March 08, 2018

Kalpana Kotagal tried to stay awake for the Academy Awards, but she didn’t make it.

The mother of two had to be up early on Monday morning to volunteer in her child’s kindergarten class. So she was sound asleep by the time her passion, her life’s work, the thing she fights for day after day became the buzz of the nation.

Two words uttered by Frances McDormand as she picked up her best actress Oscar: Inclusion rider.

Kotagal, the 40-year-old Washington lawyer who actually wrote the contract stipulation McDormand made instantly famous, had no idea she made national news.

“I woke up and when I picked up my phone, it had all these messages,” she said.

Interviews with reporters from all over the world filled her day (after the gig in kindergarten, of course).

The term “inclusion rider” shot to the top of Google’s most-searched list. It trended on Twitter. An “Inclusion Rider” T-shirt starring McDormand as Rosie the Riveter was being sold online.

And that’s all totally bizarre for Kotagal. Because the battle for inclusion, equity and diversity has been her mission for years as a civil rights attorney. Except most of the people she fights for don’t wear ballgowns and diamonds, and they definitely don’t have T-shirts made for them. They are banana pickers, chicken pluckers, hourly wage workers, disabled postal carriers, nurses.

“Those are the folks on whose behalf I litigate every day,” Kotagal said. “In those workplaces where things have gone so profoundly wrong, those are the folks on whose behalf we advocate.”

. . .

At her firm, Cohen Milstein, she pursues cases designed to right injustice.

As for the inclusion rider, she didn’t go looking for Hollywood. It was her colleague, Anita Hill — yes, that Anita Hill — who introduced her to Stacy L. Smith, the University of Southern California professor who has been challenging Hollywood’s oligarchy through her research.

Smith believes Hollywood’s biggest stars have the power to change the movie industry’s white-majority face by stipulating inclusion in the cast and the behind-the-scenes crew.

Kotagal instantly saw the lawyerly brilliance of the plan.

“One of the things that’s different about Hollywood and why we think the inclusion rider is a valuable tool is that everything is done on a project-by-project basis there,” she explained.

The complete interview can be accessed here.