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Variations on a Theme: Shifting Practices in Public Interest

November 14, 2019 @ 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm

Come hear Wasserstein Fellow Sylvia Torres-Guillén discuss all she’s learned through a career spanning public defense, labor rights, and educational equity. Learn about her career transitions, including her most recent transition in 2016 to the ACLU of Southern California, where she is now the Director of Education Equity and Senior Legal Counsel. Co-sponsored by the Harvard Law School ACLU, HLS Advocates for Education, & Harvard Defenders, and First Class. Non-pizza lunch will be provided.

Sylvia Torres-Guillén is the ACLU of California’s Director of Education Equity, leading the ACLU’s statewide focus on educational equity and students’ rights. She manages a statewide team, leading, creating, and implementing a vision to promote civil liberties, civil rights, and racial, economic, and equal justice in education in California through legislation, litigation, and advocacy. Sylvia is a fearless and tenacious advocate and litigator, dedicated to protecting the constitutional rights of all children and students to ensure an equal, equitable, and excellent educational opportunity for all, focusing on vulnerable students, including students of color, LGBTQ youth, immigrant students, low income students, and students with disabilities. She is lead counsel on ACLU’s education equity litigation, including lead counsel for Sigma Beta Xi v. Riverside County, a class action lawsuit seeking to end the criminalization of youth in Riverside County’s oppressive and unconstitutional Youth Accountability Team program that treats children, especially students of color, like criminals with surprise searches, unannounced home visits, and strict restrictions for adolescent behavior, grief, bad grades, and school-based misbehavior. She was also lead counsel in Community Coalition v. Los Angeles Unified School District, and secured over $171 million for LAUSD ’s highest need students at 50 schools. She is also supervising counsel on Duncan Roy, et. al. vs. County of Los Angeles, Sheriff’s Department, et. al. & Gerardo Gonzalez, et. al. vs. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, et. al., a class action lawsuit challenging Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s unlawful practices in issuing tens of thousands of immigration detainers annually without lawful authority against people in the custody of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.

Sylvia joined the ACLU in July 2016. She previously served as Special Counsel to Governor Jerry Brown, Jr. Before that, she was appointed by Governor Brown as General Counsel of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, where, as chief prosecutor, she pursued complaints of unfair labor practices and sought justice for California’s 800,000 farmworkers. As the agency head, Sylvia was committed to providing the highest level of service to ensure agricultural workers received fair and just treatment, successfully enforced the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, and revitalized the agency. Sylvia was the first Latinx ever to be appointed as General Counsel for the ALRB.

Prior to her appointment to the ALRB, Sylvia served for nearly two decades as a federal public defender in the Central District of California. Sylvia tried nearly 40 federal cases and represented thousands of indigent clients. She successfully tried several high profile cases, including the first internet hate crime case in the country.

She formerly served as President of the Latina Lawyers Bar Association, Vice-President of the Mexican American Bar Foundation, and co-chair of the Hispanic National Bar Association’s Commission on the Status of Latinas in the Legal Profession. She was a member of the State Bar of California’s Council on Access and Fairness. She taught trial advocacy at Loyola Law School and in the Dominican Republic and Peru. She traveled to Venezuela and trained lawyers and judges during the country’s transformation to an adversarial judicial system. She also teaches at the Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers College.

In 2018, Sylvia received the California Lawyer Attorney of the year (“CLAY”) award by the California Daily Journal. She also received the Latina Lawyers Bar Association Luminarias Award in 2017. In 2015, Sylvia was named the State Bar of California’s Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year. She was selected as honoree for the oral history project, “Groundbreaking Personal Stories of Los Angeles Lawyers and Judges” by the Los Angeles Law Library in 2015. She also received the President’s Award by the Ventura County Mexican American Bar Association Education Foundation in 2014, the Mexican American Bar Association’s Benito Juarez Attorney of the Year Award in 2012, and the California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. Community Leadership Award in 2011. She was among the California Daily Journal’s Top Women Lawyers in 2012.

Sylvia was born and raised in Boyle Heights to Mexican immigrant parents. She earned the first college degree in her family, graduating from Harvard University in 1988 with an A.B. in Government. After Harvard, she worked at the Center for Law in the Public Interest in Los Angeles. In 1992, she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall). While in law school, she worked at the Berkeley Community Law Center, the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office, and Morrison & Foerster, LLP.

If you or an event participant requires disability-related accommodations, please contact HLS Accessibility Services in the Dean of Students Office at, or (617) 495-1880 in advance of the event.


November 14, 2019
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
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Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising


WCC B015 Classroom