Jill Bernstein is the interim Director of LAW Advocates and the co-president of the League of Women Voters. Jill served our community for over 29 years as a criminal defense attorney, and retired in 2010.
What does LAW Advocates do?
LAW Advocates provides volunteer legal services to low income people in Whatcom County. We handle their civil legal problems; not criminal. That means, housing issues and things like helping women in domestic violence situations get parenting plans and other temporary orders from the court. We also work on all sorts of homelessness issues.
We have a very robust participation from the local bar. Last year, more than 200 local attorneys volunteered their time with a value of close to half a million dollars. There’s a skeleton staff at LAW Advocates; our job is to coordinate the volunteer work of the lawyers in the community.
Tell me about the League.
The League of Women Voters has been in existence for 95 years. They were formed six months before women’s suffrage became law in the United States to make sure that women exercise an educated vote. It became immediately obvious that it wasn’t just women who should have an educated vote, but everyone.
The League is devoted to strengthening democracy through education and advocacy. We have a local chapter, where I’ve had the privilege of serving as their co-president for the last two years. There’s also a state-wide league, and a national league.
How does that get exercised locally?
The League is involved in providing education to not only our members, but also to the community on issues of importance. In the fall, we have a series of forums where people running for office are able to speak, and also people that are for and against the various ballot initiatives. The forums are usually well-attended and known for their neutrality, and for giving the opportunity to both sides to fully voice their positions.
We also look at current topics and issues throughout the year, and provide educational programs to our members to learn more about the subject. In the course of a year, we usually host at least ten different programs. For instance, last year we brought in speakers to talk about water issues as they affect our community. We had two very well attended programs about water—both about water quality and quantity. That led to a series of even smaller discussion groups where we had an in-depth look at the questions posed by our speakers. It was an opportunity to learn that most only get in a college class.
The big project we undertook last year was a study about women’s economic security of Whatcom County. It was one of the most interesting projects I’ve been involved in. There were about 17 active members who investigated aspects of this issue including healthcare, transportation, housing, food, the law, education, and other topics related to women’s economic security in our community. We put our findings together in a report, and shared it not just with our members but with our elected representatives and concerned members of the community.
Are your members all women?
No, actually the League is open to women and men. It started off with a focus on women, but today’s membership is diverse and we have quite a few men who are members.
What do people most often misunderstand about the League?
They think it’s just for women. Also, I think that people who don’t know about the League may think that it represents a single political party or point of view. Nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, we are affiliated with no political party and do not support any candidates.
We take issues very seriously and try earnestly to listen to all points of view before rendering any position. The League never takes a position on any issue until we have studied it.
Are those positions done at a national or local level?
At all levels.
It sounds like you’ve been in Bellingham a long time. Are you from here?
How did you get to Bellingham, and why?
Good luck; how about that?
I graduated from law school in 1978, and went to work with legal services. I was working and living in a small town in rural, north central Illinois. It was a great first job but not a great place to live.
As I started to look around for places I might want to live, there was an opening in a place called Bellingham, Washington. I first had to look on the map to see where that was. I sent my resume, and they called to ask if I could come up for an interview. It just so happened I was going to be in the area for a friend who was moving to Seattle. I interviewed on a day like today, and it was beautiful. I didn’t even want to go back home to pick up my things. They hired me, and the rest is history.
What’s your favorite thing about Bellingham?
This is a spectacular community, and I’m not talking about the geography. We don’t really have six degrees of separation here, maybe 1.5. We are all connected to each other in ways both obvious and more subtle.
I retired at the end of 2010, and my husband and I took a close and careful look at where we wanted to live. There’s lots of places in the world, but we both decided that this is our community, and this is where we’re going to stay.
What do you like best about what you do?
I care deeply about justice. I have a couple radio shows on KMRE and KAVZ. One is called South Fork Law, where along with two of my colleagues, we interview people on subjects relating to law and justice. Another is called Elected Connections, where I interview local elected representatives about their work; what they’re doing and why.
I think lawyers overall have failed to do a good job telling the story about justice. People don’t know how and why things happen in court. They have no idea what makes a good judge. They have no idea what to expect in a court room. They have no idea about the how and why behind the headlines. That’s the fault mostly of the lawyers. We’ve failed to tell the stories. My passion is to be a part of the storytelling, to hopefully explain what’s going on and why it’s happening.
What does Bellingham need?
I would love to see the waterfront development happen, and become the jewel that we all know it can be. I’ve been assured it will happen in our lifetimes. It will be spectacular.
Has there been anything recently that’s changed your mind?
I’ve had the pleasure of working with young staff. For some of them, it’s their first job. They’re not cynical at all, they’re very enthusiastic and driven by their mission. They bring a lot of good energy to the workplace. I find it an absolute delight to be a part of that. As someone who worked inside of jail and in the criminal justice system, you can imagine not everyday was cheerful and many days were sort of cynical. This is a refreshing worldview to be a part of.
How do you feel about justice in Bellingham? Has it made progress, or is it a never ending treadmill of fighting for it?
Justice is only as good as we are. We are the jury. If we’re smart and well-educated, if we’re concerned and compassionate, if we’re good listeners, and we’re analytical thinkers, then we’ve got good juries and we’ve got justice. If we’re under-educated, justice is harder to find.
Have you made progress in that with the League of Women Voters and LAW Advocates?
Here’s what I would say, to be more specific: the conversation the community is having right now about the jail is actually a bigger conversation than how big of a jail we’re going to build.
Since I’ve been involved with criminal justice issues, this is the first time that I can think of that the whole community is looking at what justice looks like, and thinking about the best that we can do. They’re thinking about not just how big of a jail can we build, but what we want from this. What do we want from arresting people? What do we want from police? From the courts?
The fact that we are engaged and asking these questions has me greatly cheered. I guess the answer to your question is that I’m at a very optimistic moment. It seems to me the larger community is engaged in this question, and I’m optimistic that the outcome will be a positive one.