Activist Attorney Shelley Davis, 56

Ms. Davis "tried to improve society for everybody," her boss said.
Ms. Davis "tried to improve society for everybody," her boss said. (Family Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Shelley Davis, 56, who as deputy director of the advocacy group Farmworker Justice fought for the safety of workers, children and the environment, died of breast cancer Dec. 12 at Georgetown University Medical Center. She lived in Silver Spring.

A lawyer, Ms. Davis represented migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families on issues from health and safety to wages.

She battled a 2006 Environmental Protection Agency proposal to allow humans to be exposed to pesticides as part of toxicity tests. She worked to improve health and legal protections for child farmworkers, and she trained adults as health and legal advocates.

"She was an activist her entire life," said her boss, Bruce Goldstein. "She always sought to help poor people, she fought to reduce racism, she was an idealist and tried to improve society for everybody. She could be tough as nails on people who were trying to oppress the people she was trying to serve. . . . It was her fortitude and drive that really made her very unusual."

In the late 1980s, she was among a small number of public-interest lawyers who attempted to reform the H-2A program, in which seasonal guest workers from the Caribbean were employed as sugar cane cutters in Florida.

The attempt drew the attention of filmmakers and journalists. A movie on the topic won the 1990 best-documentary award at the Sundance Film Festival, and several thousand sugar cane workers won back-pay. A lawsuit over similar working conditions by apple pickers won the laborers $8 million in back-pay, due in part to her efforts.

Nationally known for her skill in immigration, environmental, health and safety, agricultural and housing law, Ms. Davis expanded the usual array of demands made on public-interest lawyers. She practiced law in federal and state courts as well as in government administrative forums.

She developed award-winning health education programs in which hundreds of farmworkers became "promotores de salud," or lay health promoters, who trained thousands of others in HIV/AIDS prevention, pesticide safety, drinking-water precautions, tuberculosis and asthma risks.

In 1991, she and Farmworker Justice organized the first national conference for female farmworkers. She brought farmworkers from the fields to the halls of Congress and the EPA to testify about work conditions.

A leader in advocating for pesticide protection, Ms. Davis helped push the EPA to adopt standards controlling the conditions under which fields are sprayed and how laborers can minimize their exposure. She also participated in a successful challenge of the EPA's approval of the use of two toxic pesticides, guthion and phosmet.

She was legally blind because of a progressive eye disease that caused her vision to deteriorate markedly in recent years, Goldstein said, but she rarely referred to it or to her battle against breast cancer, preferring to return to work the day after chemotherapy sessions.

Born in New York, she graduated from Pennsylvania's Bryn Mawr College and received a law degree from the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University in 1978.

She worked for four years at the Political Rights Defense Fund in New York and then as staff lawyer in the Mental Health and Development Disabilities law project for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. Except for two years when she returned to the Chicago job, she devoted the rest of her career to migrant and farmworker issues.

Ms. Davis served on the board of Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit organization. Among her awards were the 2006 National Legal Aid and Defender Association's Reginald Heber Smith Award for Civil Litigation and the 2005 Children's Environmental Health Excellence Award from the EPA.

Survivors include her husband, Thomas Smith, and a son, Nicholas Smith, both of Silver Spring; her mother, Helen Davis of Chevy Chase; and two brothers, Donald Davis of Chicago and Joel Davis of Bethesda.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company