Sister Simone Campbell receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Biden

Sister Simone Campbell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in July. (Courtesy)

In Search of Fairness

by | May 9, 2023 | Alumni Achievers, Spring/Summer 2023

Sister Simone Campbell, J.D. ’77, jokes that she belongs to a community of troublemakers, referring to the religious community she joined when she was just 19 — the Sisters of Social Service. Her brand of “trouble” has led to a long string of successes as a religious leader, attorney, author and tireless advocate for racial and economic justice. Last July, she was recognized with the 2022 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for her decades-long advocacy for justice. 

“I’ve never liked unfairness. I’ve never liked a power imbalance,” she said. “From a young age, I just had this idea that you had to act. You had to step in and fix things.”

Her pursuit of a law degree was rooted in this desire to make a difference. During one of her early experiences with the Sisters of Social Service, she remembered giving testimony about proposed tenants’ rights legislation at the Oregon state Capitol in Salem. When one of the legislators asked her about a particular covenant, she didn’t know how to answer. “I went back to Portland and said, ‘I have to go to law school.’” A law background would provide the necessary tools to deal with legislation.

Sister Simone Campbell on stage with Chancellor Gary S. May

Sister Simone Campbell appeared at UC Davis with Chancellor Gary S. May in February. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

She said she was attracted to the UC Davis School of Law because of its commitment to civil rights and poverty law, and because it offered clinics at the State Capitol. Shortly after graduating, she founded the Oakland Community Law Center, which provided legal services on a sliding-fee scale. More recently, she spent 17 years as executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic organization promoting social justice in public policy. Here, she focused on using tax law to benefit those who are most often left out, and lobbied on all kinds of economic justice issues, including health care, immigration reform and tax policies. Notably, her work was credited in helping to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010. “It’s about caring for those who are most often left out. How can I, who’ve been so gifted and blessed, not seek to include all?”

In 2012, Campbell and the leadership at NETWORK, found themselves at the center of controversy when the Vatican issued a reprimand to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Included in the censure, the Catholic nuns and lay staff at NETWORK were criticized for being too progressive. “Criticism hurts when there’s a truth in it, but they had no more truth than the man in the moon. We weren’t going to be pressured by the hierarchy to say what wasn’t true.”

As it turns out, that reprimand served as an organizing force. Campbell scheduled a meeting and within weeks, Nuns on the Bus was formed and ready to debut with a road trip to oppose then House-approved federal budget that slashed funding for safety-net programs. “Someone said I had to go in a wrapped bus. I was afraid it was rap music. That was the beginning of Nuns on the Bus. It was supposed to be a joke name.”

Campbell is now leading a new effort called “Understanding US” focused on political healing. She has received numerous awards including the Defender of Democracy Award from the Parliamentarians for Global Action and is the author of two books, A Nun on the Bus (HarperOne, 2014) and Hunger for Hope (Orbis Books, 2020).

Her advice for others who want to create change? “Listen with the ear of your heart and respond accordingly. Be engaged, step in and do it in community with others.”