NCLR's Sakimura tapped to lead children's legal agency

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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Cathy Sakimura, who started as executive director of Legal Services for Children June 20, spoke at the agency's gala June 1 at Salesforce Park in San Francisco. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Cathy Sakimura, who started as executive director of Legal Services for Children June 20, spoke at the agency's gala June 1 at Salesforce Park in San Francisco. Photo: Rick Gerharter

A longtime deputy director at San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights has embarked on a new job leading Legal Services for Children.

That nonprofit, known as LSC, is also headquartered in San Francisco. Cathy Sakimura, a queer woman, began serving as its executive director June 20.

Sakimura, 42, replaced Ronald "Ron" Gutierrez, the agency's interim executive director. Gutierrez, the agency's longtime clinical director who leads the social work side of the organization, filled in after the agency's former executive director, Abigail Trillin, took a position at Stanford University in November 2021. Trillin was with the agency for 25 years, first as its legal director and then as its executive director for about eight years, LSC board chair Kim Thompson told the Bay Area Reporter.

Thompson, who has been on LSC's board for more than 16 years, also served on the executive search committee, she said.

LSC's community got its first glimpse of its new leader at its gala June 1, where Sakimura briefly addressed about 125 attendees at the outdoor event at Salesforce Park in San Francisco.

"In this time, when children and families are facing horrific tragedy, and increasing instability, the work of LSC is more important than ever," Sakimura said during her five-minute speech given a week after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas that took the lives of 19 children and two teachers. "Children [and] youth need services that support their ability to realize their own vision of safety and wellbeing, not someone else's."

At the agency's first gala in two years due to the COVID pandemic, supporters raised more than $330,000 to support LSC's client-centered immigration, education, guardianship, and foster care work, according to an announcement after the event.

The agency serves an estimated 1,200 children and youth overall, with about 500 of them receiving both legal and social services, according to Thompson.

A voice for children

Speaking with the B.A.R., Sakimura said she believes America's legal system "has a long way to go before families and children really have the respect and dignity and legal protections that they need to live their lives safely and to stay together as families."

Sakimura should know. She has advocated for children and youth from the beginning of her legal career and has become a leading legal and policy expert on LGBTQ families in the United States, her colleagues said.

It was LSC and NCLR that provided the foundation and opportunities for Sakimura to grow that led the Hawaiian native to where she is today.

Sakimura, who lives in San Francisco, interned at both organizations while she was in law school at UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and has great respect for each of them, she said. Sakimura interned for LSC in 2005. The year before that, she interned at NCLR.

"I was so privileged to be able to intern at two organizations that I already admired so much in law school and have the opportunity now to work at both of them," Sakimura said, joking that it was a part of her master career plan to work for only the two agencies.

"It's just such an amazing journey for me to have started out as an intern and now be able to come back as executive director," she said about LSC.

Prior to attending law school, Sakimura was a program associate at COLAGE and a program coordinator and intern program director at Genders and Sexuality Alliance Network.

COLAGE is an organization for children of LGBTQ parents. GSA Network is a youth organization that supports students by starting GSA clubs at schools to combat homophobia and create safer educational campuses.

After earning her law degree, Sakimura landed at NCLR, where she worked for nearly 16 years sharpening her legal and leadership skills and racking up accolades.

Sakimura received the prestigious Dan Bradley Award from the National LGBTQ+ BAR Association in 2021.

Since starting her career at NCLR, she has been a visionary and legal dynamo, said those who worked closely with her.

Sakimura launched her first program, the Family Protection Project, in 2007 when she was a law clerk at NCLR. The project remains a part of the organization's family law division.

She went on to lead the Family Law Project in 2012, working on groundbreaking LGBTQ family cases. Three years later, she added deputy director to her title.

She also co-authored the 2017 edition of the "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Family Law" with longtime NCLR legal director Shannon Minter and UC Davis law professor Courtney G. Joslin.

