Using Your Career to Make a Beautiful Contribution to the World-Our Interview with a Human and Civil Rights Attorney

Mary Tanagho Ross is an international human rights and civil rights attorney at one of the nation’s oldest civil rights firms, Hadsell Stormer & Renick, a wife, a mother, and an ongoing advocate. After just two years in practice, Mary was named to the Southern California Super Lawyers – Rising Stars list.  Prior to her current litigation practice, Mary represented victims of persecution and human trafficking seeking immigration relief, and completed a prestigious federal judicial clerkship. Today, she’s sharing with the Yellow Co. insight and perspective on her job as a Human and Civil Rights attorney, and our role in promoting both Human and Civil rights (whether or not we’ve ever considered going to law school), protecting the voiceless and using what we’ve got to promote good and beauty throughout the world as agents of change. 

If you really want to be an agent of change, make every place more beautiful because of your contribution.-The Yellow Co. Blog

Tell us about your career as a human rights lawyer-what does that mean; what does it entail?

For me, being a human rights lawyer currently means working up a case where Cambodian villagers were trafficked and exploited to profit a multibillion dollar seafood industry.   It also means trying to hold a former government official liable for the murder of an innocent young man caught up in a political conflict.   I am also representing a 12-year old undocumented boy who was abandoned by his father and is seeking immigration relief in the U.S. so he can finally live with his mother after a childhood of abuse and neglect.   It also entails representing employees who were harassed and discriminated against in the workplace.

Did you always want to be a human rights attorney? How did you end up in this career?

I have wanted to be a human rights attorney since I was in high school.  I can remember hearing stories of injustice and suffering as a child and knowing that I wanted to play a role and give my life to bringing healing and restoration to those who are hurting and exploited.  I’ve always had a sort of outspoken and advocacy-like personality. I also love listening to people so this is the perfect fit of a career for me because I can be there for my clients and take active steps to bring about a good result for them.

You have to recognize and embrace both your personal skills and gifts and your own passions.   Then, wherever you are, you can choose to make your life’s cause to address the needs of humanity around you…No matter what your career is, you can certainly find a way to be a voice for the voiceless, to serve the poor, to change the environments around you for good.   This requires courage and risk-taking.   If you really want to be an agent of change, make every place more beautiful because of your contribution.

Having support from family and friends was key in getting me started on the career path I am currently on.   With their support, I committed myself to becoming the best attorney I could be and worked hard to get into the best law school I could and then pursued every opportunity that would lead me to a human rights and public interest career.   I had a goal in mind and kept working towards it regardless of challenges and sacrifices along the way.

What is the biggest challenge you face in this career?

One of the biggest challenges is how long it can take to obtain a favorable result in civil rights and human rights cases.   Lawsuits can drag on and take a toll on the client.   It takes focus and perseverance to keep your eye on the goal of obtaining the best result for your client and staying in the fight no matter how long it takes.

What is the biggest triumph you’ve experienced?

For me, finding a balance once my daughter was born a year and a half ago was not easy. It was difficult to embrace the mother I wanted to be with the attorney I was and hoped to continue to become.   I am learning that I can be wholly mom and wholly attorney and that the two do not have to conflict.   It takes creativity and some juggling but I’m finding that it is possible and is beautiful. I also get to show my daughter who I am and what matters to me as a person and that she can and should dream big. 

I am learning that I can be wholly mom and wholly attorney and that the two do not have to conflict.   It takes creativity and some juggling but I’m finding that it is possible and is beautiful. I also get to show my daughter who I am and what matters to me as a person and that she can and should dream big. 

_If you really want to be an agent of change, make every place more beautiful because of your contribution.-The Yellow Co. Blog _** Can you tell us about what it’s like to be a woman in this field?**

For me, it has been empowering to be a female attorney.   Women fought very hard to achieve more equality in the legal profession and while there is still a lot of work to be done, we have come a long way.   I have worked for a female federal judge and have worked for a female attorney who was one of the top attorneys in the state. These women provided mentorship and an example for others who follow in their footsteps. There are moments when it is really hard to be a woman in the legal profession because of sexist views and even comments directed at female attorneys. Also, like in many competitive fields, when women decide that they want to spend more time with their family, not everyone is supportive of that.     But, all in all, I have been fortunate to work for some amazing women attorneys who inspire me and show me the possibilities which lie ahead.   Further, one of my supporters and mentors is a male attorney who has supported me in this transition period I have been in since having my daughter.   While at times it is challenging to be a woman in the legal profession, there are leaders in the profession who support women and believe in the importance of equality and like anything else worth pursuing, you have to be willing to keep going despite challenges along the way.  

