Written by Jan Jaben-Eilon Saturday, May 22 2010
Snapshot: Debra L. Ness
Debra L. Ness is president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Partnership for Women & Families. For more than two decades, Ness has been an ardent advocate for the principles of fairness and social justice. Drawing on an extensive background in health and public policy, she possesses a unique understanding of the issues that face women and families at home, in the workplace, and in the health care arena. Before assuming her current role as president, she served as executive vice president of the National Partnership for 13 years. She joined the organization in 1991.
Ness serves on the boards of some of the nation’s most influential organizations, working to improve health care, as well as on the executive committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the board of directors of the Economic Policy Institute, and Emily’s List. A graduate of Drew University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology, she received her Master of Science from Columbia University School of Social Work. Ness and her husband, Sydney Martin, live near her stepdaughter, her husband, and their son, in Rockville, Md.
Womenetics: Looking at your background, it seems that your degree should have perhaps been in community organizing? Would you say that’s been the heart of your career?
Debra Ness: The National Partnership for Women & Families is dedicated to the kinds of policy and societal changes that this country’s women and families urgently need. To generate that kind of change, we educate, organize, and work to advance new public policies, alter business and government practices, and change our nation’s culture. So yes, public education, outreach to policy makers, coalition building, and organizing are at the heart of our work.
Womenetics: The goal of your organization sounds amazingly broad. How do you decide how to focus your activities?
Ness: We focus our activities on the issues that will bring the changes women and families most urgently need. Our goals have evolved over these last four decades, of course. Right now, our focus is on helping workers meet the dual demands of job and family, promoting fairness and ending discrimination in the workplace and throughout society, and making quality, affordable health care available to everyone.
Womenetics: The National Partnership for Women & Families has played a critical role in many instances of landmark legislation and our country’s progress toward equality in the workplace. Why doesn’t the organization have a higher profile?
Ness: We are well-known as the organization that wrote and led the fight to enact the Family and Medical Leave Act, which has allowed tens of millions of people to take job-protected, unpaid leave to recover from illness, care for a sick family member, or a baby. Today we’re fighting to win paid family and medical leave and paid sick days for all workers. We also were instrumental in passing laws to outlaw pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment. We’ve helped shape appointments to our federal courts and protect women’s right to choose. We fought for many of the women’s and consumer protections in the new health reform law, and now, as it’s implemented, we’re working tirelessly to ensure that it gives older Americans with multiple health problems and their family caregivers the comprehensive, coordinated care they need and deserve.
Our work is multifaceted, and so is our public profile. We have a public presence on a range of issues. While much of our work is in the public arena, a lot of it also is behind the scenes, building coalitions and influencing policymakers who see us as a source of reliable expertise on issues that matter to women and families. Our leaders sit on numerous committees and boards that guide policymaking on health care, work/family policy, and anti-discrimination measures. We regularly testify before Congress and are widely respected for our ability to build broad-based, effective coalitions.
Womenetics: Now that health care reform has passed, what is your organization’s next target?
Ness: Health care reform is law but, despite that huge accomplishment, a lot of hard work lies ahead. Implementation is critical to ensuring that we realize the promise of reform. That’s why the National Partnership has launched the Campaign for Better Care, with our partners, Community Catalyst and the National Health Law Project. Its goal is to ensure that reform is implemented in ways that will give people the comprehensive, coordinated health care they need – especially older adults and individuals with multiple chronic conditions, who tend to be the sickest and most vulnerable and who often fare badly in our health care system. The Campaign for Better Care aims to reduce the poor coordination and communication between doctors that too often result in avoidable medical errors, bad drug interactions, duplication of tests, conflicting instructions, patient confusion, and other problems. We aim to give everyone better, more coordinated care.
Womenetics: In what area(s) do you feel like your organization didn’t achieve its goals for the last decade?
Ness: There is much more work to do. We haven’t yet changed our culture to recognize the tremendous care-giving responsibilities for children and older family members that women manage, even as they earn wages their families rely on. We haven’t won paid family and medical leave or given every worker the right to earn paid sick days, eradicated discrimination, closed the wage gap, secured a woman’s right to choose, or appointed judges and justices who are committed to equal rights and our right to privacy.
Despite passage of health reform, there is much more work to do to ensure that it is implemented in ways that give every person comprehensive, coordinated care.
Womenetics: How did your childhood upbringing direct you to this kind of career?
Ness: I am from a working class family and grew up in New Jersey. Both my parents worked hard when I was growing up. I certainly saw the value of hard work, and I have always had a deep commitment to social justice and equal rights. My background is in labor organizing and women’s rights.
Womenetics: Is your job 24/7 – or do you have time to enjoy life as well?
Ness: My husband and I both work very hard, and holding this kind of job in Washington, D.C., certainly comes with a lot of hours, especially in this age of electronic communications when our PDAs are always with us. But I also enjoy time with my family, which includes hiking, several weeks of vacation each year, and time with my stepdaughter and her husband, who have a young son and are expecting another baby. Family time is very important for me.
Womenetics: In the areas that you focus on, such as fairness in society and the workplace and health care for all, how do you compare our society with those in Europe and especially Scandinavia?
Ness: I am not an expert on policies in Europe or Scandinavia, but I know that they have much more generous, compassionate, and humane public policies regarding paid family leave, paid sick days, and similar issues. There’s a wealth of information that compares public policies in the United States to those of other countries around the world at www.RaisingTheGlobalFloor.org. That information was collected by highly regarded researcher Jody Heymann, of Harvard and McGill universities.
Jan Jaben-Eilon was a founding staff writer of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Since then, she has been the international editor of Advertising Age magazine and has written for such publications as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Journalism Review, and Consumer Reports. She is the author of soon-to-be-published (There is) Life After Cancer. Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.