Fairhaven’s Ceci Lopez wins 2022 Local Hero Award from the Washington State Bar Association

Ceci Lopez, an assistant professor in Western’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies and the director of the college’s Center for Law, Diversity and Justice, was recently given the 2022 Local Hero Award from the Washington State Bar Association.

Rajeev Majumdar, President of the Whatcom County Bar Association and a former instructor in the LDJ Program, stated why Lopez was deserving of the honor.

“Ceci is an amazing human, who came to this country as an immigrant, learned English as an additional language, earned an advanced LLM in tax law and could have spent her career accumulating wealth ... but instead, she committed her life path to helping others, especially the poor and those under-represented people who don't traditionally have access to the justice system or a pathway to a legal education," said Majumdar. “Now (as director of the LDJ Program) she is revolutionizing and enabling the pre-law aspirations and education of so many students and is having a huge impact on our community.”

Western Today recently chatted with Lopez about her award, what the recognition means to her, to and find out more about her work in growing the LDJ program.

WT: First of all, congratulations on your award! It’s quite an honor. How do you think getting the Local Hero Award is a reflection of your work and career to date?

CL: Thank you, I would like to thank the Whatcom County Bar Association for nominating me and the recognition that followed. One of my goals when taking the job as director for the LDJ was to increase the level of community engagement between the students and the local bar. I think that this award confirms that some of my strategies to fulfilling this goal are working. As a first-generation student and scholar, I have always cherished and benefited greatly of mentorship opportunities, I wanted to make sure that LDJ students reap the benefits of interacting with an amazing group of local lawyers who are willing to take on that role and guide those wishing to be the next generation of attorneys. This recognition also tells the story of the actions and willingness of the local bar in supporting our students.

WT: What brought you to higher education in general, and Western in particular? As Rajeev pointed out, you could have taken many different, more typical avenues after completing your education, but instead chose higher ed.

CL: When I was practicing law, I was one of the few bi-lingual and bi-cultural tax lawyers in the state. I quickly realized that the need and demand for tax representation in immigrant communities was beyond my capacity. While the tax code touches us all, there are nuances in law that are best addressed by individuals who have cultural and language diversity. After assessing my most effective ways to serve the community, I realized that I was in a unique position to inspire and help prepare the next generation of attorneys. I believe that by sharing with my students some of my own ways of understanding the world, all students can have a broader understanding of diversity and take that knowledge anywhere they go. I grew up in Guatemala, in a community-oriented culture, and that has informed my service commitments to community. I believe that so long as there are injustices in the world, it is our collective duty to try to rectify them. I wanted to show students interested in social justice, that law can be an effective tool for making the world a more equitable place. That we ALL, have an important role to play in designing our future.

Why Western? Well, I cannot see myself teaching anywhere else, in all honesty. Fairhaven College’s interdisciplinary education allows students to explore social justice by applying a socio-legal framework to learning law. As a student, Fairhaven college helped me develop a multi-perspective of issues and I strive to help students become the best advocates they can be by being able to understand the deeper issues of justice.

WT: Can you tell us a bit about your journey through higher education yourself, and how you ended up finding such a passion for the law?

CL: Well, my journey in higher education began at Whatcom Community College. When my son graduated from Sehome High School and left home for college, I decided the time was right for me to pursue my own college education. I knew I did not want a traditional education and enrolled at Fairhaven College. As a single mom, an immigrant to this country, and with English as an additional language, I never considered being a lawyer – never crossed my mind. However, once I entered Fairhaven College, I realized that, while difficult, everything I was learning sparked my interest- at times out of anger for the injustices I read about, others out of fascination about the simplicity of systems yet their powerful impact. I fell in love with law when, in my first law class I began to see how learning the law was like learning a different language – it is more than just a communication tool, it has its own culture, norms, theories, and collective knowledge. By the time I graduated Fairhaven I was fascinated by the power of law to change culture but also inspired by the power of culture to change law. I saw law as a powerful tool to redress injustices, and I for sure wanted to be a part of that.

WT: All of the questions you have answered already would seem to be great leads-ins for the next one: when someone asks about the Center for Law, Diversity and Justice, how do you explain your work there, and why it is so important to you?

CL: This is where real magic happens, I think. The essence of my job at the LDJ is to demystify the study of law and the legal profession for students. Because of how powerful this discipline is, many of us see it as something beyond our reach, and by default becomes an exclusionary system. The reality is that students will only find their answer after taking their first law class. For some students, waiting for law school is too much risk. The goal of the program is to create a low-stakes access for students to investigate their interest in the law. This is a very important part of the process because it creates a more inclusive entry for students who traditionally have perceived the exclusionary nature of the law as a barrier to entry. Because this affects mostly racially and socioeconomically underrepresented students, this program is a vehicle to empower students to see their potential in a holistic way. That is, to help them see the high social value of their diverse lived experiences, and how these can be leveraged to create a more equitable and just society. Many LDJ students have entered careers in law and law-related careers and are doing just that.

WT: Last question - What is your favorite thing about being the center’s director, the thing that keeps you coming back to work each day?

CL: The students. The empowering effect of, and everything I learn from students. I think that staying close to scholars helps me stay centered on a future focused inquiry. The benefit of being at Fairhaven is that students represent a wide range of experiences, backgrounds, and ages, and this keeps the classroom balanced and inspires deep inquiry. By default, we all must exercise high level courage and vulnerability to be able to address difficult questions and examine our different social understandings. This exercise has allowed me to develop great dynamics in the classroom where every voice is acknowledged and where we all can self-evaluate the perspectives we hold. This is the exciting part for me, sharing my practices for community building with students, and inspire them to build a caring community. This is what inspires me to show up and to be my best, every day, because it matters.

Ceci Lopez has taught at Western since 2016. She received her bachelor's degree in Law, Diversity and Public Policy from Western Washington University's Fairhaven College in 2008. She completed her JD and LLM degrees at the University of Washington School of Law in 2011 & 2012. Interested in Fairhaven’s Law, Diversity and Justice Program? Email Lopez at ceci.lopez@wwu.edu.

Ceci Lopez and her students pose in a courtroom with federal judge Ricardo Martinez
Ceci Lopez poses for the camera in front of a gray background