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.
MALDEF's case work also has opened political opportunities to Hispanics, whether by forcing authorities to redraw political boundaries to ensure equity for Hispanic voters or by revising at-large voting systems that essentially had kept Hispanics from holding office. Its work has helped Hispanics gain seats on school, city, and county boards, and helped lead to the election of such leaders as Gloria Molina of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio.
But removing legal obstacles hasn't always led to instant empowerment, and the group's work has slowly grown to encompass elements of education. MALDEF's Washington, D.C, regional office has been a voice in current policy debates of the day, and is the group's only regional office that does not directly engage in litigation because it is focused on influencing public policy.
"We try to work with both sides of the aisle to educate and shape what is needed for Latinos," says Jim Ferg-Cadima, the office's interim regional counsel. "And we try to fight what might be harmful for discrete populations of Latinos. The nature of the work is very challenging. Every policy debate needs a Latino voice. And when the threats arise, we have to respond."
Ms. Tallman, born and raised in Iowa and the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, now is hoping to increase MALDEF's presence and voice on a variety of fronts, including geographically and programmatically. So far in her first several months at the helm, Ms. Tallman has visited each of the group's five regional counsel offices – in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Atlanta – and met with financial and other supporters. As the group assesses where new laws may most be needed, she says the next office could likely be in the Pacific Northwest, and the issues of educational access and equity will become a priority, even as the group continues its work in voting, immigrant, and employment rights.
"These kids are our future labor market. They will support our Social Security system and make our economy viable. We need to make sure they get a quality education and are not pushed into poor learning environments," says Ms. Tallman. Ms. Tallman also notes that MALDEF's leadership programs and scholarships have created a broad group of alumni "that expands our reach so it is much broader and deeper," she says. "We need to cultivate that further."
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