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Alumni Spotlight: Melanie Ash

April 4, 2022

Alumna Melanie Ash, General Counsel, NYC Racial Justice Commission and Senior Counsel, Impact Litigation Unit, New York City Law Department, practiced in the firm's Litigation Department from 2000 to 2004.

Paul, Weiss: What led you to join the NYC Racial Justice Commission?

Melanie Ash: When I was approached about the opportunity to serve as General Counsel to the Racial Justice Commission, it felt like the job that I had waited a lifetime to get. Since my law school days, I have been interested in finding ways to apply the critical legal thinking skills that lawyers are trained to use to the intractable problems of racial injustice and inequity. It is that interest that led me to New York City to study comparative constitutional equality and critical race theory under the many leading CRT and constitutional scholars at Columbia Law School, giants like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Kendall Thomas and Patricia Williams. Almost as soon as I arrived in the city to embark on my studies in 1998, I felt a connection to New York City that has only grown stronger and deeper in the years since. In the time since I graduated from Columbia with my LLM, I have dedicated over a decade of my professional life to working for the city and the people that make it such a special place. And so, when I was offered this role, I welcomed it as an opportunity to return to the issues that had brought me to New York City all those years ago.

Because the first-of-its-kind Racial Justice Commission is simultaneously a Charter Revision Commission with the statutory power to propose changes to the City’s Charter, and an advisory and consultative body with the historic mandate to identify ways to begin the work of dismantling structural racism, the role of General Counsel to the Commission has turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime. It has offered a unique and unparalleled opportunity to marry my passion for and commitment to a more just, equitable and fair New York City with the legal and analytical skills, and New York City-specific expertise that I have spent the better part of my career developing. Since joining the Commission, I have had the honor of collaborating with powerhouse legal minds, such as Jennifer Jones Austin, the Commission’s Chair, and CEO and Executive Director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies; and RJC Commissioners Lurie Daniel Favors, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, and Ana Bermudez, Commissioner of the Department of Probation. Together, we have worked to turn a critical lens on New York City’s foundational structures and laws in order to uproot systemic racism, and to reimagine a more equitable city for all New Yorkers.

It is no coincidence that this opportunity came out of the local, national and international reckoning about racial injustice arising from the devastating killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others, as well as the deep racial disparities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. As part of the city’s efforts to grapple with its own need for racial reconciliation, justice and reform, the Racial Justice Commission was charged by Mayor de Blasio with a mandate to reimagine and redesign a more equitable city government. While I recognized that the challenges of the role would be enormous, I knew that I couldn’t pass up the chance to work hand in hand with some of the most talented, brilliant and passionately committed advocates for racial justice you will ever come across—both the Commissioners themselves and the incredible staff that was assembled to support them—to take on this important work at this most critical time when our city is at a crossroads.

PW: As we near the one-year anniversary of the Commission’s formation, what do you see as one of the greatest developments/accomplishments so far? 

Melanie Ash: The Commission’s final report, “NYC For Racial Justice,” is by far our greatest accomplishment. The report documents the extensive and ambitious project that we undertook and completed in under nine months and includes the three ballot questions that registered New York City voters will vote on, along with explanatory abstracts, the proposed legislative text and background information about how the proposals were developed by the Commission along with their rationale; and a “Roadmap for Racial Justice” and Commission recommendations that highlight much of the work that remains to be done within the government at every level and in sectors beyond government, if New York City is to be the truly equitable city that we all want and need. It is the culmination of the Commission and the staff’s tremendous efforts to engage the public, the process of incorporating the public’s voice and a call to action to continue the work into the future. I personally take great pride in the Commission’s first proposal, to “Add a Guiding Statement of Values” as a preamble to the New York City Charter. Unlike many constitutional documents, the Charter, which functions as New York City’s constitution, does not begin with a preamble, or with any guiding values or principles that help to lay a foundation for the city we want to see. Instead, it is an amalgam of technical and descriptive laws cobbled together over centuries, devoid of any unifying values or principles. It was an exciting challenge for me to play a role in identifying and articulating the values that would provide both inspiration and guidance to city government as it carries out its comprehensive planning and auditing functions on behalf of New Yorkers. The proposed preamble draws on international examples like the new South African Constitution and the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland, as well as the foundational documents of cities from around the country. The language chosen was a collaborative effort between the Commission and the public, and New Yorkers were invited to participate by identifying values important to them. The preamble contains an acknowledgment that the city sits on the traditional territories of the Lenape people and recognizes the harms of the past, but also sets a hopeful and aspirational vision for the future of our city. I hope that all New Yorkers will see that their important contributions to New York City are acknowledged and celebrated in the preamble, and that it can serve as a unifying statement of the values that make New York City great.

