WENATCHEE — Local attorney Ernest Radillo grew up as a witness to social injustice.
In the fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley, he saw employers withhold wages, neglect injured workers and cut back on necessities such as water and toilets.
He saw his father and family members slighted. He saw worker safety ignored. He saw activist César Chávez protest the effects of pesticides on field hands.
Now Radillo — shaped by the events of his youth — has devoted his life to helping build a society of equality and opportunity for migrant workers and low-income families.
“All I want for everyone,” he said, “is a fair chance.”
On Monday, the 35-year-old attorney for Columbia Legal Services will receive the city of Wenatchee’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Award, a tribute honoring individuals who’ve protected civil rights and promoted social justice for the area’s disadvantaged populations.
The award will be presented during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration sponsored by the city’s Diversity Advisory Council. A similar award for organizations will be presented to the Wenatchee School District’s Mentor Program, which offers professional support to teachers; and another for businesses to Cherry Creek Radio Cares, a series of broadcasts helping promote nonprofit organizations and community events.
The ceremony will take place on the 25th anniversary of the federal holiday that honors King, the civil rights leader assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. The holiday was first observed in 1986.
“Ernest Radillo embodies every single criteria for winning this award,” said Allison Williams, the city’s executive services director and an organizer of the MLK celebration. “Look at Ernest’s ideals. They really speak to Martin Luther King’s guiding principles — to embrace one another and work towards a better community, a better place for everyone.”
Radillo earned his law degree from Seattle University, working his way up from a researcher for King County Superior Court to an intern for the Sacramento County (Calif.) District Attorney’s Office. He moved to Wenatchee in 2007 to become one of three attorneys at Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm devoted to protecting the legal and human rights of low-income people.
Radillo specializes in class-action suits that, for the Wenatchee area, usually means efforts by low-income migrant workers “to stand up to someone bigger, a company or employer,” he said. Every year, he serves hundreds of clients who are part of the suits.
The soft-spoken attorney added, “Many times, we see a person being taken advantage of because of who they are and where they came from and which language they speak. As an attorney here, my mission is to create a balance, to make sure there’s a level playing field.”
Most recently, Radillo won a settlement for 60 workers in a Mattawa orchard who required medical attention after being doused with an herbicide from a spray plane. Effects of the spraying — nausea, chest pains, eye irritation — lasted up to a month for some of the workers. They divided $230,000 in settlement money.
Columbia Legal Services and its attorneys receive no fees, Radillo said. “In most cases, 99.9 percent of the settlement money goes straight to the clients.”
In the Wenatchee Valley, big changes have taken place in the last 20 years to improve conditions for migrant workers, Radillo said. “Advocacy groups and the fruit industry itself have worked hard for improvements, particularly in housing for temporary workers,” he said. “But is there room for improvement? Yes, absolutely.”
And fighting for social justice isn’t just for lawyers, Radillo said. “It doesn’t matter how a person is trained or educated of what career they’re following — each and everyone of us has the opportunity to change this world for the better. Look around us. A lot of people in this community are doing wonderful things.”
In fact, said the attorney, “it’s a great honor to receive an award like this from a community that so strongly promotes social justice, that embraces the goals of Martin Luther King and — I believe — is moving towards a better, more balanced, more equal world.”
Mike Irwin: 665-1179