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IN THE BALANCE: Ting Ting Cheng ’09

March 19, 2018

How alumni are pursuing liberty and justice

 

It’s been a whirlwind twenty-four months for Ting Ting Cheng, a Class of ’09 alumna currently serving as an attorney for the New York City Commission on Human Rights.  During that time, she helped expand sexual harassment protections, co-founded the Women’s March on Washington and its offshoot March On, brought a child into the world, and meditated on the subway (we feel this is no small feat). For Women’s History Month, the trailblazer shares how she gets it done.

Ting Ting Cheng, '09

Ting Ting Cheng is an attorney at the NYC Commission on Human Rights. She was the Legal Director of the 2016 Women’s March on Washington, a founding Board Member of March On, and is currently on the Ambassador Board of Young New Yorkers. Her background is in music, international rights law, and  criminal and immigrant defense.

You can contact Ting Ting on LinkedIn.

On a typical morning:

I love to spend time with my 20-month-old in the morning. We have breakfast and play. Family time is so grounding and helps to focus me throughout the day. I like to be productive during my commute. I browse through headlines or sometimes switch it up and listen to political and cultural podcasts (I love The Daily, Hidden Brain, The Ezra Klein Show, Still Processing, Long Form, WTF with Mark Maron, and On Being, among many others). If I can get a seat and situated comfortably, sometimes I meditate.

I am an attorney at the NYC Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) where I investigate and litigate discrimination claims, so my mornings vary. On a typical work morning, I have meetings with colleagues and other lawyers, interview people who believe their rights have been violated, and draft letters and briefs. When I am prepping for a trial, it’s much more focused.

On the role of digital media in organizing and Human Rights:

I remember our first conversation about getting permits for the Women’s March where we were aiming for maybe 20,000 marchers. The march was originally imagined just for D.C., but the idea grew from a moment to a movement and took on a national and international character because of the way technology connects people, builds communities, disseminates information, facilitates conversations, and provides access to the most far-reaching corners (there was a Women’s March on Antarctica!). It is an extremely powerful organizing tool – the Women’s March is considered the largest mass mobilization effort ever.

As one of the Founders and Board Members of March On, a continuation of the movement that focuses on electoral politics, I have been focusing on technology as a tool to help local communities organize and grow the movement from the ground up so that people can both have a voice and be able to crowdsource their agenda.

We are also living in a moment where social media is all-pervasive and the technology industry has been mythologized to the point of being regarded as the savior for human kind (it’s not – and Bryan Stevenson has powerfully articulated why in his TED talk). It’s important to keep in mind that what we have is a tool – not something driven independently by ethics or values. I think about what drives the markers of success on social media and tech platforms a lot. How does meaningful engagement really happen?  Sometimes I think the movement is being co-opted by social media and that doesn’t feel genuine to me, maybe because I do not think the revolution is happening on Twitter. I think the organizing efforts of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the radical poor people’s movement of shack dwellers based in Durban, South Africa, is a great example of what success can look like in organizing around human rights campaigns.

NYCCHR’s work focusing on sexual harassment in the workplace:

We are experiencing a powerful moment of reckoning with gender inequality, sexual harassment, abuse, and misconduct. I think the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up’s Legal Defense Fund are amazing extensions of that – and they are backed by very powerful women in Hollywood. What we want to do at the Commission is create a platform for the rarely seen or heard: the most vulnerable low-wage workers, immigrants, domestic workers, LGBTQ workers, and workers of color who have experienced sexual harassment in the work place and are trying to access justice. We had a public hearing in December and heard testimony from diverse industries and communities. In April, we will be launching a public awareness campaign on protections against sexual harassment in the work place under our Human Rights Law. We have in-depth sexual harassment in the workplace trainings and plan to increase our capacity for education and awareness.

