About the speaker:
Michelle J. DePass is the president and chief executive officer of Meyer Memorial Trust.
For more than three decades, DePass has distinguished herself as a thought leader at the intersections of academia, government and progressive philanthropy. She is known as a convener who brings people together, generates solutions and sources meaningful change by and for communities most impacted by inequity. Social, economic and environmental justice have been the North Stars of a career that began in community organizing in New York and has led to leadership positions in philanthropy, government, academia and the nonprofit sector. Her particular passions center on justice for people of color, women, indigenous peoples and communities that face down the stiffest barriers.
A native of Queens, NY, born to parents who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica, DePass holds a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University, a Juris Doctor from Fordham Law School, an honorary doctorate from Fordham University and a Master of Public Administration from Baruch College, where she was a National Urban Fellow.
Each step of her professional journey — from law to environmental protection to philanthropy to academia and back to philanthropy — has lent Michelle fresh insights into entrenched injustices across a broad spectrum of sectors and honed her conviction to overcome them.
Early in her career, DePass taught environmental law and policy at the City University of New York, where she created the city’s first environmental jobs skills training program for underserved young men and women. She was the founding executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, a membership network linking grassroots organizations from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in their struggle for environmental justice. As a civil rights lawyer, DePass litigated racial discrimination and human rights violations at the Center for Constitutional Rights. She took on the very unpopular job of filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the New York City Fire Department shortly after 9/11 — at a moment when its rescuers were viewed as national heroes — for racial discrimination against black fire fighters. The complaint, which became a lawsuit, led to a settlement that required the FDNY to build a firefighting force that represents the entire city.
Policy change has been a recurrent motivation for DePass. As a senior policy advisor to the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, she fought to ensure equal administration of environmental protections and enforcement across urban and rural communities in New Jersey. As the Environmental Protection Agency’s assistant administrator of international and tribal affairs in the Obama administration, DePass oversaw a $120 million budget and created the Office of International and Tribal Affairs to elevate the agency’s recognition of the sovereign rights of Indigenous peoples in the United States. In this presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed role, DePass was responsible for all aspects of environmental policy and technological cooperation between the agency and foreign nations, U.S. Tribes, multilateral institutions and donors as well as for environmental policy development and implementation on U.S. tribal land.
DePass’ work at the Ford Foundation, where she launched funding initiatives at the intersection of environmental justice and community and economic development, helped to promote environmental justice throughout an international grant portfolio. As a program officer, she oversaw projects to bolster land retention and productivity among African-American communities in the southern United States, enforced protection of Native American land rights across the West and supported a national youth organizing program that linked environmental justice with reproductive rights, culture and policy advocacy as well as community-led rebuilding efforts after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Serving as dean of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy and as Tishman Professor of Environmental Policy and Management at The New School, DePass shared her deep understanding of justice with the next generation of leaders.
She has led Meyer since 2018, moving her family to her husband’s home state to guide Oregon’s third largest foundation to seed and support work that overcomes injustice through grantmaking, policy change, advocacy, convening and partnership. Inspired by Meyer’s equity work, DePass is hopeful for Oregon — where the rural/urban divide has intensified an increasingly polarized political climate but also a place with enormous potential for social, economic and environmental change.
About the lecture series:
Each year Lewis & Clark Law School hosts an endowed lecture honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made possible by a generous grant from Jacqueline Alexander and Lee Matthews. The mission is to bring internationally recognized legal scholars, practitioners, jurists and civil rights leaders to Lewis & Clark to present a lecture to our law school community on issues of diversity, race relations, tolerance, and equal rights.
In 2020, this lecture is one of a number of events celebrating 50 years of environmental law.