Using law to fuel economic development
Will Gonzalez has worked in various sectors, always with the vision of supporting the Latino community.
Will Gonzalez has over 35 years of experience working in the Latino community.
Currently, he is the executive director of Ceiba, a coalition of Latino community-based organizations in Philadelphia that promotes the economic development and inclusion of the Latino community by ensuring access to quality housing.
Prior to his current role, Gonzalez went to law school with the idea of being a public interest lawyer. He is licensed to practice law in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“Laws are the rules of interacting [in] a civil society… how we deal with conflict on many levels, as well as how we change institutions,” Gonzalez said during an interview with AL DÍA.
“For marginalized communities that face discrimination, the law is an important tool to secure changes and improvements,” he added.
After a year of traditional lawyering on workers’ rights issues, he felt he was fixing things after they were broken. Therefore, he set out to do more policy work and community organization, which led him to the work he does now.
He met Pat DeCarlo, the director of the Norris Square Community Alliance, who was also a lawyer who had decided to do grassroots work. The two worked together for a couple years, and Gonzalez then started work on the Police Barrio Relations Project, which led to his current role as executive director of Ceiba, a role he’s fulfilled since 2001.
“My work is generally combining community empowerment with advocacy, and knowledge of law helps a lot,” he said.
Gonzalez is one of three law professionals who will be honored with the 2019 Top Lawyer Award during the annual AL DÍA Lawyers Forum & Reception event on October 1, 2019. He will be named the recipient of the Gus Garcia Lifetime Achievement Award.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in economics from Lehigh University, he decided to study law at Rutgers University School of Law.
With all the community work Gonzalez has done and continues to do, his main priority is always making an impact — and an understanding of the law goes a long way towards maintaining that goal.
One example he highlighted was the work he and his team did during the 1991 City Council redistricting process, in which they stopped the pay of City Council for four months.
“We organized the community, we did some grassroots workshops about redistricting in the neighborhoods, and put the community in a position to take advantage of some political infighting between the Mayor and Council to force a deadlock that was not broken until January of the following year,” said Gonzalez.
The committee understood that the inclusion of a lawsuit in this situation would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and taken years to resolve, which helped them focus on a solution without resorting to that kind of legal action.
“The legal committee did a great job of simplifying the complicated concept of redistricting to help our community understand and be activated to stop its gerrymandering,” he said.
“We do a lot of things on the advocacy front of taking complicated matters and diluting them down to understandable and actionable steps for the community,” added Gonzalez.
Gonzalez’s interest in housing, and work at Ceiba, stems from his firsthand knowledge of how important it is for a family to have housing security, and his personal experience of living in public housing growing up.
When asked how he feels about being named the recipient of the Gus Garcia Lifetime Achievement Award, Gonzalez said: “It’s great to be thought of in that vein… he was a civic giant and [was] devoted to equity and access.”
Garcia is known for leading the first Mexican-American legal team to win a U.S. Supreme Court decision, and helped establish Mexican-Americans as a protected class.
When reflecting on his own life’s work, Gonzalez said, “[I am] very blessed to have been able to devote a lot of time to serving the community, and I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be blessed with having the ability to engage in a vocation that I loved.”
To purchase a ticket for the 2019 AL DÍA Lawyers Forum & Reception, click here.