By Andrew Cohen
As the new executive director of Berkeley Law’s Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice, Dimple Abichandani harbors no illusions about the challenges ahead. She faces tough decisions on what issues to prioritize and how best to confront them in the face of a shrinking middle class and heated political battles over food stamps, voting rights, and the minimum wage.
“You only need to look at the recently completed Supreme Court term to appreciate how we are living in difficult times as they pertain to civil and human rights,” Abichandani said. “In my experience, winning in today’s environment takes integrated strategies and lawyers who know how to work in partnership and collaboration.”
Abichandani has spent the past 15 years working to advance social justice, most often in settings where law has been the primary tool for change. She spent the past five years as a program officer for Proteus Fund, the fiscal sponsor for a national donor collaborative geared toward progressive policy change.
Abichandani managed two projects aimed at safeguarding civil liberties and human rights violated during the U.S. “war on terror,” overseeing all aspects of grant-making strategy and evaluation for a $2 million portfolio. She also designed and managed a unique infrastructure to support the joint communications of more than 100 human rights organizations—a model recently profiled in NonProfit Quarterly.
“I look forward to leading the Henderson Center in its effort to generate practical, usable scholarship that will advance today’s key social justice movements,” Abichandani said. “I was drawn to the center’s important mission to inspire and arm the next generation of lawyers and leaders in this area.”
Advancing social justice
Prior to joining Proteus Fund, Abichandani was a litigation associate at Schulte, Roth & Zabel in New York and then worked for five years at Legal Services NYC, the nation’s largest provider of free civil legal services. She served as the central office’s director of program development and staff attorney, while coordinating an employment law language-access project.
During that time, Abichandani developed a low-wage workers’ rights project designed to reform the unemployment insurance system, and represented workers in employment cases. She also crafted innovative ways to challenge language-access barriers facing individuals and communities with limited English-language skills.
“Dimple brings to the Henderson Center a highly successful career in multiple aspects of social justice lawyering: direct service to clients, strategic planning and building, coalition creation, and collaborative funding,” said Mary Louise Frampton, the center’s faculty director. “She’s a dynamic leader, a visionary thinker, and a brilliant strategist. Her empathetic personality and strong character will be enormous assets for the social justice community at Berkeley Law.”
Abichandani wants to provide Berkeley Law students with rigorous practical training and support in social justice advocacy and scholarship. In doing so, she will push to forge partnerships with academics, practitioners, advocacy organizations, policy makers, and community groups.
“At the heart of my vision is building a social justice community that is large, inclusive, intergenerational, and a source of support and inspiration,” she said. “There’s a large existing community of students who already self-identify as being interested in social justice issues—I welcome their high expectations and am excited to work with them.”
Abichandani also wants to reach students who may not plan to work at a social justice organization when they graduate, but care about issues of equity and justice.
“There are so many ways Berkeley Law students will make the world a more just place when they leave here,” she said. “Some may go work for a community-based organization or a legal-aid provider. Others will work for the government or offer pro bono assistance while working at a firm. I want to build a large and broad community at the law school based on shared values, rather than the job that one will hold. After all, careers are long and offer so many opportunities for impact.”