Former NCLR executive director Kate Kendell and Minter could not point to a specific case that was defining in Sakimura's career. They instead noted the entire body of case law and policies she shaped over the last 15 years.

Minter, a trans man, called Sakimura a "rare advocate" for her litigation and policy work on "cutting edge family law issues" and a "leading expert on LGBTQ family lives within our national movement."

"There's really not one issue that was faced by LGBTQ families that Cathy wasn't a part of mitigating and changing the law," said Kendell, a 62-year-old lesbian who is currently the chief of staff at the California Endowment.

Kendell recalled what life was like for many LGBTQ families during the mid-2000s when Sakimura came to NCLR.

"At the time Cathy started at NCLR it was still very common for parents to lose custody or visitation with their kids based on their sexual orientation and gender identity," said Kendell, who's a mother herself. "In no small part due to Cathy's work across the country that is no longer the status quo and it's actually very rare."

Kendell said due to Sakimura's work "sexual orientation or gender identity alone is not a basis for denying custody or visitation."

Minter recalled that Sakimura "very quickly established herself as just a remarkable advocate in the family law arena."

Over the years Sakimura was "directly" and "extensively involved in so many groundbreaking comprehensive state law reforms that have transformed the law for LGBTQ parents [and] families," while "contextualizing LGBTQ family life issues in a broader context," Minter explained.

"Her legislative work is nothing short of extraordinary," he said, pointing to Sakimura's work modernizing the Uniform Parentage Act.

Minter said many states use the Uniform Parentage Act to legally guide parental rights. According to the Uniform Law Commission, the act first became law in 1973 and was most recently updated in 2017. The updates went into effect January 1, 2020.

"She has had an incredibly widespread lasting impact on the legal protections for our community," and other parents and guardians, he said.

Thompson said that it was rare that a new executive director came from a larger organization to LSC with experience, but Sakimura did. NCLR has a budget of about $5 million, a spokesperson confirmed, while LSC operates on a budget of about $2.6 million, according to its 2020 IRS Form 990.

"That was definitely a big plus for us," Thompson said. "The work that she's done at NCLR feels very, very relevant."

Sakimura briefly and quietly served as NCLR's interim executive director in 2018 when Kendell began to step back from heading the organization. Kendell took a sabbatical and traveled during her last year at the helm, she and Sakimura confirmed. In 2019, nonprofit veteran Cindy Myers temporarily stepped into the role of leading NCLR.

"I've really grown up as an attorney, in my career, and as a manager at NCLR," said Sakimura, appreciating the space to learn and grow that the nonprofit provided.

Sakimura said that seeing two strong and different executive directors lead an influential organization taught her that being an executive director "isn't necessarily about the specific way that they approach things with their personality."

It's "about using who they are as a person to build everybody up in the organization and to show the world what that organization does," she said, echoing Kendell.

During the last eight years, Sakimura's media profile has ratcheted upward as she became more publicly outspoken in the media about LGBTQ family cases, policies, and issues.

Sakimura said she wasn't planning on leaving NCLR when she became one of four candidates identified by executive search firm Koya Partners for the position at LSC. Working with LSC, the firm whittled down 300 leaders nationwide to 20, then the final four, and then the final two, Thompson said.

Thompson said Sakimura checked all the right boxes for the board, which was looking for a strong leader with fundraising skills who was committed to and experienced working with children and youth rights. She is passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion; is well regarded by her peers, and asked many questions and listened. It didn't hurt that Sakimura was already familiar with LSC, or her brief experience leading NCLR.

"We were happy to be able to unanimously move forward with Cathy," said Thompson, stating that Sakimura was the full package in a strong and competitive candidate pool. "She kind of brings everything that we were looking for in one packet."

"She's going to be an outstanding leader for us," she added, confident that Sakimura has everything the agency needs to move into its future.


NCLR leaders and people who have worked with Sakimura expressed pride and agreed with Thompson.

"She is the type of leader that everyone wants," said NCLR Executive Director Imani Rupert-Gordon, grateful for the last couple of years working with Sakimura. "I'm so excited for what she's going to do in the future.

