Beth Whittenbury, attorney, environmentalist, civil rights champion and author, said she just wants to feel useful, like the little "engine that could" from the children's book, Thomas the Tank Engine.
"I really want to be a useful engine," exclaimed Whittenbury. "I actually need to feel like I’m being useful or I feel very despondent.”
Whittenbury moved to Rancho Palos Verdes with her husband John and young son William shortly after 9/11—one of the most pivotal events in the history of our country.
She took time off from her profession to reevaluate her goals and to settle William in school before going back to her consulting practice. Her focus then, as now, was helping employers resolve employment disputes without litigation.
As many working moms do, Whittenbury said she had to keep reinventing herself.
“I put my family first and worked my professional life around them," said Whittenbury, who added that when her son attended Palos Verdes Intermediate School, she realized students needed to be involved in either sports or music to have good social outlets.
So, Whittenbury and William decided to start a group of their own—the Muskwa Club. (Muskwa is an American Indian word that means bear.)
Muskwa members were concerned about the environment and wanted to get together and do positive things. The group got together after middle school on Fridays for field trips.
When the members were in high school, the Muskwa Club became a nonprofit organization.
William, a docent at Point Vincente Interpretive Center, wrote a report about the endangered vaquita porpoise. According to the Porpoise Conservation Society, the vaquita is a small porpoise found only in the northern Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) in Mexico. When William wrote his report, there were 250 vaquitas left. Today, fewer than 20 of these animals remain, making the vaquita the most endangered marine mammal in the world.
William brought the situation to the attention of the Muskwa members and they made it a club project. Five years ago when the group needed funding, Whittenbury helped them set up a nonprofit organization.
“I’ve been the President of the Board since it founded,” Whittenbury said. “The whole idea was to let the students run it, come up with the ideas, and the board would be the wind beneath their wings.”
“When we first started we were told that the vaquita would be extinct by 2015, but they’re still spotting them and seeing babies. The kids made a difference because when we first started, no one had heard of the vaquita. I’ve always felt it was Muskwa’s job to bring attention to the vaquita’s plight,” Whittenbury explained, “where some celebrity with a bigger voice could take up the call.
This year, National Geographic Documentary Films secured worldwide rights to the environmental documentary “Sea of Shadows,” which was executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Muskwans accomplished their objective,” Whittenbury said, “which makes me very happy.”
Whittenbury has always felt that she needed to make a difference in her life.
She‘s involved with the American Bar Association and is on the council for The Civil Rights and Social Justice Section. She also co-chairs the Section’s Education Committee. A major initiative she spearheaded was “the right to a quality education.” She put together a group of volunteers across the nation to determine what the right to a quality education should entail and compiled their findings in a book, “The Education Bill of Rights.”
Whittenbury works on school re-segregation issues, sexual assault issues in schools, free speech rights on campus and “basically everything related to civil rights in education.”
Her newest project is aimed at a different audience—school-age children.
“Most people don’t realize what the role of an agency is and what a regulation is,” she explained. “Jodi Levine, an Administrative Law Judge from Oklahoma, and I, are working on a schoolhouse rock video for kids to teach them about agencies and regulations.”
In her attorney day job, Whittenbury focuses on solving sexual harassment problems in the workplace. “Having done training for 25 years, I don’t think that solves the problem, but it does help people who don’t realize what they’ve been doing,” she said. “In order to prevent it, you have to systemically change the organization.”
Whittenbury has also published several legal text books and two how-to books on self-publishing. But her favorite book is “Just Love Him, I Guess,” a children’s book that she wrote.
“I love it because it teaches an important parenting lesson. When William was growing up, he was a smart little guy getting into all sorts of stuff that he had a good reason for, but that was dangerous or ill-advised. We were always saying to him ‘What are we going to do with you?’ and we’d follow that up with ‘just love you, I guess.’ One day we did something he didn’t like and he put his little hands on his hips and repeated that to us. At that moment I realized that this is a message I want to get out there. Kids learn from the examples we set. We’d better set the right ones!”
Whittenbury is contemplating two new books, a romance novel set in Palos Verdes, and a historical fiction novel based on her father’s side of the family.
She loves living on the peninsula.
“I’ve always loved the ocean and I pinch myself every day to make sure that I’m not dreaming that I get to live here," she said. "There is a sense of peace and of God’s loving design here as well as a real sense of community.”