Proud Slugs making a difference through public service

A Superior Court judge. The director of the public art program for Los Angeles. A defense attorney. They all believe in public service, and they all say their time at UC Santa Cruz changed their lives in permanent ways

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Kelvin D. Filer (Stevenson ’77, politics), a Superior Court judge in the Southern California city of Compton
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Felicia Filer (Stevenson '79, economics), director of the public art division for the Department of Cultural Affairs for the City of Los Angeles
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Kree Filer (Oakes ’12, feminist studies with a concentration on law, politics, and social justice) opened The Filer Law Office in Long Beach.

One is a Superior Court judge. The other runs the public art program for the City of Los Angeles. Still another is a defense attorney who recently opened her own practice. 

Yet they have a lot in common. 

For one thing, they share a last name: Filer. For another, they all believe in public service: Each graduated from UC Santa Cruz, and all said their time on the wooded campus changed their lives in permanent ways.

Meet Kelvin (judge), Felicia (public art administrator), and Kree (lawyer), three members of a respected Los Angeles–area family and all proud Slugs.

Their story actually starts with Kelvin’s father, Maxcy Filer, who left rural Arkansas and landed in Compton in the 1950s with a wife and seven kids. He worked as a milkman, a factory laborer, and a parking lot attendant, but he dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Kelvin Filer remembered how, when he was 9, his father enrolled in law school. 

“My parents were very involved in the civil rights movement,” said Kelvin Filer (Stevenson ’77, politics). “My father was on the Compton City Council, started the Compton branch of the NAACP, and carried the California flag during [Martin Luther King Jr.’s] March on Washington. But he also holds the record for taking the California Bar exam.”

Maxcy Filer took the test 48 times before he passed. From 1967 to 1991.

'Whatever it is you want to do, you can do it'

His father’s passion for justice, and Kelvin Filer’s growing suspicion as a boy that the attorneys he met were important people, inspired him to become a lawyer himself. He was accepted to UC Berkeley’s School of Law after UC Santa Cruz and, unlike his father, he passed the Bar on his first try. 

Kelvin Filer could have had his pick of high-powered law firms. Instead, he returned as a defense attorney to his hometown of Compton, a working-class city where approximately 26 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. There, he purchased a building to house his office, the same building where the former owner of a bar and restaurant had once refused to serve Kelvin Filer’s father because he was Black, he said. 

Now one of 66 African American judges in Los Angeles County, which counts 588 jurists, Kelvin Filer’s roots are firmly planted in Compton.  

Each year, he said, judges are asked to list the top three courthouses where they might like to work. Kelvin Filer always answers: 1) Compton, 2) Compton, 3) Compton.

Speaking from his ninth-floor chambers at the Compton courthouse where he can see all the schools he attended along with the roof of his mother’s house, Kelvin Filer said: “This is the best way I can show the Compton community that whatever it is you want to do, you can do it,” he said. 

As for UC Santa Cruz, Kelvin Filer said it changed him by exposing him to different cultures, religions, and sexual orientations. 

“I realized we were all humans and we all cared about education and wanting to change the world and to help people," he said. "It is a very liberal institution, and that touched me.”

It’s also where he met his former wife, Felicia Filer. 

According to Felicia Filer, there were only eight Black students at Stevenson College when she attended the university, and they all hung out together. She and Kelvin were friends at first, then became romantically involved when he was in his last year of law school. Kelvin Filer remembers it slightly differently, however. 

“When I first saw her [at Stevenson], I said, ‘There goes my wife,’” he recounted.

Drawn into art

After graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 1979 with a degree in economics, Felicia Filer went to work in the financial services world, landing jobs with Charles Schwab and the former Paine Webber in San Francisco. Eventually, she got her broker’s license and developed her own list of clients. Later, she earned an MBA and began working in the financial research field. After all those years of dealing with money, however, something shifted inside Felicia Filer after the birth of her second child. 

“I wanted to work with people who were creative,” she said, “people creating something instead of people consuming something.” 

She’d taken theater technology courses at UC Santa Cruz and studied dance on her own, so she looked to the art world. With her prodigious financial skills, she quickly landed a job with a Los Angeles management firm that worked with nonprofit art organizations. Soon, however, she was lured away to work at the Department of Cultural Affairs for the City of Los Angeles, where she is now director of the public art division.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Felicia Filer said. “I thought I would come to the city and stay five years and move on, but that didn’t happen.”

Today, Felicia Filer is responsible for commissioning more than 250 works of art scattered across the sprawling city of Los Angeles. 

There is art at every police station, every fire station, every library, and park in the city, she said. Walk through the international terminal at LAX and you’ll see three large works that are there because of the work of Felicia Filer and her division. There also are scores of murals in neighborhoods.

In addition, she works with legislative bodies to craft ordinance and policies. 

UC Santa Cruz changed her too, creating what she called “a deconstruction and reconstruction,” a crucial component of the college experience, she said.  

“When I came to Santa Cruz, I started riding my bike around campus and downtown. I learned to hike in Henry Cowell [State Park] and in the redwood forest," she said. "I went to Yosemite and Big Sur. I joined a cooking co-op, and we managed a garden. I started going to farmer’s markets and was introduced to vegetarianism. 

“Today, all of those things are prevalent in my life. I have a vegetable garden. I ride my bike to the farmer's market, and I am an avid hiker. For kids from urban centers, we come with an edge, and if you just learn to soften the edge and let down your guard, the magic of Santa Cruz starts to work on you. Those experiences [at UC Santa Cruz] have completely and profoundly shaped who I am and how I live my life today.”

Representation matters

It was an experience not unlike the one her daughter, Kree Filer (Oakes ’12, feminist studies with a concentration on law, politics, and social justice) had. Not only did the campus steer her toward a career in law, but also the campus culture of environmental stewardship turned her more toward nature, to the importance of buying locally grown food and supporting local businesses, she said. 

It also weaned her of her LA driving habit. She joked that she surprised her parents by announcing, “I walk now.”

Most importantly, perhaps, UC Santa Cruz also influenced her decision to become a defense attorney. 

According to Kree Filer, despite the plethora of attorneys in her family (there are five), she didn’t want to be a lawyer when she came to Santa Cruz. 

“Then I began learning about the prison industrial complex and reading about the stigmas that individuals who have been incarcerated face when they are released from prison, and I began to think about the law from a more academic and feminist perspective,” she said. 

“I remember thinking: I want to fight for those who don’t have access to the legal system. I want people to understand how the law works and who it protects and who it leaves out, and I want to work in that system for the people who might not have representation.”

After passing the Bar, she worked for her cousin’s law firm, then got a position as a staff attorney for the nonprofit legal agency, The Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers. But it was her desire to start her own business and also represent those who, because of their financial status or the color of their skin were often swept into an unjust system, that prompted her to open her own office, The Filer Law Office in Long Beach.

“I hope, ultimately, by the end of my career, when I look back, I will have made a difference,” Kree Filer said, “but right now I look at the small things I can do. Part of it is that representation matters. Brown and Black people are disproportionally prosecuted. To be a Black woman and represent those individuals … in a system that does not always fare well for people who look like me, that’s something I can do.”

Which is why she also decided to make her own statement, just as her parents and grandfather had done. 

While Black professional women are often pressured to straighten their locks, Kree Filer said, she plans to wear her natural hair on the job. 

“That is something I do very intentionally, particularly when I have a big hearing,” she said. “I make it a point to wear my hair out. I want to break down the stigma of what a professional Black woman looks like.”