Women in the World

03.10.12

Legal Power Sisters Credit Mom

Lawyers Kamala D. and Maya L. Harris talked about fighting underage prostitution, child marriage—and how their mother taught them the value of public service.
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Kamala D. Harris is the first female, first African American, and first Asian American attorney general in California. Her sister Maya L. Harris was the youngest dean of a law school in the United States and now serves as vice president for democracy, rights and justice at the Ford Foundation. Moderator Cynthia McFadden started their panel with the obvious question: What was going on in your family?

Both women attribute their success to their mother, who in her early 20s came to the U.S. from India to get her PhD. “She raised us with the idea you have to serve,” said Kamala.

In the 1950s, said Maya, their mother studied at Berkeley and worked as a student organizer during the civil rights movement. The sisters grew up hearing her talk about the importance of standing up for justice and fairness. “She believed truly in everybody’s inherent potential,” said Maya. “The flipside of that is she also had impatience for mediocrity. She didn’t like us being idle.” For example they weren’t allowed to just sit and watch TV, said Kamala. They had to crochet afghans or be doing something else productive. From an early age, the sisters fought for what they perceived as injustice, like when they forced their apartment building to turn over an unused courtyard for children’s play. They were 8 and 10 years old.

The siblings credit their childhood with their later success, so it makes sense that they’ve spent their careers helping less fortunate women get better starts to life. Kamala explained how, with a mother as a scientist, the word “hypothesis” was thrown around a lot. She took it to mean that, rather than having any idea and executing it—even if it’s a bad one—you build a theory that you test and fix as you go. As a prosecutor, Kamala specialized in child sexual assault. She found the justice system treated underage prostitutes as miniature criminals, putting them in juvenile hall rather than counseling. Fixing it as she went was part of its success. “We had to reconfigure the system, use a different term,” she said, recounting how she introduced “sexually exploited youth” to the legal lexicon in California, and attached pimping with charges of sexually assaulting a minor.

With the Ford Foundation, Maya works on the problem of child brides. Forty percent of girls in developing countries marry before 18, many of them as young as 8 or 9. When girls marry, their education often stops, to say nothing of the health risks of early pregnancy. “It’s an issue that fundamentally affects the life opportunities for girls,” she said. “If we can delay marriage we can have very different outcomes.”

It was partly concern for children that drove Kamala to take such a hard line when negotiating California’s foreclosure settlement. “You can’t afford to take an intellectual perspective on the foreclosure crisis,” she said. “You have to go to the ground and see who’s affected.” In many cases, it’s children: 1 million children in California have lived in foreclosed homes since 2007, she said. She bargained California’s aid from two to four billion dollars to $18b.

The opportunity to work on major issues like the foreclosure crisis is why Kamala says she loves her job. “It’s one of the most important positions in the country,” she said. “I love what I’m doing.” As for national office, she said, Who knows? “One thing Mommy taught us is that you have to do what’s in front of you well, and the rest will follow.”