Updated: May 11
The Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award is presented annually to an outstanding female attorney who has enriched the community through her legal and civic activities. But the award is much more than those simple words. This award has been presented to some of the most prominent women in our community, game changers, those women who truly light the path behind them as they forge ahead, allowing others to be illuminated by their experiences, knowledge, and mentorship.
This year’s recipient, Velveta Golightly-Howell, is a true trailblazer who exemplifies the fire and passion to persevere, achieve her goals, and mentor the younger generation. Mrs. Howell has spent her entire life enriching the community around her, legal or otherwise. She credits her faith, parents, and strong family and community ties as the foundation of her success. The gratitude that Mrs. Howell exudes for all those on whose shoulders she has stood, those who have lifted her up, and those who helped shape her character, is quite extraordinary. This woman is a leader—she has left the world a better place. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Howell will also be inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame on March 18, 2020.
Mrs. Howell grew up two blocks from the University of Alabama in a generational home built by her father and grandfather. Raised in the South in the 1960s, she was exposed to racial injustice from a young age, the reality for African Americans in our country at that time. So, at six years old, Mrs. Howell made the decision to lead at a national level, to change how African Americans and other persons of colors were treated and better the lives of all people in this country. The disrespect and imbalance in power she witnessed, to her own family, led her to devote her career to the law.
Mrs. Howell attended the University of Colorado School of Law. While she enjoyed law school, the experience was difficult because she struggled with the challenges of being one of the only African-American students in the school. Mrs. Howell almost left law school after the first semester of her second year due to the lonely nature of her position in the school, but her mother reminded her, “you have always done exactly what you said you would do since you were six years old, and you were determined to be a lawyer, but the decision is up to you.” So, she stayed. She persevered and used her passion and commitment to become a lawyer to fuel her drive.
The second semester of her 2L year changed the course of Mrs. Howell’s career. Along with three distinguished white male classmates, she accepted a prominent one-year, paid internship with the Denver District Attorney’s Office, and under the wings of Mrs. Brooke Wunnicke, Appellate Division Chief Deputy, she flourished. Mrs. Howell’s internship served as her legal foundation, and she credits much of her success to the decades-long mentorship of and friendship with Mrs. Wunnicke, a Colorado legal legend, scholar, and fellow Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award recipient. Following law school, Mrs. Howell accepted an appointment by District Attorney Dale Tooley and, in this role, became Colorado’s first African-American female Deputy District Attorney. While serving as a prosecutor, she earned a master’s degree in public administration and successfully litigated all but two of her jury trials. Among her contributions, Mrs. Howell served as First Vice President of the National Association of Black Women Attorneys (NABWA), founded the Colorado NABWA chapter, served on the board of directors for the Colorado Women’s Bar Association, and worked on behalf of Coloradans in gubernatorial and other appointed positions.
During her career, Mrs. Howell served as one of the first legal counselors to the City and County of Denver, representing elected and senior career officials as an employment lawyer. She moved on to become the first lawyer of color for an international labor organization. Subsequently, she became only the second African-American Chief Regional Civil Rights Attorney employed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of the General Counsel (OGC). Within her first two years, she successfully litigated an employment action involving a Cabinet official; won or settled six enforcement actions (i.e., administrative litigation proceedings) — a historic feat; completely overhauled and managed OGC’s civil rights operations; developed CLE-accredited trainings for OGC lawyers; and designed an electronic database to track client assistance requests and house legal memoranda, opinions, and pleadings, which ensured timely submissions to administrative tribunals. Reporting directly to the presidentially appointed director in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Howell then accepted an appointment to serve as one of HHS’ first female, and non-Caucasian, HHS regional managers for the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
A highlight of Mrs. Howell’s career is the leadership she played in the Robert Wood-Johnson–funded mission to design, and later implement, a strategic plan to improve Colorado’s healthcare infrastructure. Mrs. Howell persuaded her colleagues, who held very influential and senior positions in Colorado’s medical and healthcare arenas, to focus on healthcare disparities. Their collective efforts, investment of substantial time, and shared intellect led to establishment of the Colorado Office of Health Disparities, an entity signed into law by then Governor Bill Ritter. Only the second such organization, and the first statutory one, in the United States, Mrs. Howell found this contribution to Coloradans especially gratifying. Her friendship with former Governor Ritter dates back to law school, their selection for the coveted Denver District Attorney internship where they learned what being a “lawyer” actually means, and experiences shared as neophyte and seasoned Denver prosecutors.