It’s really encouraging to see how the broad standard for sexual harassment under our Human Rights Law can be used to envision more expansive protections for victims beyond our jurisdiction in New York City. Williams v. NYC Housing Authority articulates our sexual harassment standard as instances when an individual is “treated less well than other employees because of gender [beyond] petty slights and trivial inconveniences.”  We are pushing against the narrow federal standard of “severe or pervasive,” and the trend is spreading, with California considering formulating alternative standards in their legislation. The Williams standard has been applied by the Second Circuit in Mihalik v. Credit Agricole. These are all exciting movements in the right direction.

On organizing the Women’s March:

What the Women’s March represented for me was the collective consciousness of millions of people who woke up the day after Election Day feeling like they had to do something. A lot of these people were first-time organizers and engaging in community activism in a way that they’d never done before. The brightest thing that has come out of all this darkness is the new radicalization and heightened level of engagement across the country. Communities are being built to protect vulnerable populations and fight against injustice — and women are leading the charge.

Organizing the March was like a massive sprint. But it didn’t ever feel daunting because as the organizing efforts grew, so did the community of people contributing. It was a very organic process that began in a decentralized way. I loved the energy and the inclusiveness. Kimberly Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality was at the forefront of our discussions. The leadership was representational and our explicit intent was to have a march that centered the voices of the most marginalized.

As a result of this powerful collective consciousness converging, what started out as a single march in D.C. then inspired hundreds of Women’s Marches to be organized across the world. There was substantial coordination but, for the most part, the other marches were organized independently and had their own women visionaries leading the organizing efforts. Many of those Marches (L.A., Boston, Chicago, Oklahoma) have now turned into non-profit organizations working to shape local elections and impact local politics.

On staying sane in the current political era:

This comes up a lot, particularly within social justice, human rights, and activist circles. Of course, the political climate contributes to the heightened sense of intensity in the work that I do. In the context of my work with gender activism, the question of how to balance being reactive versus proactive, how to not only be a platform for collective outrage but to have impact through building a road map for what comes next – that keeps me sane and saves me from falling down the rabbit hole of despair or rage. I think that’s why people feel so deeply connected to their experience at the march on January 21, 2017 or one year later at the anniversary march. The energy that was was uplifting, hopeful, and defiant in a way that brought people together rather than split them apart …unlike much of the rhetoric that we are bombarded with in politics and the media.

On keeping “Justice” top of mind:

First of all, I feel extremely fortunate to have had the education and mentors that I had throughout my life. Being at CUNY Law provided a haven and space to understand what a justice framework can mean. Clerking at the South African Constitutional Court for Justice Albie Sachs and Justice Edwin Cameron after law school gave me the opportunity to see how the theory and practice of human rights merge in the context of transitional justice. That human rights framework, especially around socio-economic rights, was getting defined and expanded on the ground while the Court used the Constitution and frameworks in foreign and international jurisdictions to deliver justice in real time. Because the Court considered laws of other nations and international human rights law, my role as a Foreign Law Clerk was to provide the international human rights, foreign law, and comparative legal perspectives. It was a profound work and learning experience.

Upon returning to New York, I worked on global poverty issues, on criminal and immigrant defense in Brooklyn, on gender activism through organizing the Women’s March, and now anti-discrimination law at the NYCCHR. These are all experiences that engage human rights and justice in extremely specific ways. Pursuing “justice” means constantly learning, engaging, and honing one’s skills while also taking a big picture approach to understanding how different systems, histories, communities, and human rights models interface and align.

Then there’s being prepared for the unknown. We know that a great amount of injustice exists in the world, the powerful will always seek to exploit and oppress the marginalized. For the most part our institutions have historically supported these systemic forms of oppression. So there will never be a lack of work for social justice lawyers!  I keep that big picture perspective when thinking about what it means to be a life-long movement lawyer: it’s more than a career or a passion, it’s a frame of mind. It’s knowing that when some grave injustice happens whether we can anticipate it or not, every experience and lesson I have gained along the way have prepared me for the fight.

 

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