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Margaretta Lin M.A. ’91, J.D. ’91 Finds Her Voice for the Voiceless

June 2, 2020

Margaretta Lin M.A. ’91, J.D. ’91 says she has a weird superpower. It’s a bit like x-ray vision. Whenever she sees a crisis, she can immediately see opportunities for justice. It’s always said that with great powers come great responsibility, and Lin hasn’t let her power sit dormant. Now a lawyer and serial social justice entrepreneur, Lin says she found herself at Cal and learned there how to yield her power. And as with all people with superpowers, there’s always an origin story.

Lin has always been sympathetic to social justice causes. Her family moved to the United States in 1968, when she was four years old. The social climate of the country was hitting a fever pitch. The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War were reaching their peaks, and the Chinese Exclusion Act was banned in practice. Fleeing political oppression in Taiwan, her family didn’t understand the racism against them. “We were in the midst of that struggle without understanding the political historic[al] context of what we were experiencing…We just had no idea why we were being treated the way we were,” Lin recalls. They were one of the only Asian families in the neighborhoods where she grew up, and her parents were just trying to survive. “I think it was very traumatic for them because they [also] experienced that political trauma and oppression in their country.”

She was shy, often bullied, and didn’t speak English well. “I couldn’t say ‘th’ very well,” she says. “[My seventh grade teacher] made me stand up in front of the class and repeat over and over again ‘thirty-three.’” The event traumatized Lin. Speaking publicly was almost like kryptonite.

Despite the bullying, Lin says she had the love of her neighbors. She had friends and mentors who helped her apply to college and law school. “There was no one in my family or immediate community that could guide me. I had to rely on my professors who were my mentors and my friends.”

As a young adult, Lin got involved in activism. She fought to create an Asian American student organization at the University of Virginia. She fought for more diversity in her law school and took over Dean Jesse Choper’s office. She was becoming an activist. Though she was with a chorus of people demanding for a more inclusive campus, she still struggled to find her singular voice. In her head were the voices of everyone else telling her she couldn’t be who she wanted to be, who she would become to be.

“One thing that Berkeley taught me is to believe in my voice.”
–Margaretta Lin M.A. ’91, J.D. ’91

“I was just watching Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and it really struck me when she said that…her guidance counselor took one look at her and said, ‘You’re not Princeton material.’” Lin’s counselor told her the same thing. “She literally told me that I shouldn’t consider applying to these top law schools.” The father of Lin’s boyfriend implied she wasn’t good enough to work at a corporate law firm. She faced racism and sexism from her law school peers. “I just had this insecurity and self doubt.”

But people with superpowers never do things alone. There are always partners around to lift them up. Poet June Jordan was one. “[She] saw my full powers even when I didn’t,” Lin says, “In her letters to me, she always signed them ‘With love and faith in you.’” Her idol, mentor, and friend, Ron Dellums M.S.W. ’62 inspired Lin to pursue a career in public interest. She had older friends, fellow Cal grads, who encouraged her to prove her naysayers wrong. “One thing that Berkeley taught me is to believe in my voice.”

Lin believes in what Audre Lorde calls the ‘Continuum of History,’ the past repeating itself in a new context. From civil rights and women’s rights to helping disenfranchised neighborhoods, Lin continues the work many before her started. “I am here today because I stand on the shoulders of so many people who’ve worked for justice and humanity,” declares Lin. She is the executive director for Just Cities, a platform for young people working in restorative justice, and she helped create The Ronald B. Dellums and June Jordan Racial and Social Justice Bridge Fellowship Program, a mini clinic for students getting their feet wet in social justice initiatives.

In the age of COVID-19, social woes that were once hidden away are now in plain view. Now’s the time, Lin says, to tackle these issues. It’s time to uplift those behind us who are affected by COVID-19 by being a mentor, networker, or financier. It’s in these moments, Lin gets to wear her cape, use her superpowers, and go to battle for her community.

Margaretta Lin M.A. ’91, J.D. ’91 with children Ananya Li (left) and Nikhil Kuai (right) | Image courtesy of Margaretta Lin.