Steve Ronfeldt

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BayLegal mourns the passing of our dear friend Steve Ronfeldt, who died last weekend. Steve was a tremendous person, an extraordinary advocate, a mentor, and true friend.

Steve devoted his entire life and career – more than fifty years – to legal services. Right out of law school he started work at Legal Aid; he went on to found the Public Interest Law Project. In recent years, Steve was Of Counsel for BayLegal, and was instrumental in helping us develop our current litigation program.

Over the course of his career Steve was on the front lines of many of the most important fights for low income people of the last half century. This summer, the California Lawyers’ Association honored Steve with the Loren Miller Award, and for any of you who are interested, I would be very happy to provide you with the nomination materials, which tell an amazing story about Steve’s many accomplishments.

Not only did Steve had a tremendously impactful career in legal services, he also had a wonderful outlook and deep humanity that brought joy and optimism and comradeship to everyone with whom he worked. Steve always kept a level head – he knew the importance of the work, and also of personal connection and love for his colleagues and community and family.

Steve is known in the community for his characteristic sign-off – “onward!” he says, at the end of every conversation or email– it denotes the appreciation he has for the work already done, and his never-ending dedication to tackle the next struggle.

There will be a Celebration of Steve’s Life at 10:00 am Saturday, December 15th, at the Northbrae Church, 941 The Alameda, Berkeley, CA 94707.

Following is Steve’s acceptance speech for the 2018 Loren Miller award. I hope it gives you a glimmer of Steve’s spirit, which we strive to carry forward.

“51 years ago, right out of law school, I started my first job as a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow engaged in impact litigation for low-income people. I immediately fell in love with this profoundly rewarding work, which has sustained me through the highs and lows of the past half century in legal services. I’ve worked with wonderful teams of lawyers, community organizers, and clients, to bring cases that touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of low income people. I am optimistic that my work has made a difference in the world. I know it has made a big difference to me, bringing me joy, challenge, and satisfaction – as no other career could have done.

Collaboration and teamwork are essential to impact work, and much of my success has been due to working with terrific advocates using creative strategies to achieve extraordinary results. In one such effort, we challenged the redlining practices by which banks withheld investments from low income communities of color. We began by suing banks for discrimination. But when we saw the uptick in bank mergers, we realized that the federal approval process for bank mergers created a unique opportunity for advocacy. So we created a coalition of over 200 non-profits which attacked every big bank merger. This brought bank CEOs to the negotiating table, where we succeeded in convincing them to invest in low income communities. Eventually, banks committed more than $80 billion to fund affordable housing and small and minority businesses. We used a similar approach to challenge race discrimination in employment, and to address unfairness in emergency aid and public benefits programs for the most needy in California.

When we found ourselves between a rock and hard wall, we had to exercise our imaginations, become creative in legal theories and remedies, and look outside the conventional litigation framework. We built coalitions, which inevitably achieved greater results for our clients. The sense of community and comradeship of these efforts – and the success they brought – sustained me in equal measure.

Today, our nation finds itself facing a unique set of challenges. As some in power urge the abandonment of the rule of law, attack the media, and preside over a vast and growing discrepancy between rich and poor, our democracy is now at stake. Legal services clients – low-income, immigrant, communities of color – are suffering the most. This is a call to action not only for legal services advocates but for everyone who cares about our country. We have had hard hits before. We did not retreat then and cannot now. Instead, our passions for the rule of law and to help those in need must burn even more brightly.

To brave such difficult times, my life mentor urged that I consider being a duck! The duck floats serenely atop the ocean waves, no matter the size of the storm. It keeps its focus on the distant horizon, seeing the big picture while at the same time dealing with the present tumult. Many solutions present themselves when we see problems through our larger objectives. Staying serene like a duck atop churning waters means remaining philosophical and strategic, treating opposing counsel (as well as co-counsel) with respect, and never getting lost in divisiveness. Time and again, that approach has enabled me to achieve results for my clients even with the most challenging opposing counsel. On top of that, it has made my daily life more meaningful and enjoyable.

I am deeply grateful to you for giving me this wonderful award, which has allowed me this opportunity to reflect on my career. I am immeasurably thankful to my colleagues, for sustaining this work over the last half century and for the work that I know will continue. Finally, I thank most deeply Suzy, my wife and closest companion over 53 years with our 3 wonderful children and 6 grandchildren bringing joy into every day. Onward to all.”