Featured Member: Mildred (Millie) Ann Rivera-Rau
Editor’s Note: The ABA Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity (Diversity Center) would like you to meet our members in the first of a bi-monthly series of profiles. This month we’d like to introduce you to Mildred (Millie) Ann Rivera-Rau.
Newly appointed ABA Diversity Center member Mildred (Millie) Ann Rivera-Rau is an Acting Branch Chief in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Office of Federal Operations, Federal Sector Programs, Agency Oversight Division. The Agency Oversight Division oversees and provides training, technical assistance, and guidance to federal agencies on EEOC Management Directive 715 and federal civil rights laws.
Ms. Rivera-Rau began her law practice with a private law firm in San Francisco and, two years later, joined the EEOC’s Baltimore District Office where she worked for 12 years as a Trial Attorney. From 2003 until 2006, she served as a Special Assistant to former EEOC Chair Cari M. Dominguez, leading the agency’s efforts on the President’s New Freedom Initiative.
Ms. Rivera-Rau was born legally blind with 20/200 vision in both eyes. After attending high school in Puerto Rico, she graduated from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and received a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. She next graduated from the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
Ms. Rivera-Rau, a member of the D.C. Bar, is a Board Member of the National Association of Blind Lawyers. She is also an amateur clown. She was honored by the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland with its highest award—the Kenneth Jernigan award—for her many years of volunteer service. She is of Puerto Rican descent, having been raised in upstate New York and Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.
Ms. Rivera-Rau recently joined the Diversity Center’s leadership after having served on the ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law from 2006-2009 and 2010-2012. With October being National Disability Employment Awareness Month we’re especially glad that Ms. Rivera-Rau took time out of her busy schedule to speak to the Diversity Center.
Diversity Center: How has being a Puerto Rican, a woman, and a person with disabilities influenced your law practice?
Millie Rivera-Rau: If it were not for these factors, I probably would not have gone into Civil Rights work. Being a Latina with significant disabilities makes me uniquely sensitive to civil rights issues affecting these groups. My father was involved in politics in Rochester, New York, at an early age while his seven children were still very young. He was the first Puerto Rican elected to serve in that region when Latinos were subjected to discrimination that was much more blatant. He was a pioneer and he expected no less from his children, three of whom were blind. He never attended college and my mother never graduated from high school but they drilled into us the importance of a good education and the importance of family. I was aware that I, too, was a pioneer of sorts going into law from a family that had never had any lawyers.
DC: Looking back, what are the accomplishments that give you the most satisfaction?
MR-R: My first significant accomplishment was graduating from Cornell University as a blind young Puerto Rican woman standing on my own away from my family. My family made this possible through their high standards and goals.
When I was in law school at the University of Pennsylvania, I won a $10,000 scholarship from the National Federation of the Blind including a trip to the organization’s national convention. It was a real honor and linked me with many successful blind adults who would serve as role models and inspirations for me. Almost 20 years later, the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland honored me with the Kenneth Jernigan award for my many years of volunteer service to blind youth. I feel good about these achievements because the National Federation of the Blind invested in me and empowered me to participate in the disability rights movement and then I was able to give back to others facing similar challenges. Giving back is so important, that is why this award really meant so much to me.
Another satisfying accomplishment was my involvement as co-counsel in a large EEOC class sexual harassment case. The women affected were a class of Latinas, many of whom were factory workers who only spoke Spanish. I felt like I really made a difference for them by representing their interests and getting a one million dollar settlement. Many did not want to go to trial so I really felt the settlement was in their best interest.
DC: Who are some of the individuals that have most influenced your career?
MR-R: My family, particularly my parents, was always 100% behind me and cheered me on as I struggled through some medical issues related to a brain disorder early in my career. Note: Shortly after taking the bar exam in 1990, Ms. Rivera-Rau was diagnosed with a brain disorder that severely impacts her mood without medication.
Also, Kenneth Jernigan and Marc Maurer, both presidents of the National Federation of the Blind, served as role models to me. As civil rights leaders, their acceptance of me really made me feel like I could do anything that I put my mind to. Another important role model was Andy Imparato whom I met when he worked as an attorney at the EEOC. He went on to lead the American Association of People with Disabilities for many years and lives with bipolar disorder. Since I, too, live with a brain disorder, I found inspiration in his openness and success as an advocate.
Finally, I had a supervisor, Stephen O’Rourke, who showed me the ropes while I was learning to be a Trial Attorney. He was patient and long suffering!
DC: What kinds of tools do you use to do your job?
MR-R: Because I am blind, I use adaptive software on my computer to enlarge text and read it aloud. In addition, I use a long white cane to navigate and to identify myself as someone with a visual impairment. I also receive workplace reasonable accommodations for my brain disorder as EEOC allows me to work from home whenever it flares up. This doesn’t happen often, but it is vital to minimize distractions when it does. I am grateful for my employer’s flexibility. Finally, I have an assistant or Reader who has worked with me over the past 15 years to access information that is not accessible using current technology.
DC: What are some of the greatest challenges you have faced in your legal career?
MR-R: One challenge is the fear of disclosing my brain disorder to my employer, not knowing what negative stereotypes I may face as a consequence. At the beginning of my career, I did not [disclose] and that really hurt me. Now, I disclose to my immediate supervisor who is obligated to keep my information confidential. We work together to ensure that I do not become overwhelmed. Just knowing that I am in a supportive environment helps me to stay healthy! My blindness has not been an obstacle to my success due to the work of the National Federation of the Blind to change what it means to be blind.
DC: Looking forward, what are the goals that keep you going professionally?
MR-R: I would like to become an Equal Employment Opportunity Director at a small federal agency. I strive to learn all that I can about civil rights, diversity, and inclusion to prepare me for this goal. It will be stepping away from a traditional legal career, but I think it would be fun, rewarding, and a great learning experience. My personal experience has made me a good fit for this type of job.
DC: I was fascinated to learn that you are also an amateur clown. What led to your interest in the clown arts? How often are you able to utilize that particular skill set?
MR-R: (Laughs) I’ve been interested in the clown arts since high school because I like seeing people smile and laugh. I hadn’t done anything with it since law school but when I joined a church with a clown ministry I was able to use (those skills) monthly. I don’t enjoy public speaking despite being a trial attorney but in costume and playing a role it’s different.
DC: How would you most like to be remembered?
MR-R: I would like people to remember me as a compassionate person. I want to be known as someone who stood up for those who could not stand up for themselves as well as to articulate the capability that individuals possess when afforded reasonable accommodations.
The Braille Spectator - The Newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, Spring 2010