Photo by Rebecca D’Angelo Design by Doug Dobey
by Charles McGugian
It was as clear a voice as Valerie Slater had ever heard, sharp as cut crystals, and the words resounded in her skull and they rolled down into her gut. On Thursday nights she would gather with three other women in her home where they would sing and rap and worship. A question had been nagging at her for some time. “What do I do with my life now? I can’t be this stay-at-home mom because I’ve got children to raise.” She’d asked the question of God, but there had been no response. That is until this particular Thursday night when she clearly heard the following words: “I have anointed and appointed you to snatch my young people out of the hands of the criminal justice system and place them into my just hands.” Valerie wrote the words down, memorized them, and began a quest that would lead her into a life committed to activism and advocacy, always defending the rights of the least of her brethren and sistern.
“When I think back on that night, I’m not even sure that I knew that those words were my heart’s cry,” says Valerie Slater, who sits at the far end of a table. “What I realized is that’s what my soul was pouring out, what God was telling me.” She pauses, and looks out the window at the spears of lush pink flowers just burst open on a crepe myrtle. “Every time I hear about a child who is hurting, my heart breaks because I know what that’s like,” Valerie says, inviting me to become unstuck in time and travel back to her childhood.
She was born in Newport News, Virginia. Her father, a lifer, who served as a helicopter pilot and mechanic during the Korean and Vietnam wars, was, at the time of her birth, stationed at Fort Eustis. When Valerie was less than a year old, the family moved to her father’s next tour of duty. Over the years, they would live in Alabama, Texas, Germany, Panama and Georgia. While on base, Valerie and her siblings were cushioned from the overt racism that raged outside the gates of American military reservations.
“When you are on base it’s very integrated,” says Valerie. “But when you are out interacting with the locals in the cities and towns, you start feeling and experiencing things that are incredibly foreign, even though we are still in the same country, America.”
After retiring from a twenty-plus year military career, Valerie’s father moved the family to Spanaway Washington, a suburb just outside of Tacoma. “It wasn’t at all integrated.” Says Valerie. “And I remember crying, thinking my identity is being shaken and civilians don’t really like black people. I didn’t want to lose the protections of the military.”
Valerie recalls how her parents would constantly warn their six children about the inherent dangers of a racist society. “If we got a spanking, and my parents were all about that switch, they would tell us, ‘We use this switch so that you’re not beaten with a billy club by a police officer,’” Valerie says. “’Don’t you forget that the color of your skin will often determine the outcome of any interaction that you have with law enforcement. Don’t be deceived to think that right and wrong is always going to save you just because you are on the side of right. There are times that your skin color will speak so much louder than your actions.’”
When she was just seventeen, Valerie met the man who would become father of her three children, two of whom lived. Not long after giving birth to her eldest daughter, Antoinette, Valerie became pregnant again. Her baby was due on Halloween, but on October 3 the placenta that held her unborn daughter broke away from the wall of her womb. The unborn child bled to death almost immediately.
Valerie inhales deeply, and a sob escapes her lips. “I woke up three days later and I was asking for my baby,” she says. “They let me hold her. They held her in the morgue for three days.”
Three years later, Valerie was pregnant again. She was three months from term when she had another placental abruption. Because there were no anesthesiologists at the hospital, they performed a Caesarian without the benefit of anesthesia. “I screamed a lot,” says Valerie. “And my little girl was born dead.” But the doctors and the nurses were able to revive the premature child. “Her medical records actually say: ‘death under 48 hours, Yes; death under 48 hours, No’” Valerie tells me. “They’re unsure how long she went without oxygen on her brain, so she has an intellectual disability. My sweet girl. My Annalise. She’s a beautiful and amazing young woman now. Right now she volunteers with me and her sister sometimes, and she wants to work with animals.”
Sometime later, Valerie would leave her children’s father, taking her two daughters with her. At about that time, she began developing a personal relationship with her God. “God literally became my best friend,” she says. “I think I grew a backbone because I had something that was truly mine, my faith, and I truly began becoming this independent woman.”
And then came that Thursday night when God spoke directly to Valerie.
“I knew I had to do something,” Valerie says. “So I went to Tacoma Community College because I had to start somewhere.” She aced every class and earned an associate’s degree in youth psychology, and was then accepted into the psychology program at Colorado State University. But she ended up changing her major to social science with a minor in criminal justice. Her vision for her future was becoming clearer.
Even before earning her bachelor’s of science degree in sociology from Colorado, Valerie was further refining her vision for the future. “Before I got done, I was already looking for a law school,” she says. “I realized I can be the best sociologist or counsellor, but ultimately law is where the power is. I found U of R, which has this amazing juvenile law clinic program, and I said to myself, ‘Oh my gosh that’s where I want to go.’”
She applied and was accepted, and her eyes widened, free of motes or beams. “I took the Education Rights Clinic under Adrienne Volenik, the most amazing special education attorney in our nation,” Valerie says with rising enthusiasm in her voice. Her future course became clearer and clearer. “I’m an advocate at my core, so I immediately went to bat for these children,” she says. “I would read up on whatever their diagnoses were, and the issues these parents and children were facing in school, and what does the law say about it.”
