An interview with Paul Tepper, Executive Director of the Western Center on Law & Poverty
Who are your heroes? Who inspires you — and why?
My wife, Nancy Berlin. (Nancy is a well-known member of the nonprofit and advocacy communities in California, currently serving as Policy Director with the California Association of Nonprofits.) She has impeccable political instincts and an ability to instantly wrap her arms around an issue and know where to go with it.
What shores you up? Where do you get your strength?
I work with a truly amazing staff of 31 people who are experts on issues, ranging from health and housing to public benefits and racial justice. Despite the challenges in this work, they are always ready to charge forward and do what’s best for our clients.
What gets you down and discouraged? And how do you get past it?
It is tough when you see past victories being eroded. For example, repealing the Affordable Care Act will take a huge toll on poor Californians. All of the proposed cuts in safety net programs, too. Things—and people—are really on the chopping block.
But I always take heart in Dr. King’s quote that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. If you look at the longer trajectory on issues from racial justice to civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, we have seen astonishing changes happen in a relatively short time. So I’m confident that even if we are in trouble right now, in the long run things will continue to get better.
How would you describe your current state of mind?
Ready to fight the good fight.
What are you reading?
I recently read Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild. She is a U.C. Berkeley sociologist who went to Louisiana to try to understand why people there supported the Tea Party. She used the lens of environmental issues and asked why people whose lands were being polluted, and who fish and hunt and should nominally support conservation, back a political movement that works against those interests. I think it’s instructive for progressives to understand what these folks are thinking — even if we can’t change their minds.
A guilty pleasure?
I have lots of pleasures but I don’t have any guilty ones. Cooking is a gigantic pleasure for me. I probably have 100 cookbooks. I think of it as a good way to travel around the world without having to leave home.
What is your greatest achievement?
Working to ensure the success of Western Center gives me enormous satisfaction. I have spent most of my career working in the nonprofit sector, and I know very well the challenges nonprofits face, from fundraising to building a strong staff and board. We are celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. This organization has weathered ups and downs like any other nonprofit but we are going strong. That makes me feel good.
Any failures or regrets you want to talk about?
I have been a pretty lucky guy. I have been married for more than 30 yrs. I have a healthy child. I am healthy. I like my work. I don’t like to dwell on regrets.
Finish the following statement: “Advancing and defending wellness means [blank].”
Overcoming obstacles. Taking on the bad guys who are trying to do harm to the people we serve. And always recognizing the racial justice component of what’s happening to so many communities across this country.
What can people do in their daily lives to help find solutions on the issues you work on?
I have expanded my media diet recently so I am not just looking to places like the Washington Post and the New York Times. I am also checking Breitbart, Fox and other, more conservative sites. One of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s recommendations in her book is that we should spend time talking to people who hold different views than ours. I may not have the same religious beliefs as my neighbor, and we may not agree on a particular political issue, but we are still neighbors. I think we should always be looking for opportunities to step out of our bubbles and be good neighbors. And I think there is a real opportunity for political parties and candidates who can create and foster that sense of neighborliness among all of us.
What is your greatest hope for the years ahead?
That the pendulum will swing back.
How do you defend your own wellness and stay healthy?
I maintain a good work-life balance. I make it a point to get home for dinner most nights with my family. I realize I am incredibly fortunate to be able to say that; it’s a luxury many people don’t have. And it’s a reminder that what we’re fighting for at the Western Center is the opportunity for more people to have those kinds of choices.