Jacqueline Berrien, the White House nominee to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has a wide-ranging background in discrimination law, but will face some considerable management challenges at the agency if she is confirmed by the Senate.
President Obama, who nominated Berrien on July 16, praised the "passion" and "leadership" of the longtime civil rights lawyer, who graduated from Oberlin College and Harvard University Law School, worked for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union, and has taught at Harvard, Fordham University and New York University's law schools.
Berrien has been the associate director and counsel at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund since 2004. During a previous stint at the organization, she coordinated its work on voting rights and political participation. The Legal Defense Fund referred a call for comment on Berrien's work there to EEOC, which said neither organization could offer comment other than to refer to Obama's statement on the nomination.
Mark Schmitt, executive editor of the liberal magazine The American Prospect, knew Berrien when she was a program officer at the Ford Foundation's Peace and Social Justice Program, and said Berrien looked at law within a larger context.
"She represented a set of people to me who, while doing voting rights, were trying to figure out how do we integrate voting rights into a broader set of issues around democracy," Schmitt said.
Berrien's experience at the Ford Foundation also could provide clues to her abilities as a manager. The foundation's program officers develop and write substantial memos that outline their program goals. At Ford, Berrien created and administered a portfolio that distributed more than $13 million in grants for increasing political equality and participation among racial and ethnic minorities and women during a three-year period.
"I thought she was a very good listener; the kind of person who didn't talk that much, kind of absorbed what people were trying to do, and helped them do it," Schmitt said. "I never felt like she had her particular agenda."
Gabrielle Martin, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' Council of EEOC Locals, said she thought it would be helpful that Berrien's management experience was at nonprofit groups, rather than in the private sector, because she would understand some of the resource constraints that government agencies face.
Staffing levels at EEOC have fallen 25 percent since 2001, from 2,850 to 2,150, even as its caseload has risen dramatically, from 82,972 in fiscal 2007 to 95,402 in fiscal 2008. That same year, the agency's backlog of cases reached 73,951. In a survey administered by AFGE in January, 59 percent of respondents said morale at their office was at the lowest levels possible. Thirty-five percent of respondents said the number of front-line staff was so low that it was a crisis, significantly affecting their ability to do their work.
Martin says she hopes Berrien is willing to improve relationships between labor and management at EEOC, and to seek out more input from front-line employees.
"The union has constantly reached out to say we may not agree, but we have issues we need to talk about," Martin said. "I think the dialogues can be constructive, and aside from this acting chair [Stuart Ishimaru], in the past two administrations, we didn't have a lot of open dialogue, or dialogue period."