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One Stone at a Time
In some ways, Phil Duran’s story is a tale of contrasts and dualities. Although he’s the first Gen-Xer to hold the president’s office for the Minnesota State Bar Association, he’s arguably the least likely Bar officer to embrace new technologies. He’s a lawyer who rarely wears a suit, a strategic planner who disclaims having any life plan, a renowned social advocate who first earned his living as a successful debt collector, and a gay man in a largely straight world.
He’s also a relentless agent for social change who himself eschews change, keeping the same car, home, jobs and even cats for more than a decade. He’s the community hero many have never heard of, a “silent champion” for human rights whose work has impacted families across the country. And he’s got a bottle cap collection stowed somewhere in his basement.
To tie all these loose ends together, you could start with Duran’s current staff positions for two organizations—another duality. But understanding his work for OutFront Minnesota and MAP for Nonprofits really requires a trip back in time, to Duran’s childhood in metropolitan Detroit. Here is where he began his collecting habit, developing one deeply held interest after another as he amassed comic books, model cars, coins, stamps, postmarks, skeleton keys, beer cans, cigarette packs and yes, bottle caps. The collecting impulse merged with a fascination for history when he discovered old maps and intricately lithographed, turn-of-the-century invoices, some of which he has framed for display on the walls of his Minneapolis bungalow. It’s a hobby that Duran has maintained into adulthood and, although he still owns most of his collections, he’s quick to point out how little space they consume: “For publication, I should state that I’m not a hoarder!” he protests if teased about “collecting collections.”
When Duran entered Michigan State University in East Lansing, his life changed. Within weeks he transformed from an introverted kid to a joiner who was involved at all levels of campus life. The difference? “It had to do with coming out,” Duran explains. “It’s not like I didn’t know I was gay before that, but in metro Detroit in the early ’80s, there was no place you were going to talk about that. The connection came through the Lesbian Gay Council (LGC) on campus. I got very involved and ended up running it. That’s where the activist bug got me.”
Paula Brantner, executive director of Workplace Fairness in Washington D.C., remembers meeting Duran in the honors dormitory where they both lived, and eventually joining his efforts to pursue lesbian and gay rights on campus. It was not always an easy path, as one student’s room was burned out and another’s car was tampered with, while death threats were being left on the LGC’s answering machine. “It was a very scary time,” Brantner recalls. “It made me realize, ‘I’m not gay but nobody is going to stop and ask before they bash me.’ It really emphasized that the gay rights issue belongs to all of us.”
Activist & Advocate
In recalling that period, Duran is more likely to discuss the group’s accomplishments than their obstacles. Chief on his list are two institutional changes: Successfully lobbying the university to assign a half-time liaison to the LGC, and getting a diversity seat for the LGC on the Academic Council. Although neither achievement was very flashy, each had a long-reaching effect. In fact, Duran learned recently that a student who held the Academic Council seat 20 years later used it as a platform to amend the university’s diversity statement to include transgender people.
Although Duran says he wasn’t strategizing such outcomes at the time, Brantner is not surprised at the long-lasting impact of his work on campus. “Phil was always one who would figure out what needed to get done and how to do it. He got very well-known as being an effective activist.”
Even so, Duran didn’t immediately translate activism into a career path. First he tried applying his history degree to a teaching career. Student teaching changed his mind and he found himself temporarily adrift until he heard about a job in Grand Rapids, Michigan, through the friend of a friend. Not usually an impulsive person, Duran nevertheless packed up and moved, taking a job with two lawyers who were collecting medical debt from indigent and disabled people. How did the budding social activist justify shaking down the poor for a collection agency?
Duran laughs as he explains the dichotomy of the job he held for seven years. “It was actually very social work-y,” he says. “These people had nothing, and some of them were living under bridges or in very rough conditions. Our job was to find them and, frequently, to get them into the Medicaid system. When everything worked well, this person had their bills paid, they had a card that let them get future coverage, and they had an income from Social Security.”
For Duran, the job was a proving ground. It was where he discovered that not all lawyers are “fancy-pants people who go around in fancy cars,” and where he learned about working with systems and advocating for people who have no one else in their court. In the end, constant exposure to people “falling through the cracks” and to attorneys he admired convinced Duran of his next step: Become a lawyer so he could help others.
