Fernando Mercado-Violand ’24 To Advise Governor
First-year student Fernando Mercado-Violand will be shaping public policy even as he starts earning his degree at the University of Virginia School of Law: Gov. Ralph Northam appointed him to the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice on Sept. 17.
Before law school, Mercado-Violand served as deputy White House liaison at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and worked on presidential campaigns for Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton. He also previously served as special assistant and director of Latino outreach in the governor’s office.
He was born in Bolivia and divided his time growing up in La Paz and in Arlington, Virginia. He graduated with a double major in political science and government, and history from UVA.
In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Mercado-Violand discussed his public service career and how seeing lawyers making a difference brought him to law school.
Tell us something about your life before law school.
I was a community organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center in 2015 working on health care enrollment in Northern Virginia. This was before Virginia had expanded Medicaid, so a lot of my job was informing community members about the Medicaid gap, what resources they had if they fell in the gap and how they could share their stories with their legislators. I was also lucky enough to be working in the General Assembly when Medicaid expansion passed, so I felt like I really saw the democratic process at work.
Why law school?
I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer ever since we had a mock trial in social studies in the seventh grade. Through my jobs after college, I saw what lawyers can do and became more interested in pursuing a legal career. While I was at LAJC, I saw one of the lead attorneys accept a client in the lobby of the courthouse, after talking to him for five minutes. The attorney saved him from being evicted two weeks before Christmas. The man didn’t speak English, so when the attorney spoke to him in Spanish, he realized that the landlord had moved too quickly on the eviction notice and was able to buy the client some time to at least make it through the holidays.
This is just one example of the ways lawyers can make such a profound impact on people’s lives, especially those who find themselves on the right side of law but on the wrong side of the social and economic dynamics of our society.
Tell us about your time as deputy White House liaison at the EPA.
The first 100 days of a new presidential administration are incredibly intense, especially during a pandemic, and even more so when there are such drastic changes in policies. I had two main functions in my role. The first was personnel and hiring political appointees by determining the needs of the agency and the White House’s vision for the agency. I conducted interviews and created the system where we tracked the hiring process.
The second part of my job was providing a report to the White House based on the updates from the different program offices. It was truly incredible to see all the work the EPA does day in and day out, much of it going unnoticed but all of it critical to ensuring not only the well-being of our planet but to our own public health.
What are your goals serving on the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice?
This council was created in 2019 by Governor Northam and tasked its members to provide an action-oriented approach to incorporating environmental justice into decision-making. What I hope to bring to the council are innovative ways to facilitate collaboration between federal and state governments. From my time at EPA, I know how important strong relationships with state and local governments are to better implementing environmental policies and sharing resources and information to better serve the public.
Secondly, I hope to bring the mindset of an organizer to the council and help enhance the council’s presence in lower-income communities and communities of color, especially immigrant communities across the commonwealth. The council is best served when it is connected to the communities that are the most at risk and able to communicate directly to the governor to ensure their concerns are heard. There is a need for environmental justice awareness in these communities, as many are in areas that are disproportionately impacted by environmental harms that pose risks to public health.
What’s next for you?
I am still figuring that out, likely private practice out of law school to get some of that experience but in the long term I want to return to working in public service, whether that be in the government at the federal or state level, or at a nonprofit organization. I have a strong interest in environmental law given the critical moment we are in fighting climate change. I also have a strong interest in civil rights and consumer protection. More generally I would like to be a litigator, and in a position where I can cover various issues. Being a U.S. attorney or working at the Department of Justice would be awesome.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.