One of the most interesting cases Megan Beaman Jacinto has handled as a civil rights attorney involved a class of farmworkers. About 70 percent of the 60 workers in the crew were female—and in need of protection from gender discrimination.
“One day, about 32 showed up at my office,” she says, “and I ended up with 42 clients in a suit for discrimination. Their supervisor was always on them about what tasks they could perform and (wanted) to bring more men into the crew, and if they didn’t, then they were terminated. This is common for farmworkers. I sued for discrimination, and it took until we were readying for trial for a settlement to finally get done. It had taken four to five years. This is one of the cases I’m most passionate about.”
Beaman Jacinto grew up poor in rural Iowa.
“Where I came from,” she says, “it was about 99 percent white, and yet there was evidence of a lot of racism. It was about when I was in middle school that I realized it just wasn’t right to treat or speak about people by making those kind of comments or jokes. A passion developed in me in opposition to racism. I became ostracized—but that motivated me.”
Beaman Jacinto, 38, the oldest of four siblings, was influenced to pursue education by her parents.
“My dad was a factory worker, and my mom was a homemaker until she began working after I graduated high school,” Beaman Jacinto said. “They also maintained a very small family farm with about 30 cattle. They really emphasized the importance of education. Our rural schools were typically underachieving, and I finished all regular classes by the 10th-grade. My mom found other opportunities for us to learn.
“I always knew she would be there for us. It’s a type of advocacy that’s reflected in the way I stand up for others. And there was always an emphasis on treating other people the way you want to be treated.”
After high school, Beaman Jacinto majored in sociology at Grinnell College. “I wanted to better understand where racism comes from, and my responsibility as a white person,” she recalls. “At that point, I had no professional role models.”
Beaman Jacinto finally found a mentor in an American-studies professor who had been a Black Panther and had managed a group of civil rights lawyers who fought against racism. “It was like a light bulb went off,” she says. “I thought that potentially, I could make a difference.”
Before law school, Beaman Jacinto spent some time in San Francisco (“I was a waitress,” she laughs) and Chicago, where she went into an urban-studies program.
While studying law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Beaman Jacinto says she realized she had the drive to help others. “I worked in student clinics, and I always strove to make the greatest impact. My goal was to find meaningful work, so I applied all over the country, with private law firms and nonprofits. I got an offer from California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA)and came to Coachella 12 years ago. It was my first job out of law school, and the great bulk of the work was representing farmworkers.
Beaman Jacinto worked with CRLA for four years before setting out to build a private practice.“CRLA was federally funded, so I couldn’t represent undocumented individuals or take on class actions,” she says. “I decided the time had come to grow. I had the choice to either leave CRLA for another nonprofit out of the valley or start my own practice here. It was scary at first, but (starting my own practice) would give me independence and room to grow. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Going out on my own, I overcame fear, and I was able to grow and value myself in addition to providing service to people who need help.”
Beaman Jacinto was elected to the Coachella City Council two years ago.
“From the time I came to Coachella, I’ve always tried to build relationships,” she says. “I value the importance of community, and I value the opportunity to serve. I see myself as a community advocate, but I had never seen politics as a goal for myself. There were many factors that came to play in my decision to run for Coachella City Council, including that women are underrepresented. I am driven to ensure that all voices are at the table when decisions are being made, about things like access to water and housing.” Beaman Jacinto is also adamant about helping develop other leaders within the community.
With a husband and two small children, how has Beaman Jacinto managed to get through the pandemic?
“It’s an ongoing process of adjustment,” she says. “I’m able to continue working and providing income, and working from home has given me so much more family bonding time. We all just have to keep the anxiety at bay.”
Does Beaman Jacinto have any talents that might surprise those who know her? “I have to admit I’m pretty good at cooking, although my clients are always surprised that a lawyer can cook,” she says. “And I’m fully bilingual, which is a real help in what I do. I’m also in the Iowa softball pitchers’ hall of fame!”
After coming from such a humble beginning, Megan Beaman Jacinto has established herself as someone who cares about her community and the people she represents.
“If I had to give advice to my younger self,” she says, “I would paraphrase something Michelle Obama once said—that I see all these men making decisions and having a seat at the table, and then I realize they aren’t all that smart. I would say, ‘Don’t be afraid. You’re just as capable as anyone else.’”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show The Lovable Liberal airs on IHubRadio. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.