Ethan Felder ’09 isn’t shy about standing up for what he believes in – even if that means literally standing up in front of a crowd of 1,000 people at a Queens neighborhood rally.
Felder, a union labor lawyer in New York City, visited campus in November to talk about his work and his pro bono cases, including a recent voting rights case he won in Queens.
Much of that activist mindset started at Cornell.
After taking several classes with prominent professors like Isaac Kramnick and Ross Brann, Ethan decided to major in government and found his way to a Cornell Democrats meeting.
“I remember thinking it seemed like a good way to connect the coursework to the present and what was going on,” Felder said. “There was a lot of politics in the air all of the time.”
The candidacy of Barack Obama made campus a hopeful place for students, Felder said, and prominent speakers like Shimon Peres and other international statesmen prompted him to study issues in depth. Felder became president of the Cornell Democrats his senior year and editor of the Cornell Progressive.
After graduation, Felder earned a law/MBA degree from Washington University in St. Louis and worked in finance on Wall Street for two years before a volunteer experience helped him discover he wanted to spend his time as an advocate.
“I started volunteering nights at a worker center that serves undocumented migrant workers, Make the Road New York, while I was still working on Wall Street,” he said. “I saw quickly that there was a certain passion this brought out and it made me see that this is what I should be doing full time.”
He secured a position with a union labor law firm in Albany, New York, and later a Manhattan labor law firm. He handles contract grievances, unfair labor practices cases, disability hearings, federal litigations and other matters in the city and across the metropolitan area.
And on his own time, he continues to speak out on issues of health care, immigrants’ rights and racial injustice – activism that has increased exponentially since the 2016 presidential election, especially after he co-founded a group called the Queens Coalition for Solidarity.
“I’ve been lead organizer of a half dozen rallies,” Felder said.
Inspiring people to take action at rallies, even if frank talk about issues like racial injustice and voting rights causes discomfort to those in the political establishment, is worth it, he said. “Despite the ruffling of feathers, there’s a lot of positive in seeing people come together.
“The leadership position I was afforded as co-editor of the Cornell Progressive and president of the Cornell Democrats helped me,” he said. “I was getting people to feel like they were a part of something and had a common cause, and motivating people to work when there were a whole lot of other things they could be doing.”
His pro bono work includes the recent voting rights case in which Felder and another attorney filed suit to stop election officials from moving a polling site serving 6,000 voters that had been in place for 50 years in LeFrak City, Queens.
“It was the most hotly contested city council primary in that district and the most highly concentrated African-American vote in Queens,” he said. And although the suit was unsuccessful before the September primary, the poll site was restored for the fall general election. “This is the classic voter suppression tactic – a poll site change – and it’s done throughout the country.”
Felder admits that while fighting an entrenched political machine in Queens could be hazardous, he remains undeterred.
“There was one meeting at a coffee shop with an operative connected to the political establishment and the setting was certainly designed to be more than a little intimidating,” he said. “But when you walk out of the coffee shop, you’re still going to be doing what you’re doing.
“There may be some idealistic naiveté involved here, but that goes a long way.”
Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.