Candyce Phoenix '03
"We are experiencing a new civil rights movement in this country, and no one should be surprised. We were content to live with so many wrongs for so long; they built up to create this moment. I'd call this year more 'inevitable' than 'incredible.'" Candyce Phoenix '03, staff director for the House Committee on Oversight and Reform's Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, has been preparing for this moment since she was a student at The Potomac School.
Having transferred to Potomac from a mostly Black school, Candyce worked hard to fit in and to process the times when she felt like an outsider. Academically she shone, but social situations had codes and behaviors that could be confusing and hurtful. She says, "I know my classmates didn't mean anything by it – we were so young – and I lacked the vocabulary to describe what I was feeling."
In eleventh grade, Candyce joined Operation Understanding DC (OUDC). The group's mission is to create future community leaders who promote respect, understanding, and cooperation while fighting racism, anti-Semitism, and all forms of discrimination. Candyce grew to embody OUDC's mission, and through her involvement with the organization she developed the voice to discuss her experiences as a Black adolescent. She began to ask probing questions like, "Why couldn't I have a strong academic experience without transferring to a private school?" and "Why do I always need to be on my best behavior in order to be a shining example of my race?" OUDC was pivotal to how Candyce viewed her place in the world.
Back at Potomac, Candyce pursued classes that gave context to her percolating questions. African American History, AP U.S. History, AP Government, and a course on the Supreme Court were illuminating. She began to think about the ongoing injustices in this country. She observes, "I didn't know of any better way of fixing the problems than by becoming a lawyer." Despite the adjustments she had to make to fit in, Candyce credits Potomac with setting her on a path she might never have followed otherwise. She says, "It was a wonderful academic experience. I learned to work hard and think critically in ways I might not have on my own."
Candyce received her B.A. in comparative ethnic studies from Columbia University in 2007 and her J.D. from Harvard University in 2010. Fresh out of law school, she was accepted into the U.S. Department of Labor's Honors Program, a two-year immersive experience for outstanding law school graduates, run through the Solicitor of Labor's Office (SOL). Honors attorneys rotate through various SOL branches, gaining experience and insights into how the government runs. Candyce says, "I graduated knowing I wanted to 'do civil rights,' but that's a gigantic umbrella. DOL helped me see that civil rights are intrinsically linked to employment." She explains, "For most people, their job is a springboard for other safeguards. If you have a good job – and an equal shot at getting that job – it can lead to better housing, enhanced safety and health care, and improved education."
During her rotation, Candyce authored an appellate brief for a ninth circuit court of appeals case, Pacific Shores Hospital v. United Behavioral Health and argued the case in California. Responding to a lower court's decision supporting the denial of in-hospital insurance coverage for a severely anorexic woman, Candyce's argument demanded that courts apply a stricter standard of review to all denials of benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. She asserted that reviewing courts should approve benefit denials only after thorough consideration of the entire record, rather than essentially rubber-stamping them. DOL won the case, and Candyce celebrated by going skydiving. As a result of her work, lower courts now conduct a more detailed review of insurance denials. This "impact litigation" helps guarantee insurance civil rights for countless people beyond the parties to the original case.
Candyce next landed a position as an attorney in DOL's Management and Legal Services Division, which operates like a general counsel's office for the department. There, she authored recommendations on various labor issues, including discriminatory hiring practices, fair labor standards, and minimum wage violations. She also oversaw internal equal employment opportunity complaints by DOL employees. When a complaint was shown to be valid, Candyce made sure it was addressed. If a complaint was deemed unactionable, her role was to make certain that taxpayer money was not spent frivolously. If responding to an employee's complaint occasionally felt at odds with her vision of being a workers' advocate, Candyce reconciled this dichotomy. She says, "I came to see the value of having my employee-centric mindset at the management table. And instead of being on the outside asking management to change, I could be on the inside and make the change myself." She adds, "I was constantly aware that DOL is supposed to be the model employer; we were the ones expected to do things right."
Candyce considers her five-year stint at DOL a formative career move, one that gave her a clearer understanding of how the agency – and government in general – operates. "I was always interested in government," she reflects. "I just wasn't keen on politics – yet."
The Department of Justice was next as Candyce continued to hone her skills in civil rights advocacy. From 2015 to 2019, she served as a senior trial attorney at DOJ, working in the Employment Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division. One of her primary focuses was prosecuting state and local governments for employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. A Title VII rights violation means that an employer with 15 or more employees has discriminated against a worker based on race, color, national origin, religion, or sex. Candyce's office also had jurisdiction over USERRA, which prevents discrimination based on military status and service; for instance, an employer may not penalize a service member for taking time to fulfill National Reserve or National Guard duties.
One of Candyce's most important assignments was spurred when the North Carolina legislature passed a law known as HB2 – "the bathroom bill" or more officially, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. The new law was passed to prevent cities from outlawing discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Under HB2, transgender people had no legal right to use public restrooms of the gender with which they identified. Candyce explains, "DOJ sued under several statutes; my piece was primarily Title VII. We joined efforts with the ACLU, elevating national interest in the bathroom bill."
