnerable populations, in a discouraging time. But I have, I will be 68 on my next birthday so I’ve been around for a while and although I don’t consider myself to be exceptionally old I have lived through many revolutions which clearly have made us a better society.
I remember when, um, people of color were barred from public schools, were barred, were segregated in all aspects of public life, um, we now have an African American President. I remember when children with disabilities were not permitted to attend the public schools. We now have with all the programs, many laws, protections and commitments from the Americans with Disabilities Act, which have opened the community for adults with disabilities as well as children with disabilities, um, this is a big thing. I remember when gays and lesbians were in the closet, where social outcasts were discriminated against in employment and now they can serve openly in the military, in many places they can marry, this is all in my life time. And, as I say, I don’t feel particularly aged. So I don’t think if you look over, uh, the direction in which our country has moved over the last decades that it, that I think the message is an optimistic one. We are all more diverse, more successful, more accepting and a richer society and it’s hard to believe that we could step back from that course. So we have to accept that there are gonna be bumps in the road but we have to, all of us, work together to make sure we continue to move forward.
Lisa: Thank you.
About Janet Stotland
Born: 1945, Florida
Title: Executive Director Education Law Center
Advocacy, Civil Rights, Education