News Column

A Fight For Rights

October 2004, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Jonathan J. Higuera

Ann Marie Tallman
Ann Marie Tallman

As the nation's premier Hispanic legal-advocacy group, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has been at the forefront of advancing Hispanic civil rights for nearly four decades. Now, with a new leader in charge, the $7 million organization is taking aim at flexing its long-earned influence and voice in a fight for advances on another front – economic rights.

"A lot of economic issues are civil-rights issues," says Ann Marie Tallman, who in April was named president and general counsel of the organization that has grown to include five regional offices and 75 employees. "We've been about economic empowerment from the beginning. We think the way to do it is through education, equal access, and issues related to fair employment."

ANN MARIE TALLMAN
President and
General Counsel

Age: 40
Raised in: Iowa
Education: Bachelor's in psychology and political science, distinction with special honors from the University of Iowa; juris doctorate from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law
Experience: 17 years working with MALDEF, beginning when she enlisted MALDEF's help with public-funding equity issues as a second-year law student. Active MALDEF board member since 1998




Ms. Tallman, a former executive with mortgage banking giant Fannie Mae who has served on MALDEF's board for the past seven years, emphasizes that the group will not back off its mission of protecting civil rights, but now economic empowerment, wealth-building, and growing the Hispanic middle class through financial education will be a growing mandate. "This is about informing our community, at the individual level, how to build wealth," says Ms. Tallman. "It's arming them with information on how to utilize financial services and how to avoid being subject to predatory lenders and outrageous interest rates on secured loans."

The broadening dimension for MALDEF comes at a key time in the growth and evolution of the Hispanic economy. As the fastest-growing minority population in the country, Hispanics wield growing economic, political, social, and cultural clout, with purchasing power estimated to reach more than $1 trillion by 2010. And a growing number of leaders, nonprofits, and advocacy groups have begun to boost efforts to coalesce and translate that rapidly accelerating potential into concerted, broad-based economic advancement.

"[MALDEF's] been able to speak eloquently on our behalf in the courts and they've won a good number of cases," says Congressman Xavier Becerra, a Los Angeles Democrat who once clerked for MALDEF as a law student and dreamed of becoming its president. "Now it's a matter of training that voice to go beyond the courtroom and into the realm of public opinion: Be that voice to Corporate America, and show we're ready to fight for, and obtain, those economic rights."

Under longtime president Antonia Hernández, who now heads the California Community Foundation, MALDEF has been involved in the economic arena through partnerships with organizations including the Hispanic Association for Corporate Responsibility and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda. But many say Ms. Tallman's corporate experience and acumen are expected to bring an even sharper focus to the organization.

MALDEF Chairman Joseph A. Stern calls Ms. Tallman a "compelling advocate and effective leader [with] proven ability to work with people from across a spectrum of views." And, says Herman Sillas, a founding member of MALDEF and a Los Angeles attorney, "[Ms. Tallman] certainly understands the corporate world. That makes a difference when you're sitting across the table from them and you're trying to get them to write a check for $50,000."

That ability to fundraise on the corporate side will be important for Ms. Tallman's vision of building upon, and expanding, MALDEF's reach even further beyond the courtroom, where its successes have included landmark cases such as Plyler vs. Doe, which assured undocumented immigrant students the right to a public education; Kirby vs. Edgewood, which forced Texas to deal with inequities between school districts with a majority of Hispanic students and Anglo-dominant school districts; and Gregorio T. vs. Wilson, which essentially dismantled California's Proposition 187 that denied basic services to undocumented immigrants.

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