PW: Tell us about the voter education initiative and what the initiative seeks to accomplish in its initial phases as well as what is at stake in November 2022. 

Melanie Ash: The Racial Justice Commission has put forward three proposals for New York City voters to consider in the upcoming election. On November 8, 2022, New Yorkers should flip their ballot to vote on adding a statement of values to guide government; establishing a Racial Equity Office, Plan and Commission; and measuring the true cost of living. Now that these proposals have been submitted by the Commission to the City Clerk for inclusion on the ballot, it’s our responsibility to reach as much of the New York City electorate as possible to make sure they know about the proposals, and understand the details of each proposal, including what they are intended to accomplish, and to encourage them to turn out to vote. We have five million New Yorkers to reach—it’s a huge task that will require a lot of help! Over the next eight months we will be rolling out an education and get-out-the-vote campaign, and through that, we hope to connect with as many New Yorkers as possible, as well as with organizations who are willing to help spread the word.

The Commission’s three proposed ballot measures, taken together, are intended to set the city on a new path by creating a foundation for city government that supports the well-being of all communities and neighborhoods, correcting longtime unjust decisions that deprive and marginalize groups without power. If the proposals are adopted, for the first time, there will be a statement of foundational values in the Charter, placing New Yorkers at the heart of the government’s purposes and goals. Also, for the first time, the city will be required to create a comprehensive strategy to improve racial justice, equity and fairness. The proposals include the creation of an agency that will be authorized and charged with pushing all agencies toward solutions that interrupt and reverse the ways communities become oppressed, marginalized and disempowered. The proposals would also introduce new accountability measures: the city will be required to provide data so the public can see whether its promised strategies and spending actually shrink the gap in well-being caused by structural racism. The proposals also include the creation of a commission to bring in community members’ voices and report to the public on the city’s performance in furtherance of racial equity. The final proposal to measure the true cost of living would set a new standard for how New Yorkers should be able to live with dignity, rather than in poverty.

PW: What do you see as the biggest challenge in the pursuit of racial equity in New York City? 

Melanie Ash: I’ll begin by acknowledging that New York City has been the birthplace of many racial justice leaders and movements, and the site of many milestones, and the Commission has sought through its work to carry on and honor that legacy of struggle towards progress. Throughout the city’s history, many challenges have been faced in the pursuit of racially equity, but I think often the biggest challenge, both in the city and nationally, is the assumption that the status quo is neutral, and that this supposed “neutrality” does not cause harm. Some people perceive the movement for racial equity as biased because it seeks to change the status quo; however, that assumes that the status quo is a neutral starting point, without thinking critically about whether the status quo holds that privileged space because it is the best, fairest, most effective or most equitable way, or merely because it’s the way things have always been done. By clinging blindly to the status quo, we may be—whether intentionally or unintentionally— upholding inequitable rules and structures under the erroneous belief that in some way they represent neutrality.

Adding to the challenge, inherent in any attempt to change the status quo, was the vastness of the specific mandate the Commission was given to upend racial inequity in city government. We were faced with a truly daunting undertaking that could not possibly be achieved in nine months, and proposing racial equity-focused revisions to the New York City Charter confirmed what we already knew: while the proposals put forward by the Commission are intended to lay the groundwork for a more equitable city, there will remain much more work to be done. Thus, although the Racial Justice Commission is time limited and will cease to exist on Election Day, November 8, 2022, we know that the work of pursuing racial equity must be widespread and ongoing and will require other institutions and individuals to carry it forward, in government and all other areas of society.

PW: As General Counsel, what does your day to day look like?

