The Unstoppable Service of Salli Swartz

From our series "Meet the dynamic women of Democrats Abroad"

by Randi Milgram, DA UK

As women in America long for a leader to respect, the women in Democrats Abroad are fortunate to have such an intrepid leader in Salli Swartz, Co-chair of the DA Women’s Caucus with Ann Hesse. For decades, Salli has been fighting injustice around the globe, and there’s no stopping her now.

After growing up in Philadelphia and then Boston, Salli’s dedication to helping those in need started early in her life, as did her fascination with international events and foreign newspapers. She worked for Democratic party candidates in Massachusetts while being involved in women’s rights groups. After college at the University of Massachusetts and law school at SyracuseUniversity, she translated her desire to do good into a much-loved career in legal services. While working as a legal services attorney in rural Pennsylvania, Salli started a battered women’s safe house and defended abused women.

Salli’s career took a sharp turn when her husband’s work moved them to France and she couldn’t continue the same path. Fortunately, her determination was unrelenting, and her prior courtroom experience proved valuable to a firm that provided the foot in the door that she needed to jumpstart a successful career in France. She thus became a corporate transactional attorney doing deals worldwide for French and foreign companies. Her subsequent practice areas ranged from international arbitration to mergers & acquisitions as she gained experience and learned about the French legal landscape. After racking up years of experience, Salli and a French barrister friend founded their own law firm in Paris, allowing Salli to finally continue the kind of work she was always meant to do.

Throughout her work as a transnational business lawyer in France, Salli learned firsthand the difficulties of being a woman, and an American woman at that, in the male-dominated world of law and the male-dominated culture of France. “It was extra hard as a woman back then,” Salli said. Although the corporate culture, especially in law, still provides a difficult experience for women today, the outright sexism in the past was more obvious and the people more blunt. “I don’t think people will say the same things to women now as they did then,” Salli said. A lifelong feminist and fighter for women’s rights, Salli found that the problems she faced in her early career reinforced her passion to work for and defend women’s rights.

And despite the changing shapes that sexism takes, the obstacles women face today remain the same. “There’s a huge resistance to women lawyers who want to make it up the ladder in corporate law firms,” Salli said. She pointed out that the French legal environment is not striving to improve matters for women. “They don’t make a big effort in terms of hiring women, supporting families. They’re not as innovative as even some firms in the States are, who account for families and flex time.” Women are dropping out of the legal corporate world before they get higher up the ladder, possibly due to a lack of support and mentoring in addition to the culture tailor-made for men.

Observing, and experiencing, the unequal ways of professional life was a driving force for Salli’s interest in the Women’s Caucus. “Seeing this happen in France didn’t change my politics; it just makes me want to fight harder,” Salli said. A huge concern of hers currently is that that younger generation doesn’t know how hard she and her peers had to fight for the rights women now enjoy, and how much stronger the fight has to be, not only to attain further goals but just to protect what has already been won. “The current administration will try as hard as they can to take it away,” Salli said, noting that this was a big reason she was eager to co-chair the Women’s Caucus. “It felt like the women’s movement was slipping, and I really wanted to shake it up and reach out globally to make sure all American women are aware of what’s going on. We’re going to have to pick up the fight right away.”

With her politics and dedication to women’s rights driving her, Salli never lost track of the important work she wanted to do, including protecting and promoting the rule of law, fighting for women, and exposing corruption in different parts of the world. In a fortuitous meeting, Salli was introduced to an employee of the embassy in Paris who told her about a division of the State Department that would focus on African Services. This arm of the State Department called on Salli to go to Africa to run training programs. Salli started bringing other organizations into this ongoing, widespread work, including international bankers and lawyers. After participating and moving up the ladder for some 20 years, Salli became the chair of the International Law section of the American Bar Association. Continuing and growing this work, she participated in and/or organized delegations of American international lawyers to learn about the Rule of Law and support it in Lebanon, Jordan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Tanzania, Rwanda, and many, many more countries in the developing world.

Salli’s work in Africa let her do what she always wanted to do – simply put, help people and do good things. Her experiences rounded her out professionally, she says. The work entailed training government civil servants and society groups all over Africa and assisting them in recreating independent, strong judicial institutions. “More than most, they recognize how serious the threat to our judiciary is,” Salli said, in terms of corruption and deterioration.