Valerie pored over “Wrightslaw” by Peter W.D. Wright, memorized its contents as if it were a Bible. “I devoured it,” she says of this book devoted to special education law, and advocacy for children with disabilities.
Advocating for children was nothing new to Valerie. “I’ve always been an advocate for my own daughter,” she says. “She will be a perpetual pre-teen with adolescent tendencies. I have a little girl forever. How amazing is that? I’m so fortunate. I’m so blessed. I’m a fierce advocate for my children.”
When her oldest daughter, Antoinette, was attending kindergarten at a private school, she told Valerie one afternoon that she was told to sit on the floor because she had misbehaved.
“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Valerie told her daughter. “Help mommy understand. You were sitting on the floor, and everyone else was sitting at their desk?
Antoinette nodded and said, “Well we have chairs, and they scoot up to the table.”
“But you were sitting on the floor?” Valerie said.
Again, Antoinette nodded, and said, “Yes, momma.”
“Well, mommy’s going to go to school with you tomorrow.”
The next morning she loaded her daughter and a small blue chair into the family car. As her daughter took her seat in the classroom, Valerie approached the teacher’s desk and lowered the small blue chair to the floor.
“I need you to help me understand what my daughter did that made you think it was ever appropriate to sit her on the floor, as if the black child is in some way inferior to the other children in the classroom,” she told the teacher. “Surely, you don’t think that. Do you think that? Do you think black children are somehow inferior?”
The teacher was taken aback, and remained speechless.
“What I need you to understand is that this chair here belongs to my daughter,” Valerie continued, indicating the small blue chair at her feet. “If you ever feel that she cannot sit in your chair, you will not put my child on the floor. She will sit in her own chair. If you feel that chair needs to be in the corner for some period of time because of her behavior, I might be able to tolerate that. But don’t you ever put my child on the floor, again, as if somehow she is beneath other children.”
Valerie is smiling now. “That woman didn’t know what to do with me,” she says. “But I’ll tell you one thing, she never sat my child on the floor again. I’m a bear when it comes to my children. I’m a bear when it comes to all children.”
While still in law school, Valerie interned at the Virginia Poverty Law Center and then at the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, where she sharpened skills as both an advocate and a litigator.
After receiving her law degree, Valerie continued interning, but funds were rapidly running out. “We were almost homeless,” she says. And then she got a call from disAbility Law Center of Virginia. “Professor Volenik spoke with their executive director and said, ‘You’ve got to hire Valerie Slater,” Valerie tells me.
Valerie went through a succession of interviews and was ultimately offered the job. She met with the executive director. “So you’ve impressed my staff, and you have a stellar recommendation from Adrienne Volenik, the premier special education advocate,” this woman told Valerie. “Why does she love you so?”
“I don’t know why she loves me, but I love her back,” Valerie responded. “What I can tell you is, I’m passionate about the rights of children and I will defend them with every fiber of my being.”
Valerie worked with the Law Center for the next four years, and while there co-authored the Special Education Manual that DLCV uses to do their training to help advocates become more proficient.
Valerie then went to work with the Legal Aid Justice Center and joined the JustChildren team, which works for children’s advocacy. “I was one of the juvenile justice attorneys and I became the coordinator of RISE For Youth,” she says.
Less than a year ago, RISE For Youth became an independent entity, and Valerie became its first executive director.
“We assess the state’s juvenile justice system,” she explains. “We advocated for the closing of Beaumont, and it finally closed. We don’t like the idea of a child being behind bars. You shouldn’t cage children. We just shouldn’t put kids in cages. What a concept, right?”
Children should not be warehoused in large penal institutions. RISE For Youth advocates for smaller facilities with a multitude of services offered. “It ought to be homelike, and it ought to be filled with counselors who have the resilience and the strength to deal with whatever comes their way,” says Valerie. “The counselors should know every child. And there should be no more than thirty children housed there.”
It’s an uphill battle to reform these entrenched institutions, but inroads have been made, and Valerie’s up for the fight. “We will win,” she says.
And what will help them win these battles are weapons that we all possess, weapons that neither maim nor murder, weapons that destroy the evils of racism and injustice. They are weapons of advocacy, lending your expertise to combat the depravity of a corrupt system of justice.
“Advocacy is important because each and every one of us at some point in our lives have found ourselves struggling with something,” she says. “Advocacy is important because not everyone is able to do it on their own. And if you have the strength, the knowledge, the influence, use every bit of it to make sure that everyone makes it. Because we don’t make it, until we all make it.”
Regardless what Ayn Rand devotees may think, there is no virtue at all in selfishness. ‘’We cannot have this me, my, mine mentality because it gets us where we are today, where hate is the commodity of the hour,” Valerie says. “How sad is that? How sad is it when we are so quick to push others aside so that we can quickly get to the finish line. We’re at a place now where there are entire communities—Latinx communities, LGBTQ communities, African-American communities—that are hurting. And how dare we turn a blind eye.”
Everyone can join this fight for justice and equality, according to Valerie Slater, ESQ. “Take stock and inventory of yourself,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘What is it that I have?’ Because everyone has something. And now how can you take that thing that you have and use it so that it brings about a greater good, a good beyond you. We will win.”