Melanie Ash: Over the nine-months-long ballot proposal development process, my day to day varied greatly based on where we were in the process, and what was happening around us. At the outset of the Commission’s formation, the landscapes of our country, state and city were deeply in flux with changing regulations relating to the pandemic, a new governor and an active mayoral election cycle. Because the Commission was still in its critical formative stage, I was primarily focused on setting the Commission and the RJC Commissioners up for success by staffing a small team of lawyers and developing policies and practices addressing privacy, privilege, freedom of information, conflict of interest, open-meetings law and pandemic-specific emergency regulations in order to fortify the Commission against any potential legal issues. During later phases of our work, I juggled those logistical and regulatory compliance issues with my role as legal advisor to the Commission and staff tackling myriad legal issues arising out of the Commission’s policy development function, including legislative, electoral, preemption and constitutional issues. The Commission was charged by Mayor de Blasio with submitting a Final Report and related Charter revision proposals by December 31, 2021, and so in the lead-up to that deadline, my team and I were intensely focused on translating the Commission’s proposed policy initiatives into the precise language that will appear on the ballot in November 2022, the explanatory abstracts that accompany the ballot measures and the proposed legislative text that will be added to the Charter to effectuate the proposals if they are approved by New York City voters.

In our current phase, my day to day includes navigating the important legal parameters that govern the development and execution of a voter education campaign. This is an exciting citywide campaign to educate all five million registered voters, with special efforts to reach language communities protected by the Voting Rights Act. In recent weeks, I’ve been advising the Commission as it works to build out a campaign strategy that engages and educates New York City voters in a neutral way, without advocating for any particular outcome. 

PW: What lessons have you learned during your years litigating at Paul, Weiss that have helped you in your current role?

Melanie Ash: My time at Paul, Weiss occurred at a very formative stage of my career, and the invaluable lessons that I learned as a litigator at Paul, Weiss became the skills and experiences that I rely on day in and day out in my role as General Counsel: legal analysis and writing, client service, mentoring of younger attorneys and more. A couple of lessons from my time at Paul, Weiss stand out. First, being a part of a Litigation Department that was staffed with generalists, by intention and design, was incredibly valuable to me. As a young attorney I was regularly asked to step into areas of commerce, industry and law that were completely unfamiliar, and to develop a comfort level with and fluency in them in a very short period of time. Those experiences were invaluable preparation for my work as General Counsel, where I was similarly asked to learn and develop fluency in a significant number of areas over a very short, intense period, and was able to approach that challenge with the confidence of having successfully done it before. I am also grateful for the example of practicing law at the highest level of excellence in a high-pressure environment that was modeled consistently by the many exceptional attorneys I worked with at Paul, Weiss. 

PW: What role do you see lawyers playing to support and amplify the Commission’s vision?

Melanie Ash: We hope that, in advance of the November election, lawyers will take the time to learn about and join the conversation on the proposed changes to the New York City Charter that the Commission has put forward. The specifics about the proposals can be found on the Commission’s website at

Beyond the ballot proposals, through the Roadmap for Racial Justice published in its final report, the Commission recognizes there is much more work to be done within government at every level, and in sectors beyond government. The Roadmap situates the Commission’s work in a larger landscape of change, recommending specific ways the Commission’s work can be built upon, and advancing the important conversation about how the city can be more racially equitable.

Lawyers have an important part to play in this conversation. Over the past months we have seen a troubling backlash across the country that seeks to silence the literary and educational voices of people of color, eliminate both long-standing and new measures to promote racial equity and even to deny the truth about shameful periods of American history. It is no coincidence that this backlash has been accompanied by a disturbing increase in hate crimes against the Asian community, and a rise in antisemitism. These developments make clear that we are at a critical crossroads in the struggle for racial justice, and lawyers’ voices are more important than ever to help counter the rampant false narratives about racial equity, to reject the rewriting and whitewashing of historical events, to speak out against systemic racism and to stand up for critical thinking.

PW: Who were some mentors who inspired you? How have they impacted your work and relationships today?