Committed & Focused
Duran had barely landed in the Twin Cities, and hadn’t even started at the University of Minnesota Law School, when he began volunteering for OutFront Minnesota, the organization he now serves as legal director. Joni M. Thome, now a founding partner at Baillon Thome Jozwiak & Wanta, LLP, in Minneapolis, was OutFront’s legal director when Duran first arrived in 1997. As she recalls, “He came in with a purpose. It was evident quickly that he wasn’t going to be a flash-in-the-pan volunteer. He was going to join this movement and stay in it.”
Purpose, planning, strategy, and passion. When you ask people about Duran’s work for the state’s largest LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) advocacy organization, those are the words you’ll hear. Duran has helped OutFront orchestrate everything from developing bullying policies for public schools, to last year’s successful effort to oppose a Minnesota constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, to this spring’s legislation to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota. Along the way he has picked up numerous awards
(including the well-respected Brian Coyle Leadership Award for human rights work) and been appointed to high-profile roles such as Governor Dayton’s Task Force on the Prevention of School Bullying and the Minnesota Supreme Court Committee for Equality and Justice.
Monica Meyer, OutFront’s executive director, says Duran’s focus and steady approach, not to mention his extensive expertise, make him the go-to person for difficult assignments at OutFront. “This fall there were some presentations where we knew there would be hecklers [and] all of our staff have to face tough crowds,” she notes. “But when we know it’s going to be difficult, we send Phil. He’s able to very calmly address why we’re pushing for equality in a way that isn’t politically charged. And he uses humor. He’s a very popular speaker.”
While the work demands a lot from Duran, he doesn’t seem to tire of the effort. “I don’t think there’s been any time that he’s lost sight of his passion for human rights and equality,” Thome says. “The business of advocacy for LGBT people is about politics, public policy, system changes, education … all those things coming together to effect the overall change that we need. It doesn’t come quickly. It can be exhausting, but he’s been able to keep his focus and his humor along the way. I can tell you, with no disrespect to my colleagues, that Phil has been the most influential advocate in LGBT equality over the last 15 years.”
Jessi Kingston, currently director for the Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity for the City of St. Paul, worked closely with Duran four years ago when she was new to the Human Rights Commission for the City of Edina. The Minneapolis suburb became the fourth city in Minnesota to pass a domestic partnership ordinance, with Duran advising on everything from federal laws to family membership policies at the city-owned pool. The ordinance has since been used as a model throughout the state and country.
“When I look back and see that we were the fourth Minnesota city and now we have 19 cities in the state with ordinances, and that Phil has worked with most of them—that’s incredible,” Kingston says. “He is a silent champion advancing LGBT rights in the community.”
Pete Gokey, the host of Fresh Fruit, a public affairs program billed as the “longest-running queer radio show in the country” (KFAI 90.3 FM), says Duran has been a “community hero” for years in part because of his exceptionally deep knowledge of laws affecting transgender people. “He’s one of my favorite guests to have on the show because he’s almost savant in this. On a personal level he’s whip-snap funny, with a sense of snark and quick comebacks. But he also has this fluid knowledge of the legal issues and statutes. It’s amazing to watch him work because he does it with such agility.”
Rebecca Waggoner, anti-violence program director for OutFront MN, echoes Gokey’s assessment when she says, “Phil is one of the most gifted attorneys I know. He has literally changed the law when it comes to transgender issues.” As an example, she cites revisions to processes required by the state when transgender people change their public records. Even such small victories can impact attitudes in the community toward transgender people, Waggoner says. “We deal with a lot of street violence for trans folks. He has taught me that while I work with clients one to one, very often their cases can transform systems.”
As much as she appreciates Duran’s legal expertise and passion for human rights, Waggoner is equally impressed by his strategic vision. “Six years ago he told me ‘We’re going to tackle jury discrimination,’ she recalls. “I said, ‘that’s not doable.’ But sure enough, this year in the legislature, the laws around jury discrimination and sexual orientation changed. That’s just one example of how he loves to craft a good plan.”