This was Candyce's first experience of watching a case she was working on play out on the news. She recalls, "I'd turn on CNN and there would be breaking news about HB2. It was thrilling to watch and say, 'Hey, that's my case!'" Candyce and her colleagues litigated the case for several months prior to the 2016 election, when a change of administration spelled uncertainty for the outcome of their efforts. She notes, "In some instances, DOJ attorneys were asked to switch sides midstream in cases they were litigating. It was an uncertain time."
The Friday after the election was a watershed moment for Candyce. She recalls, "I was despondent, concerned about what was at stake for civil rights in our country, and I went for a visit to the National Museum of African American History." As she stood before the casket of Emmet Till, she had an epiphany: "Civil rights activists, distressed by Till's murder and other terrible injustices, did not have the luxury of wallowing in a funk. They absolutely had to take bold steps...and so did I. In that moment, I reframed my question from 'What would I have done if I'd lived back then?' to 'What am I going to do right now?'" Candyce wanted a career that would put her in the trenches of what she sensed would be a revitalized civil rights movement.
A tweet by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed Candyce her next move. It announced the formation of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which AOC would help to lead as vice chair. Figuring that a new subcommittee would need staff, Candyce printed up copies of her resume and dropped them on the desk of every member of the subcommittee and at the office of the Committee on Oversight and Reform. Within a week she had landed the position of staff director. The subcommittee has oversight jurisdiction on issues related to civil rights, civil liberties, and the equal protection of laws, including voting rights; freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly; equal employment; nondisclosure agreements; criminal justice reform policies; and the census.
The staff director acts as the subcommittee's chief of staff. Candyce's primary responsibility is to hear the plans that the subcommittee's chair, Representative Jamie Raskin, and other members of the House want to bring forward and turn them into practical initiatives. This involves taking broad ideas and giving them shape, meaning, and life. She explains, "I always start by asking 'What is the goal?' and work back from there." Once a plan has structure, the next step is to convene a hearing or launch an investigation. Candyce notes, "For the past two years, I have been glued to the news, listening to what the administration has been proposing. I ask, 'Is it permissible, is it illegal? What will be the impacts of this proposal?' We needed to be positioned for rapid response."
Although the pandemic has complicated some aspects of its work, the new subcommittee has moved forward on a number of important issues – for example, investigating whether the natural gas pipeline approval process used by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission abuses the rights of private landowners and, in the run-up to the 2020 election, exploring communities' ability to provide alternatives to casting ballots by mail, such as drop boxes and expanded early in-person voting options. When Representative Raskin served as the lead impeachment manager in February 2021, Candyce assumed a role on the impeachment management team, advising members of the House on strategy and process.
Other key achievements of the subcommittee include convincing the administration to cease deporting critically ill children, regardless of their immigration status, and addressing threats caused by white supremacy and domestic extremism. "The storming of the Capitol on January 6 was a pivotal event," Candyce says. "Extremism isn't going away and will continue to be a priority for the subcommittee."
When asked what has been on her mind during the past 12 months, Candyce underscores concerns around racial justice. She notes, "The last civil rights movement focused on convincing people that racism is wrong. The challenge of this new civil rights movement is convincing people that racism still exists.
She finds hope in the size and diversity of the recent protests, noting, "In light of the horrific number of Black deaths at the hands of authority, we're finally admitting that we are not past this issue. Racism is pervasive. It needs to be addressed, and people from all backgroundsa re speaking out about this."
But Candyce fears that Americans may settle for solutions that don't address the underlying issues: "Some think that a change in administration will solve everything, but this is short-sighted and dangerous. We can't merely acknowledge that racism is a problem in our country. We have to be willing to do the hard work to change the assumptions and the systems that perpetuate it."
Candyce also points out that the pandemic and racial injustice are intrinsically linked. In March 2021, Emory University's Health Equity Dashboard reported that, for every 100,000 residents nationwide, 89 White people had died as a result of COVID-19, compared to 100 Black people and 115 Indigenous people. Candyce observes, "This is the culmination of a tragic underinvestment in vulnerable communities where the residents – principally people of color – live in food deserts and unsafe conditions, lack access to health care, and are often low-paid essential employees, unable to telework or even take sick leave." She notes that children in these communities may be further disadvantaged by not having access to the technology needed to attend school virtually. And, while vaccines are now being rolled out nationwide, Candyce observes, "If the closest vaccination site is many miles from where you live, lack of transportation can be a real barrier. We aren't out of the woods yet. We have to be committed to reaching vulnerable communities everywhere."
Still, Candyce maintains a hopeful outlook. She routinely opens her staff meetings with "Tell me one good thing that happened to you this week," adding examples of her own, of which there is no shortage. Asked what advice she might offer to young people considering a career that supports civil rights and civil liberties, Candyce notes that many professions play a role, citing technology, journalism, public health, the arts, and education. She says, "Everyone can be part of this work. You don't need to be a civil rights lawyer to be a civil rights warrior."