Berrien, who has led the EEOC since April 2010, describes its work as “critically important” and calls civil-rights legislation the most important laws enacted by Congress. She notes that with the May swearing-in of Commissioner Jenny Yang, the agency is fully constituted for the first time in a year. The EEOC has “carried out the vast majority of our work on a bipartisan basis,” she says.
Looking ahead, the commission will address the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which could have privacy and discrimination implications for employees; tackle hiring and recruitment discrimination; and investigate harassment on the basis of gender, race, and other characteristics. “If we can prevent the discrimination from occurring in the first place, we will have done something very important,” Berrien says. Additionally, the commission will address pay disparities and potential discrimination against immigrants, migrant workers, and other vulnerable workers. Just as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 generated equal-opportunity cases, a new immigration-reform measure—if it clears Congress—could present the EEOC with new challenges.
Berrien recalls her first experience in federal government as a clerk typist—“literally at the bottom of the pay scale”—and brings that unique perspective to her chairmanship. She was a lawyer for the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and for the ACLU’s National Legal Department and Women’s Rights Project. She served as assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund from 1994 to 2001. Berrien was a program officer in the Ford Foundation’s Peace and Social Justice Program from 2001 to 2004, then returned to LDF, serving as associate director-counsel until her EEOC appointment.
A Washington native, Berrien, 51, grew up surrounded by people committed to public service—both of her parents worked for the government—and she had a “very favorable view” of Washington from an early age. She earned a B.A. in government from Oberlin College in 1983, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1986. Berrien splits her time between Washington and the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she and her husband have made their home since 1987.