Dean Hansell: Looking for Justice

by Crystal Shaw on October 18, 2016


In his new job, people address him as “Your Honor.” The description of his old job—“complex litigation”—pretty much stops most of us in our small-talk tracks (“So, uh, is that fun?”). But it turns out that when Judge Dean Hansell talks about how his more than 20 years of social justice activism and civic engagement informs his philanthropy, his perspective is authentically, even stubbornly grassroots. He zeroes in on what individuals experience, on what stands in the way of justice for each person.

For example, Dean Hansell has contributed to Liberty Hill Foundation and enlivened its community in almost every way imaginable, large and smallish.  He has donated first-edition Upton Sinclair books to fundraising auctions (“Upton Sinclair is this wonderful cultural and political legacy in our own backyard and no one knows who he is. He was way ahead of his times.”) On the other hand, he used to be a member of the foundation’s campaign cabinet to help steer entire fundraising campaigns.

His other donor-activist work shows a similar approach. For example, as a co-founder in 1985 of GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), Dean was engaged in tackling broad cultural issues affecting LGBTQ people, and influencing the words and images that gave life to these issues. At the same time, when a friend couldn’t get the wording she wanted on a make-your-own Hallmark greeting card, he pushed the company to update its card machines to include the word “lesbian.” Meanwhile, the GLAAD-LA phone hotline for reporting media defamation was situated in his house.  

That ability to see both big and seemingly small ways to make a change has served him well in his community service roles.

The son of civic-minded parents and grandparents, Dean Hansell served on his first board (of a civil rights organization in rural Tennessee) when he was still a college undergraduate. He has been a Los Angeles Police Commissioner, and an L.A. Fire and Police Pensions Commissioner, and an L.A. City Information Technology Commissioner. He’s also been a supporter of Liberty Hill’s Commissions Training program, which trains community leaders to become advocates within local government structures and readies them to serve on city boards and commissions.

Last year, as Chair of the Working Group set up to define the new Civilian Oversight Commission for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, he was alert to the testimony of members of community organizing groups supported by Liberty Hill.

“The County Board of Supervisors decided to create a Sheriff’s Oversight Commission using a model of the Police Commission (although it’s a loose model). They established a board to help design it. We met for approximately nine months.  We had, all told, I can’t remember how many community meetings—40 or so. We met in each supervisory district and held regular meetings downtown. Each of our meetings was well attended.

“There were a variety of organizations supported by Liberty Hill that were quite active. I thought how they went about it was constructive. They really influenced our thinking. There were 20 people, maybe a bit more, that were literally at almost every one of our meetings. That’s really what you want in our participatory democracy. To be very diligent and attend all the meetings. That’s not easy. But they did and they presented testimony.

“I could see some people growing during the course of it. You had some people that had never done this sort of thing before. It was really nice to watch.”

Those community members gave testimony that influenced the Working Group’s report, which came out with 70 recommendations. “All but three were unanimous, “says Dean. “The Supervisors adopted all of our unanimous recommendations and none of the ones on which we were divided.”

When asked about his approach to philanthropy, Dean describes a split-level strategy that looks at effective institutions but simultaneously looks closely at smaller-group needs as well. “One level,” he says, “is to support or fund organizations that make a difference in what they’re doing and where the kind of money that I can give can make a difference.” Within an organization or sector that’s important to him, he also homes in on “the groups that don’t necessary have enormous cadres to support them.”  

For example, Dean serves on the board of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. The foundation is the fundraising arm of the Los Angeles Public Library, a big system that, he says, “is very effective.”

“We have 73 branches and the main library and they are open all hours. It’s open to everybody. It’s a place where you can get on the internet.” In addition to the broad infrastructure support, Dean set up a fund at the Library Foundation for adult literacy.

“It’s one of the unsexiest issues you can imagine,” he says, “but it’s so important because if you can’t read or write it’s much more difficult to be an effective member of our society. We have a high percentage of adults in L.A. County that cannot read or write.”

He’s taken a similar approach at Los Angeles City College, where he’s also on the board. “I set up a fund there to support nursing,” Dean says. “Why nursing? It’s immensely important. There’s a big shortage. Students there have had to drop out. Sometimes they have the money for school but not for books. It’s either books or rent.”

And he’s been a key supporter of the Liberty Hill Commissions Training Program.

“There are, in L.A. County, tremendous human assets, people with great talent that really reflect L.A.’s diversity. But many of them have never served on a committee of any sort because they’ve never had access. So Liberty Hill gets great credit for first of all planting the seed with people that maybe they can serve on a commission, and then for giving them the tools to become an effective commissioner or advocate.

“It’s a big responsibility,” says Dean. “It’s not enough just to get on a commission. You don’t just want a spot—you want to be effective.”

His role in advising Liberty Hill on commissions? “I’m trying to identify the broad objectives—the 30,000-foot view. And then I’ve gotten involved in different trainings: How do you run a meeting? How do you present testimony?”

Public service, personal philanthropy. The broad scope and the close view. The community and the individual. The state ballot initiative and the greeting card.  Dean Hansell is on the job.


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