"She's left a handprint on our heart," the 43-year-old queer Black woman added. "She has really shaped the way that we do work here."

Kendell joked, "I'm mad that she's leaving NCLR," stating that she "envisioned and supported" Sakimura's growth during her tenure at the organization knowing eventually she would lead an organization one day. "It's a huge loss for NCLR but it's also a perfect step for her.

"It's the highest and best practice for any organization to give your valued staff the opportunities necessary to soar even if it means leaving the fold of that original organization," Kendell added.

Rupert-Gordon, who took over at NCLR in March 2020 just as the COVID pandemic led to lockdowns, told the B.A.R. that the agency's values "belong in every organization."

"I want to see our brilliant, amazing folks that were trained at NCLR, out there leading other parts of the movement," she said.

Ready to lead

Sakimura is excited about the next chapter of her career. She described the opportunity as a moment where she feels she can use the skills she's developed at NCLR in a new way to help LSC.

"Legal Services for Children is such an amazing organization that does so much vital work for children and youth in San Francisco and in the Bay Area," she said. "I would really love to see more people learn about the incredible work that they're doing."

The agency works with abused and neglected children, foster kids, unaccompanied immigrant minors, and troubled youth in San Francisco's schools.

The agency takes a holistic approach, balancing legal advocacy and social work by having "an attorney to represent their legal needs, but also a social worker to help them with the underlying issues that lead to those legal needs," Sakimura said. Additionally, it has "focused on helping young people not only achieve what they need in terms of legal representation but to understand how to use their own voice in saying what it is that they want to happen and helping them achieve that," she said.

LSC's work influenced Sakimura's approach to her work at NCLR, and it leads directly to the work she's doing today that she is "really passionate" about, she said.

Speaking about her new role, she said, "I think it's a really beautiful job because it is really about supporting and creating a space for every person to play their own role in the best way that they can and in the way that feels [the] most authentic for them." At the same time, it will be her responsibility to oversee a smooth operation by "fitting the pieces together" and ultimately leading in ways that "serve every person who's in every other role in the organization."

Sakimura described her approach to leadership as collaborative and transparent. She explained that when there is a problem there is always a "why" it could be or couldn't be solved.

"I think that's really what transparency is, the ability to have someone who is listening to you to be involved in the decisions and to understand how things work," she said. "Sometimes a change can't happen, but everybody should understand why that is the case."

Going back to her roots in founding the Family Protection Project at NCLR, which focused on Black, Indigenous people of color, queer, and poor families, Sakimura expressed she will come at LSC's work with a racial, queer, and poverty lens.

True to her leadership style, she is set on getting more former clients, board members, children's advocates, and the community involved at LSC, she said.

Not goodbye

Founded in 1975 and 1977 respectively, LSC and NCLR have a long history of working together on cases advocating for LGBTQ youth and families, said those who spoke with the B.A.R.

Sakimura explained that LSC was one of the first agencies to work on LGBTQ youth projects and had long-term projects with NCLR early on.

"There are lots of ways that the organizations collaborated in the past," said Sakimura. "I would anticipate that that would happen in the future."

Minter also expects NCLR will continue to work with Sakimura in her new role at LSC.

"Losing her for NCLR is going to be very difficult, but I fully expect we'll continue to collaborate with LSC, which we have done for decades now," he said.

LSC is "in amazing hands" with Sakimura at the helm, Gordon-Rupert said.

"I think it's been more clear to her and to us and to everyone just how amazing her leadership is and that perhaps she has more to give," added Gordon-Rupert. "I'm excited to see it."

NCLR will be replacing Sakimura's position in the coming months, but the organization's leaders were unclear about what that would look like, expressing the challenge of replacing her.

Sakimura and Thompson declined to disclose her salary. According to GuideStar, LSC's Trillin earned $113,604 from the organization and an additional estimated $17,250 in other compensation from the organization or other organizations in 2019, based on LSC's 2020 IRS Form 990.

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