Phil Duran, the community hero and silent champion who can change laws and transform systems … if you’re picturing a superhero’s cape as part of this attorney’s daily attire, you might be closer to the truth than if you imagined pinstripes and shiny shoes. He achieves his stellar goals mostly without benefit of a suit and tie. Nor does he rely much on computers, having only recently dumped his 1997 PC and adopted an iPad—a hand-me-down from a friend. Even so, it would be a mistake to apply a “do-gooder” stereotype to Duran without recognizing his business acumen. Like most superheroes, Duran has an alter ego: the tax-savvy business advisor he plays at MAP for Nonprofits where he helps clients start new nonprofit organizations.
According to his boss at MAP, Director of Legal Services Charley Ravine, Duran’s job is to “provide the business perspective to people who are more mission-driven than they are business-oriented.” In that role, he guides a group through everything from writing bylaws to navigating IRS regulations. It’s a part-time position Duran took when OutFront’s finances forced reductions in staff hours, and one that he has kept for the balance it provides.
“The work at OutFront is what put me on the radar for the State Bar a few years ago as someone who might be an officer,” he notes. “But now that I’ve been an officer it’s the experience from MAP that I find myself using more. So one of my jobs got me to this role, and the other shapes my approach.”
One Stone at a Time
Duran has identified four goals for his agenda as president of the State Bar: To continue the work of previous presidents in formalizing MSBA’s support of the judiciary, to reorganize and bring greater coherence to the Bar Association’s offerings of programs overall, to identify necessary changes needed to remain relevant to the next generation of members, and to cultivate MSBA as a place for attorneys to recapture the advocacy spirit that brought them into the profession.
Of the four goals, Duran has a special place in his heart for the last. “What got me involved with law school and the Bar Association was the idea of being an advocate and changing the world,” he says. “I think that’s true of a lot of attorneys. But if you have bills to pay you may end up taking a job that pays well, but which does not feed the soul. I want the Bar Association to be the place where you find that mission, that higher purpose, again. You can be part of a section where you can educate people, change a law, push an issue. You can have an impact through the Bar Association.”
If Duran sounds a bit evangelistic in his call to action for the MSBA, it may be because of his practice standing in front of the congregation at First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis where he has attended and given occasional talks since 2001. Reverend Wendy Jerome, the church’s summer minister, calls Duran “the Amazing Phil” because of his energy and volunteer leadership. “He’s wonderful at leading committees, brainstorming, thanking people—he’s just a constant positive element. He’s one of the people you could stand to be on a desert island with.”
Luckily for Duran, landing on that desert island would not disrupt his life plans—mainly because he swears not to have any. “Most of my life has been made up on the fly,” he says. “I just stick with choices that I feel will improve
The coming year is bound to bring more choices than usual, with Duran balancing his two part-time jobs, multiple volunteer commitments, and the presidency of the Minnesota State Bar Association. Even so, he’s as calm as ever, guided by an adage that he sometimes uses for a mantra: ‘Those who would move mountains would begin by moving small stones.’ As Duran says, “I can’t imagine a life where I’m not moving stones in some context. I’m going to move as many small stones as I can. And if everyone moves some small stones, the mountain will move. We’re all doing our part.”
Ten Things You Didn’t Know
(About Phil Duran)
- He has written in a journal regularly for nearly 30 years.
- To honor his low-carb diet, his boss at OutFront puts a candle in a piece of beef jerky on Phil’s birthday.
- He owns a 120-year-old blank book—and wonders whether he should write in it.
- He’s planning a trip to Sarajevo next year to mark an historic occasion.
- An avid map collector, he still regrets not buying a $200 atlas in high school that would be worth thousands now.
- He is surprised to have bought a 1948 house—because it’s not very old.
- He has owned the same TV for a decade but has never watched broadcast television on it.
- Last year he joined the advisory committee of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Minnesota.
- He has to hold himself back from volunteering for more organizations.
- He chooses these five words to describe himself: committed, pragmatic, idealistic, happy, grateful.
Amy Lindgren is founder and president of Prototype Career Service, offering career counseling and job search strategies for individuals in transition. An accomplished writer, she writes a weekly employment column which appears in newspapers nationally and has profiled a number of incoming MSBA presidents for Bench & Bar.