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Released on May 14, 2024
CSULAA Alumni of The Year Recipient Profile: Awatef Assad ’95
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Cleveland State University Law Alumni Association Alumni of the Year recipient Awatef Assad ’95 is an active proponent of equity, inclusion and diversity in the legal profession.  Awatef’s journey to her current position as Cuyahoga County Deputy Director for Risk Management is one that went against the odds.  She is the first woman to become an attorney from her hometown of Beit Hanina, a Palestinian town in East Jerusalem, and she wants to see opportunities expand for future generations.

Awatef immigrated to the United States at three years old when her mother sought a better life for Awatef and her siblings. Her father, working in Venezuela, soon followed. She has few relatives still in Beit Hanina but has fond memories visiting the city as a child and young adult. 

Visiting the area has become extremely difficult for Awatef due to conflict and violence.  The past few months have been exceptionally heartbreaking for her and all of those in the region.  She hopes the pursuit of peace and understanding prevails.

Throughout her life, Awatef has fought for equity and inclusion for everyone, especially women in her community.  She was told at a very young age that higher education and a career were not appropriate for women.  By the time she was ready to attend Cleveland State University for an undergraduate degree in marketing, and later law school, she recalls that no one tried to stop her, but she had to carve her own path.

“For me, going to law school and becoming an attorney was an opportunity to improve conditions for all women—especially women in my culture,” said Assad.  “I think I had a strong reaction and almost defiance to being told what I could not do.  I certainly wanted to challenge the traditional roles for women and create more equitable opportunities for both men and women.”

“It took a long time, but I succeeded in earning the respect of many of the men who are leaders in the Arab American community—not just for my work as an attorney, but by being involved in promoting the local Arab Community,” she continued. 

She is already seeing the results of her effort with her nieces and other members of the community pursuing higher education and advanced careers that would not have been as easily accessible.  

Awatef’s career consists of 26 years of experience as a government litigation attorney.  As Cuyahoga County Deputy Director for Risk Management she oversees the administration of property and liability insurance, claims management, and loss prevention programs – and established the first Enterprise Risk Management Program.

After working as a solo practitioner early in her legal career, Awatef joined the City of Cleveland Law Department as Assistant Director of Law.  She would later move to the same position for Cuyahoga County.  As a member of the City of Cleveland Law Department, Awatef successfully defended police officers and officials in highly complex federal civil rights litigation.  She represented government officials in complex federal cases, civil rights litigation, class-actions, and wage and hour claims, and achieved successful outcomes in many high-profile matters.

As an attorney for Cuyahoga County, Awatef spearheaded the first amicus brief filed in the defense of marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court.  She also authored Cuyahoga County’s Anti-Discrimination Ordinance which seeks to protect LGBTQ+ members from discrimination since such protections are non-existent under federal and state law.  For that ordinance, Awatef collaborated with CSU|LAW Professor Emeritus Susan J. Becker, Professor Doron Kalir and CSU|LAW alum Alana Jochum.

She currently heads the Cuyahoga County Law Department’s inclusion and equity efforts.

“Since I was a child, I had a passion for fighting for justice,” said Assad.  “Because of my background, I was sensitive to the inequalities in opportunities afforded to men and women. A career in public service afforded me the opportunity early on in my career to serve on the frontlines in the battle for civil rights.”

Awatef has sought to affect positive change not only in her primary occupation but through several community organizations. Her community service includes serving as the Immediate Past President of the CMBA’s Vice-President of Inclusion and Diversity, a Commissioner to the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Commission on Certification of Attorneys as Specialists, a member of Ohio State Bar Association’s Council of Delegates, Advisory Council on Diversity Initiatives and Attorney Wellness Advisory Board, the National Arab America Foundation Leadership Council, the Arab American Bar Association of Ohio.  She was part of the Leadership Cleveland Class of 2020.  

In those roles, she has worked to develop numerous programs to overcome barriers to equitable access to opportunity and promoting the advancement of women and diverse attorneys in the legal profession.  In her role as the CMBA’s VP of Inclusion and Diversity, she established the Council of Conscious Inclusion. As a member of the Executive Committee of the National Youth Roundtable for the National Conference for Community and Justice (now Diversity Center), she helped develop programs designed to fight racial bigotry and bias in Northeast Ohio.

“While women and diverse attorneys have made great strides, continuous open and honest dialogue is vital to effect change and to ensure diversity and inclusion in the legal profession,” explained Assad.  “Equal representation is crucial to our judicial system and democratic society.  More work needs to be done to advance diverse attorneys in leadership positions.”

Awatef has led many community engagements and discussions fostering understanding and addressing Arab American relations. She organized youth leadership conferences to inspire Arab-American girls to become more engaged in their community. As a former board member of ACCESS-Ohio, she spearheaded the first Needs Assessment of the Arab American Community in Cuyahoga County and established the Arab American Youth Working Towards Achievement Conference — an initiative to inspire Arab-American youth to become more involved in their community and to plant the seeds of leadership.  

Awatef has been recognized for her community work on behalf of the Arab American community and legal profession.  She has been the recipient of awards for F.B.I. Director’s Community Leadership, Arab American Institute Excellence in Public Service, Ohio Civil Rights Commission “Keeping the Dream Alive,” the Cleveland American Middle East Organization (CAMEO) Leadership, and the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association (CMBA) Justice for All Volunteer of the Year. Recently, Awatef received the William K. Thomas American Inn of Court’s President’s Award and the CMBA’s 150th Living Legacy Award for extraordinary leadership, innovation, and professional excellence.

Awatef also stays involved with CSU|LAW, connecting with law students and graduates to offer insights from her career.  She recognizes the essential work of the law school and CSULAA in supporting law students and graduates, and in particular, empowering first-generation law students to fulfill their dreams of becoming lawyers.

“CSU|LAW provided me with the opportunity, education, and inspiration to fulfill my dream of becoming an attorney,” said Assad.  “Dreams do come true!”

 

What does being named CSULAA Alumni of the Year mean to you?

“I am over the moon excited to be honored as the Alumni of the Year alongside a great human, Kemper Arnold.  This honor is especially meaningful to me because this recognition stems from my peers who generously give their time and energies in the service of our legal profession.  As the first woman to become an attorney from Beit Hanina, a Palestinian town in East Jerusalem—this recognition is not only important for me, but for generations of my family and community as well. I hope I leave a legacy for others to build upon and offer inspiration to those who follow.” 

Awatef will be honored at the CSU Law Alumni Association Annual luncheon Tuesday, May 21.

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