An Unlikely Career Path for a Well-Known and Influential Political Organizers
Sometimes law schools provide a clear career track that is predicable as well as satisfying. For others, law school opens doors and is a way station to a career or life that is far from predictable. Joan Blades, a co-founder of MoveOn.org and MomsRising.org, is one of those surprising Golden Gate University School of Law graduates, whose life has jumped from one unpredictable or unanticipated step to another.
Joan Blades, who was named the 2003 Woman of the Year by Ms Magazine as the “mother of cyberspace mobilization,” is considered one of the top grassroots organizers in the country and is currently “moving on” to new territory with a new organization, MomsRising.org, “a virtual organization to speak to the needs of mothers and families.”
At law school, Joan did not find the adversary process to be her style. However, she was able to land a clerkship with an Alaska Supreme Court justice for her final semester. “We had a lot of fun,” she says of her time in Alaska, where she shared an apartment with a few women friends. After graduation and passing her bar exams, she hooked up with a family law firm in Alaska. It was at that firm where she made the connection between the divorce process and its impact on children, and became enamored with the possibilities of mediation. Joan wrote her book "Mediate Your Divorce" and an accompanying textbook. Soon after, she returned to California to practice mediation, she also returned to Golden Gate to teach mediation as an adjunct professor for two or three years.
After meeting her husband and enjoying great success in the software industry, Joan and Wes started MoveOn.org in a truly grassroots manner. Joan and Wes used a tool they knew: online computer connectivity. They put up a website for eighty-nine dollars, and sent out a note with a one-line petition regarding the central political issue of the time: Bill Clinton's impeachment hearing, and a link to sign it, and encouragement to pass it on to one hundred friends and family members. Like a virus, (hence the phrase “viral marketing”), word of the petition spread. Within a week, 100,000 people had signed the online petition — eventually the number grew to a half million. At one point, MoveOn.org organized volunteers to carry the petitions and comments to congressional representatives of 219 districts from members in their district. Since then, MoveOn has grown exponentially (As of November 2008, MoveOn raised $38 million and had more than 5 million members).
Joan in person is different from the fire-breathing leftist one might expect from the website. For an interview for this profile she arrived on her bicycle. Small and thin, with her glasses and long hair, she looks more like a Berkeley graduate student. At fifty-two, she can be passionate about issues and clear and firm in her views, yet there is a gentleness and willingness to listen that reflect her talents as a mediator. She mixes understated humor with her outrage over the many problems she wants solved.
On Mothers Day 2006, she co-founded MomsRising.org, “a virtual organization to speak to the needs of mothers and families.” Her co-founder, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, is the author of The F-Word: Feminism in Jeopardy, and is married to a Republican who was a state senator for more than a decade. The unlikely pair can already call MomsRising.org a success, with 150,000 members. While much smaller than MoveOn, she believes there is potential for it to become far larger. By focusing on mothers, Joan finds that she is able to engage in a widespread set of issues from toxins in toys to healthcare and wages. She believes the focus on motherhood does not mean she is not working with men. “If mothers are making less, it affects the whole family.” As she has also pointed out, “Everyone has a mother.”
Her journey was indeed not the traditional pathway for a law graduate. Today Joan laughs about actually becoming a traditional lawyer. “I would not want to do it and do not know why anyone would.” She laments that firms make it difficult to be a mother and succeed in the firm, and how counterproductive that is if it denies the firm the best, talented lawyers. At the same time, she recognizes that her law school education led to a series of connections that resulted in her finding family mediation, publishing, and having experiences and insights that would help form her views of life and politics.