Katharine Huffman in Yale Law News’ “The Power of People“
After working at a law firm in the Bay Area, Andrea Nill Sánchez ’14 decided to return to doing the kind of advocacy work she felt passionate about. The bigger question was how to translate her legal education, experience, and network into the social justice sector during the next chapter of her career.
So when she joined The Raben Group, a majority-minority public affairs and strategic communications firm as a Director in its New York office in 2017, she reached out to Founding Principal Katharine Huffman ’96.
Huffman, a founder of the firm who specializes in criminal justice reform, civil and human rights advocacy, and evidence-based policymaking, was based in Washington, D.C.
On a trip to Raben’s D.C. office, Nill Sánchez got in touch with Huffman, since she knew they shared an interest in the same types of justice reform issues.
“She, Joe Onek ’67, and Robert Raben were inspirations for me in terms of how they translated their legal experience into fulfilling advocacy work outside of the law,” Nill Sánchez said.
Soon, the two were in touch, often daily, and among other things talked about the practicalities of navigating a career transition from a law firm to advocating for public policy changes.
According to Nill Sánchez, “In the beginning, I came to Katharine for guidance on how to manage my recent transition from being a practicing lawyer to working at the intersection of policy, politics, and communications.”
Additionally, Huffman has served as a confidant and source of insight for any issues Nill Sánchez was facing.
“Sometimes we’ve talked about particular questions or situations she’s struggling with; but most of the time, I think the most important thing I’m doing is serving as a sounding board so Andrea has an extra vote of confidence behind her when she follows her own great instincts and creativity,” she said.
With time and career changes, their connection has continued to deepen, professionally and personally.
“We’ve moved from sharing and talking about purely substantive issues,” Huffman said, “to also talking through questions about professional development, juggling professional and personal responsibilities, and finding ways of productively pushing partners and colleagues (and ourselves!) to be creative, take smart risks, and do more.”
As Nill Sánchez advanced at The Raben Group, Huffman accepted an appointment as the executive director of the Square One Project at Columbia University’s Justice Lab, which aims to improve criminal justice policy nationwide.
The new position allowed Huffman to split her time between New York and D.C. (“conveniently for me!” Nill Sánchez said), and the two got the chance to work together on projects with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the Columbia Justice Lab.
In October of 2019, Nill Sánchez had another new career opportunity, and she became Executive Director of AI Now, an interdisciplinary research institute at New York University that examines the social implications of artificial intelligence.
“I think we’re both excited about the potential for our professional relationship to continue as [Nill Sánchez] dives in more deeply on these AI and technological issues,” Huffman said, “all of which have enormous implications for the civil rights and justice reform work we’ve done together for the past couple of years.”
And although they’re no longer working directly together, the two continue to stay in touch. Huffman and Nill Sánchez not only have their time at The Raben Group in common but also their affiliations in higher education.
“We’re now both leaders at organizations based out of major universities: Katharine focusing on criminal justice and me on the social implications of artificial intelligence — which means Katharine is someone I can count on to advise me on many of the opportunities and questions that come with the challenging work we do,” Nill Sánchez said.
A hallmark of their relationship has been the willingness of each to learn from the other.
“The relationship is definitely a two-way street,” Huffman said. “I’ve learned as much from her as she’s learned from me.”
For Nill Sánchez, their relationship has influenced the kind of leader she wants to be.
“Katharine leads with her humanity and that’s something I channel and try to do every day in my role,” she said. “She is also a multidimensional leader who is passionate about her career, family, and friends, enriching her interactions by bringing her full self to her work and the communities she serves.”
As both their professional lives overlapped and developed, Nill Sánchez continues to notice the impact of reaching out to Huffman for coffee several years ago.
“Working together on criminal justice issues has expanded the universe of possibilities of how we can use our law degrees — which has been exciting and liberating,” she said.