In 2014, Mrs. Howell was appointed Director of Civil Rights, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), by, and reported directly to, Administrator Gina McCarthy, a member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet. There, she led EPA’s national civil rights operations as a senior executive. Within three months of her arrival, Mrs. Howell formed the first-ever coalition of Cabinet-appointed and career civil rights executives and managing attorneys, including those from the U.S. Department of Justice. Together, the coalition planned, designed, and implemented educational trainings for civil rights professionals from across the. country. Mrs. Howell’s ability to quickly assemble such a distinguished panel emanated from local, state, regional, and national networks established by her and contacts she cultivated from the start of her federal service. Mrs. Howell’s networks and contacts, which included the former Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights at Justice and then Secretary of Labor, amazed everyone!
Mrs. Howell’s civil rights directorship at EPA was cut short in 2017, following serious injuries she sustained in an automobile accident. Yet, while there, her impact and contributions were both fast and significant. Mrs. Howell transformed EPA’s failing civil rights operations through innovation, creativity, program knowledge, diligence, and the ability to form rapport with EPA headquarters/regional/state officials and legal counsel and external leaders, attorneys, and citizens. The results of her efforts were heightened visibility and regard for EPA’s civil rights programs. Examples of her transformative leadership abound. Shortly after she assumed her high-profile position, she hired a well-seasoned civil rights executive/attorney to help actualize an EPA Civil Rights Toolkit for Stakeholders, utilizing a model she conceptualized and, in collaboration with her former HHS/OCR teams, designed and published to HHS stakeholders. Recognizing the critical need to expeditiously supplement staff resources, while avoiding long delays in selecting and onboarding career personnel, Mrs. Howell created national legal internship and externship programs for EPA. Within their first year of operations, the programs attracted students from over 20 law schools, including Yale and Georgetown University. Additionally, she personally recruited talented policy and public interest students from top universities, such as the University of Chicago. Further, Mrs. Howell enlisted the assistance of a Title VI legal scholar, who led the development of strategic plans to establish effective and sustainable external (i.e., Title VI, 1964 Civil Rights Act) program operations within EPA. Demonstrated exceptional results during her tenure there provided substantial additional funding, which she allocated towards the design and deployment of current technology and electronic storage databases, which ensure prompter customer service, decrease case backlogs, and facilitate timely complaint resolution. Funds were also used for staff training and development and outside travel to deliver civil rights training to EPA officials and career professionals and settlement negotiations. Notably, Mrs. Howell served as the initial principal negotiator who settled age complaints.
During her successful legal career, Mrs. Howell has donated significant time to providing pro bono services for nonprofits and faith-based organizations and mentoring. She particularly treasures sharing her knowledge and experience with child-centered organizations, such as Jack and Jill of America, because children are our future. Her commitment to promoting children’s growth and development, while assuring them that their goals are achievable, is evidenced in her volunteerism with Adopt-a-School, Partners, and other enrichment programs. The number of hours and dedication that Mrs. Howell has devoted to others is astounding. She estimated that her mentees number approximately 100 law students, younger attorneys, and other younger professionals, not including former staff initially hired as interns. Her proudest accomplishment is the positive impact left by her on those whose lives she has touched and those whom she will touch.
In response to the question, “If she were not a lawyer, what would she do?,” Mrs. Howell said that she would be an interior designer. Well, Mrs. Howell, we are all incredibly grateful that you were so wise at six years old to dedicate your life to the legal profession. It is truly better because of you. Thank you.
Jessie Pellant is the founder and managing partner of StudioIP. With over a decade of experience advising clients in transactional and litigious matters, Jessie has earned the role of trusted advisor for her longtime clients.
At StudioIP she focuses on advising clients in acquiring, identifying, developing, protecting or enforcing intellectual property, including trademarks, copyrights and patents. StudioIP specializes in facilitating creative solutions for its clients facing technology transactions, intellectual property ownership or development issues, licensing or disputes. Jessie facilitates technology transactions, performs due diligence, drafts and negotiates intellectual property agreements, licenses, terms of service and privacy policies in several industries including media, software, consumer products, automotive, construction and entertainment.