Western Center remembers those whose service, intellect, and compassion made a difference in the lives of Californians experiencing poverty. Through their pursuit of justice and equity, their legacy endures.
Derrick Bell was a distinguished legal scholar, prolific writer, and tireless champion for equality. He helped to develop critical race theory, a body of legal scholarship that explores how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions. Over the course of his five-decade career, he worked to expose the persistence of racism. He served as the Executive Director of Western Center on Law and Poverty in 1967-68, as faculty of the University of Southern California’s School of Law. Bell’s many books and articles include “Race, Racism and American Law,” a staple in law schools and now in its sixth edition, and “Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform.” He also wrote two autobiographical works: “Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protester” (1996) and “Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth” (2002). Prior to his work in academia, Bell worked for the U.S. Justice Department, then the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he supervised over 300 school desegregation cases in Mississippi. He left USC and Western Center to teach at Harvard, and in 1971 became the first tenured African-American professor of law there. From 1991 until his death in 2011, Bell was a visiting professor at New York University School of Law, and a dean of the University of Oregon School of Law.
Shirley Gibson was a “smart, dedicated attorney who would wear Wonder Woman Converse high-tops to the office where she fought against displacement and for fair and affordable housing for low-income tenants throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.” In 2019, Western Center awarded Shirley with the Mary Burdick Advocacy Award for her extraordinary contributions to social justice and housing stability for tenants and homeowners with low incomes. Shirley passed away peacefully after an 11 year fight with cancer on November 4, 2021.
Max Gillam was preeminent litigator who served as pro bono counsel when Western Center faced an attack aimed at shutting our doors and ending federal support for legal services providers. Max, a Latham & Watkins partner, worked alongside then Western Center Executive Director Mary Burdick to resoundingly fend off these threats, ensuring Western center’s viability and longevity as a bold and transformative legal resource center. Max also helped create Latham & Watkins’ antitrust practice and was a pioneer defense lawyer in California criminal antitrust cases. Gillam won the law firm’s first Supreme Court victory in a ruling that protected the secrecy of grand jury proceedings. After he retired, he became a senior litigation counsel and consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division.
Micheal Greene was Western Center’s first law school intern and cherished member of the board. Mike came to Western Center in 1968, while a law student at USC, as our first summer clerk. After graduation from USC in 1970, Mike joined the firm of Greenberg Glusker, where he remained a partner until his untimely passing. Mike made evident his deeply held dedication to civil rights and the representation of low-income people, serving on numerous nonprofit boards and generously volunteering his time and expertise on many pro-bono cases throughout his career. In 2008, Mike rejoined Western Center as a member of our Board of Directors.
Mike’s passion for justice lives on through THE MIKE GREENE SUMMER INTERN FUND established after his passing in 2010, which supports the work of Western Center on Law and Poverty. Contributions to this fund allow us to invite law students to join the Western Center team to conduct policy, factual and legal research, and draft pleadings as we fight to secure housing, healthcare and a strong safety net for low-income Californians.
Casey McKeever was the long-time head of Western Center’s Sacramento office and public benefits legislative advocacy team, and an overall wonderful human being. Casey never failed to go the extra mile to do what was right — he was a passionate advocate, and a conscientious administrative law judge for California’s Department of Social Services. Casey passed away in February of 2021 at the age of 69.
“Casey was one of first people who helped me when I started lobbying. We became a team and worked together for many years. I literally would not be the advocate I am if not for him.” -Mike Herald, Western Center’s Director of Policy Advocacy
Rose Ochi was among those lost from complications of COVID-19. Rose served as co-counsel on our landmark 1970s case, Serrano vs. Priest, forcing California toward more equitable education funding. Rose passed away in December 2020 at the age of 81.
William “Bill” Powers, passed away in November of 2020. Bill was dedicated to the fight for affordable housing, and was a Western Center lobbyist who worked in the California Capitol to advance the issue.
Robert Tomás Olmos grew up working in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley, and was among the first Latinos integrated into public universities during the 1960s. Tomás was a lifelong advocate and champion for the disenfranchised, including in his work at Western Center. Tomás passed away on October 31, 2020 at age 74.
Michael D. Ryan served as the Board Chair of Western Center providing stellar leadership for the organization and support to former Executive Director and friend, Mary Burdick. Mike joined the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher in 1971, where he met Mary Burdick, and served as partner in the Employment Law Section. He spent his last active professional years as a partner at Allen Matkins in Los Angeles. Robert Newman and Richard Rothschild fondly remember Mike as a mensch and a lot of fun, who helped Western Center survive challenging times and ultimately thrive. Mike passed peacefully at home on May 15, 2023, after a long and courageous bout with Mesothelioma, surrounded by the people he loved so powerfully. He will be sorely missed.