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A career devoted to righting the wrongs wins Loren Miller Award

Bernida Reagen

By Kristina Horton Flaherty
Staff Writer

As a child in South Central Los Angeles in 1965, Bernida Reagan watched Watts burn. She had National Guardsmen point rifles at her. She saw police beat up her stepbrother the day after he returned home from a second tour of duty in Vietnam.

"I witnessed a lot of injustice and racism growing up," Reagan said recently. "And I thought that law could be used as a tool to right the wrongs."

But the longtime legal services provider never dreamed that she would touch so many lives. Not only has she helped impoverished individuals fight their legal battles. She also helped found a clinical program - the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) - that has served thousands of low-income clients and trained hundreds of law students.

For her contributions, Reagan will receive the State Bar's Loren Miller Legal Services Award this month at the bar's annual meeting. Created in 1977, the award is given annually to an attorney who has personally done significant work in extending legal services to the poor.

"There are thousands of examples of why Bernida is viewed by all who know her as a compassionate friend, fearless leader and brilliant advocate," says Tanya Neiman, director of the Bar Association of San Francisco's Volunteer Legal Services Program.

Supporting Reagan's nomination for the award, Neiman wrote: "Her vision of legal services as a comprehensive system of interrelated services, intertwined with the fabric of the community and inextricable from it, is unique."

Raised in South Central Los Angeles, Reagan was one of five children. Her mother, a fulltime nurse, sent all five to college - a feat that sparks admiration in Reagan. Her mother's assertiveness and refusal to accept injustice, too, have left their mark.

Even these days, Reagan says, her 81-year-old "firecracker" mother regularly writes to President Bush.

A turning point in Reagan's life came halfway through her UCLA School of Law studies when she heard legal aid attorney Linda Ferguson speak at a rally. "Hearing Linda speak let me know that civil legal aid was a way to deal with day-to-day survival issues and systemic issues like police abuse, home-lending fraud and employment discrimination," she recalls.

Graduating in 1979, Reagan was hired by Ferguson as a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Promoted to senior attorney in 1983, she trained and supervised staff attorneys, interns and paralegals.

From 1986-88, she was director of litigation for Public Counsel.

In 1988, she seized an opportunity to help build a legal services program from the ground up. Instigated by several Boalt Hall students, EBCLC was launched with Reagan as executive director, a Berkeley Law Foundation Fellow, an office manager and a shoestring budget.

Today, the staff count is 20, the budget has increased tenfold and the Berkeley center is credited with inspiring hundreds of law students as well as helping the poor.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that the students' exposure to the overwhelming needs of the clients, to the highest standards of professionalism in the practice of law, and to the willingness of the EBCLC staff to explore with them the most pressing ethical dilemmas, changed their lives," says Boalt Hall law professor Eleanor Swift.

"For most, it was the single most formative experience in law school. And for many, it has forged a career-long commitment to working - in many different ways - for law and social justice."

While Reagan did not build the center alone, Swift notes in a letter, "the force of her ideas and her character, her ability to inspire and reward the accomplishments of others, and her ability to build consensus has been perhaps the most important factor in the center's success."

Reagan herself believes in working together. She takes a "holistic" approach in which communities help identify the issues and work with attorneys to come up with strategies and solutions.

"I am completely opposed to attorneys bringing their solutions to the community and then looking for plaintiffs or community groups to support what they're doing," she says. "I feel really strongly that it has to be a partnership."

Take, for example, EBCLC's answer to exorbitant check-cashing fees. Prompted by complaints, the center worked with community groups to launch a low-income people's credit union last year in west Oakland. The credit union, the first such banking institution in that area for two decades, now offers financial "literacy" classes and helps people establish credit, Reagan says.

EBCLC also helps families make the transition from welfare to work, and assists the homeless and HIV-infected individuals with few resources. And, last year alone, it helped more than 1,600 low-income tenants through an eviction defense program.

Recently, Reagan accepted a new job as director of social responsibility for the Port of Oakland. She now supervises contract compliance, living wage enforcement and the implementation of a "ground-breaking" project labor agreement - the only one in the nation with a "social justice" component.

While it is a career change, Reagan feels as though she is addressing the same issues, she says, "with a lot more resources."

Receiving the Loren Miller Legal Services Award is "very affirming," Reagan says. But she is quick to characterize herself as a mere symbol. "We've built a community in Alameda County that supports each other," she says. "It's more our community efforts being recognized, not just mine."

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