This work also taught her a great deal not only about those countries and what they needed, but about the USA as well. “As an American, [I learned that] we are not globally adored,” Salli said. She learned how to figure out the preconceptions of other cultures in order to facilitate productive discussion. “I changed the manner in which I approach subjects,” she said. “I approach people there with much more humility and much more cultural awareness. For example, in part of the Arab world, the discourse is different so you need to adapt to get the message across in a constructive manner so you can be heard. In parts of Africa, it’s clear that solving the problems will take generations.” At the trainings she organizes in various countries, her hope is to get just one or two people each time to hear and really digest what she says. “Then I will feel I have been a success,” she said. “It’s really a drop-by-drop, step-by-step process.” This work has similarly informed her views on foreign relations: “It’s affected how I shape the message, but not necessarily the actual message,” Salli said. “It has reinforced all the views and values I have as a Democrat.” Traveling and experiencing and testing all her points of view by working with different cultures has indeed made Salli feel even more strongly about the principles of the Democratic party. “It made my politics stronger, to be supported by actual evidence of why what we say we stand for is the right way to go – particularly in regard to education, women’s rights, corruption in government, and resource development.”

As an expert in developing democracies, Salli is shocked by the current level of discourse in the USA. “Polite discourse is gone,” she said. “It’s difficult to have a debate or a discussion on different subjects without people screaming and using unpalatable expressions.” Also, despite her work in analyzing and preventing government corruption, she did not predict that the USA would suffer from such blatant conflicts of interest. “Conflict of interest was always clearly defined, but now? Maybe not,” she said. “And I always thought the First Amendment would be upheld. The ‘City on a Hill’ is no more. All is not well and it’s getting worse.”

Although her widely shared concerns about the current administration’s destruction of constructive discourse and integral governmental safeguards are appropriately grave, she has hope that likeminded women will be persistent and determined enough to win this fight. “You can’t be complacent. We need to push forward,” Salli said. “This is not the time to sit back and congratulate ourselves on everything we’ve done before. This is a fight to keep the rights to make decisions concerning our bodies.” This fight entails the Global Women’s Caucus looking to push this agenda forward now, by establishing priorities for action items and filtering it to the separate Women’s Caucuses worldwide. They also aim to create new caucuses, as many groups as possible spread to the farthest reaches of the globe to unite women across the world into the fight of our lives. “We need to be vocal, to get our bodies together and show we won’t be walked over,” she said.

Specifically, Salli’s shorter-term goals include teaching women in various countries how to start and run a caucus. The Women’s Caucus is also planning an upcoming teleconference with Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List, and it will be supporting all female candidates up for reelection in midterms and other upcoming elections. Smaller projects include sending a storm of postcards to Washington, making a 2018 calendar, posting tools to help new caucuses, posting a regular newsletter, and assisting local caucuses in their event planning and training. With the internet presence increasing and a steering committee being appointed, more and more vital work can be done as more people get involved and share their ideas and values. “We need to get input so we can get output,” Salli said, quoting her Co-Chair Ann Hesse. With every country’s priorities being different, the goal of the Global Women’s Caucus is not to lead top down but to facilitate the work they have chosen to do. “We want to create a space where there’s a dialogue so women Democrats know they are being supported,” she said. “That we are here for the women’s movement in general.”

Consequently, the most important thing Salli wants all members of Democrats Abroad Women’s Caucus to know about the women’s movement is that our rights are in danger. “Our rights are being attacked, and we cannot accept that. We have to act as an opposition party and be unified in that role.” Salli’s optimistic view of the ability to do this is buoyed by her experience last July as a Hillary Clinton delegate to the Democratic Convention. Providing the opportunity to meet so many likeminded women and have access to so many important figures, the convention was one of the most meaningful and exciting events she ever participated in. “It was fascinating to watch how people interact with each other, how they lobby for their causes, and even though it’s highly choreographed there’s still so much excitement and so much hope. It was wonderful.” Salli said her memories of this event and all the people she met continue to give her hope.

Of course, it is still difficult to accept the outcome. To win the next election, Salli said the Democrats need to learn from their mistakes, primarily to learn humility. Leaders cannot be isolated from the street, from the people on the ground. “That’s why we lost,” she said. “You need to learn to be in contact with your troops, people on the street, and be on the ground and communicate better with members. It should be a system of messaging upwards and not sending a principle downwards. Voices need to be heard.” Likewise, these are the same goals Salli has for the Women’s Caucus – to communicate more efficiently and effectively and ensure that we work together to achieve necessary shared goals. Salli’s most important piece of advice for all the members of the Women’s Caucus and Democrats Abroad in general continues that theme: “Get active, speak up, and make your voices heard.”

 by Randi Milgram, DA UK