While at times it is challenging to be a woman in the legal profession, there are leaders in the profession who support women and believe in the importance of equality and like anything else worth pursuing, you have to be willing to keep going despite challenges along the way.  

How can you see women being agents of change and grit, on the front lines, if they aren’t human rights attorneys?  Is it possible to still make a difference?

Throughout history and various societal movements, women have played a powerful role in bringing about change.   You have to recognize and embrace both your personal skills and gifts and your own passions.   Then, wherever you are, you can choose to make your life’s cause to address the needs of humanity around you. There is a quote I think of often – “When our grandchildren ask us where we were when the voiceless and the vulnerable in our era needed leaders of compassion and purpose, I hope we can say that we showed up, and that we showed up on time.”

If you really want to be an agent of change, make every place more beautiful because of your contribution.-The Yellow Co. Blog No matter what your career is, you can certainly find a way to be a voice for the voiceless, to serve the poor, to change the environments around you for good.   This requires courage and risk-taking.   If you really want to be an agent of change, make every place more beautiful because of your contribution.   In order to do this, we have to be whole and healthy from the inside.   Elevate your environment instead of just adapting to the environment you are in.   Change the spaces around you for good.   You certainly do not need to have a professional degree to do that.   You do need to have conviction and passion.

What would you say to someone looking into this field?

While you can do great work in many different fields, I do think that law provides a unique opportunity to make a difference in peoples’ lives and in our communities. Make sure you know what lawyers actually do.   Find a lawyer to work for or shadow so that you can see what the day to day looks like.   Find lawyers who love what they do and learn about it before stepping into it. Then once you start on the path to becoming an attorney, stay focused on what you really want to do and why you became an attorney in the first place.  

What are the biggest civil and human rights issues we’re facing this generation, in your opinion? What are some practical ways we can help?

There are so many civil and human rights issues.   In the civil rights arena, women and people of color continue to face discrimination and harassment both in the workplace and in society at large. Police brutality continues to plague communities and destroy lives, especially of minorities and the poor. Living in Los Angeles and being a daughter of immigrants myself, the plight of immigrants fleeing violence or persecution and seeking a new life is a major human rights dilemma facing our generation.

Globally, the poor suffer not just as a result of a lack of clean water or a want of a physician – they suffer because of injustice and violence and a lack of legal systems that work to protect the poor.   Find a cause that you care about, whether it be the lack of clean water, orphans, homelessness, immigrants’ rights, human trafficking or another issue.   Then, focus on that, and use your time, energy and resources to do something about it.

On a global level, there are more people in slavery today than ever before. This is one of the most serious human rights issues facing us today. Globally, the poor suffer not just as a result of a lack of clean water or a want of a physician – they suffer because of injustice and violence and a lack of legal systems that work to protect the poor.   Find a cause that you care about, whether it be the lack of clean water, orphans, homelessness, immigrants’ rights, human trafficking or another issue.   Then, focus on that, and use your time, energy and resources to do something about it.   Pour your heart into it and bring about change.   There are so many amazing organizations working on each of these issues and we can all do our part to address the human rights crises facing our communities and our world today. 

How would you define human and civil rights?

Human rights are rights we are all born with. These are fundamental, universal rights such as the right to be free from torture, the right to life, the right to be free from slavery.   A civil right, which is a type of human right, includes the rights to equality in all spheres of life such as employment, housing, education and more. There is definitely an intersection between one’s civil rights and their human rights such as the civil right to equality in the workplace intersecting with one’s human right to be treated with dignity.
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How would you define the word “grit”?**

I define “grit” as a steadfast perseverance.  “Grit” is when one will not stop fighting until … you fill in the blank.  For me, I will not stop advocating and representing people whose rights are violated.  Grit keeps going and pushes even harder despite challenges and struggles that come your way. Grit believes in good and keeps working towards that.  Grit keeps fighting and keeps hoping.  And for me the best type of grit is going to be fueled by a desire to be an agent of change and a person who elevates the space around you, bringing beauty to every circumstance and arena you enter.

Photos by Whitney Darling 

If you really want to be an agent of change, make every place more beautiful because of your contribution.-The Yellow Co. Blog

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