Melanie Ash: I was lucky to be mentored at Paul, Weiss by Ted Wells, who is widely recognized as one of the greatest trial lawyers in the country. While working with Ted, I participated in my first jury trial and learned how to try cases in the finest tradition of excellence. I learned so much from that experience, including the importance of immersing myself in the facts of the case until I know them inside and out, forming a connection and establishing a relationship of trust with the jury and developing a cohesive and understandable trial narrative. During my time at Paul, Weiss, Ted served, and continues to serve, as a valued mentor to me, and as a champion for me. In fact, when the opportunity to serve as General Counsel came to me, Ted helped me to carefully consider whether it was the right opportunity for me. Some of the many other talented attorneys that I was privileged to work with and learn from at Paul, Weiss and whom I valued as mentors during my time at the firm include partners Michael Gertzman and Jeh Johnson, counsel Maria Keane, former partner Maria Vullo (Litigation, 1988 – 2010; 2011 – 2015) and former senior associate Diane Knox (Litigation, 1997 – 2007), now Senior Vice President, Legal Advisor and Director at Mitsubishi Corporation, whom I vividly remember graciously taking the time to coach me through taking my first deposition. I still use the deposition tips and pointers that Diane gave me to this day.

In addition, I credit—and will be forever grateful to— Paul, Weiss for introducing me to some of my most trusted friends and confidantes. Chief among them is Sarah Dodds-Brown (Corporate M&A, 1998 – 2005), a former corporate associate and now Executive Vice President and Managing Counsel for Global Enterprise Services & U.S. Market at American Express, who was featured in the last Alumni Spotlight. It was Sarah who introduced me to the concept of building a “personal board of directors” made up of people who are committed to your personal and professional development and success, and can serve as advisors, counsellors, cheerleaders and champions in your life and career. Sarah sits at the head of my personal board, alongside a number other trusted, and I hope, lifelong friends I made at Paul, Weiss, including alumni Diane Knox, Júanne Harris (Litigation, 2003 – 2008), Michelle Parham (Litigation, 2004 – 2007), Heather Reid (Corporate M&A, 2001 – 2007) and Mala Ahuja Harker (Litigation, 2000 – 2003).

PW: What advice would you give to current associates about making the most of their time at the firm?

Melanie Ash: I would encourage current associates to approach their time at Paul, Weiss with an eye to developing the foundational skills that will carry them through the rest of their careers and, to that end, taking an active role in asking for opportunities and training that will provide all of the skills and experiences needed to be a well-rounded and multifaceted lawyer; and developing and nurturing the relationships that will be equally foundational to their future success. Associates should be actively invested in their own development and learning, and take advantage of the many resources that Paul, Weiss makes available to them. I would also urge them to seek out and take on some of the many pro bono opportunities Paul, Weiss makes available to its attorneys. Associates at Paul, Weiss are in an incredibly privileged position, which enables them to give back to the community in a meaningful and rewarding way.

PW: What is one word that best describes your outlook for 2022? What excites you the most?

Melanie Ash: As we enter 2022, I am feeling exhausted—but also energized. In the midst of a fast-moving and unprecedented pandemic, the Commission and staff spent nine intense months engaged in incredibly important, moving and transformative conversations across the five boroughs with thought leaders, activists and everyday New Yorkers with lived experience about the changes they would like to see in city government, and then undertook the painstaking work of distilling what we heard into ballot proposals that incorporated what they told us in a way that could meaningfully move the needle towards racial equity. We believe that the proposals have the potential to do just that, and with the sense of accomplishment that I feel at having submitted the Commission’s ballot proposals to the City Clerk, the feeling of exhaustion that I felt at the end of December is giving way to a renewed sense of energy and excitement for this fall, when New Yorkers will have the opportunity to make their voices heard on the ballot proposals at the polls.

Putting aside the ballot measures, the Commission is now also focusing its efforts on the issues set out in its Roadmap for Racial Justice, through which it hopes to continue the work of bending Dr. King’s “arc of the moral universe” not only towards justice, but also towards a city where we all have what we need to lead thriving lives, and where race is not a determinant of outcomes, opportunities, successes or failures. I hope the Paul, Weiss community will join us in examining all the many ways that we can use the Roadmap to re-envision and rebuild an equitable city for all of us.

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