V. AHDA SANDS
A Little Girl Who Was Told She Would Never Amount to Much Grew Up, Proved Her Counselor Wrong
By Sherri Okamoto
Attorney V. Ahda Sands recounts that when she was growing up, a school counselor told her that her future prospects were “minimal” and she “wasn’t going to amount to much.” Sands says she has since devoted her life to proving that counselor wrong, putting herself through college and law school, and earning three professional licenses.
“That counselor pissed me off so much,” she says with a laugh. “That counselor is probably dead and gone a long time ago, but I wanted to prove to myself that this counselor was totally wrong.”
While her background probably hadn’t given the counselor much insight into what Sands is all about, her apple didn’t fall all that far from the tree.
Sands is the second of five children, born in Chattanooga, Tenn. Her parents had only an elementary school education, having both been raised in the deep south during a time when there were no black high schools. Her parents moved the family to Detroit shortly after Sands was born. “The didn’t have any advancement opportunities” she says, “that’s why they moved.”
Despite her parents’ limited educations, her father earned licenses as a security guard, electrician and general contractor, and her mother, a vocational nurse. Sands says they “raised a good crop” as the eldest four of the six children went to college, and the youngest holds six professional licenses.
She says her father was “kind of like the center of the family.” She uses the nickname Ahda as her given name because it’s a diminutive of the Nigerian word to describe the eldest daughter of a chief.
Her first name is actually Velma, which was what people would often say when addressing her mother, Thelma. Sands says she suspects her mother wanted to make it easier for people to differentiate between Thelma and Velma by giving the latter name to her.
Growing up was not easy for the family though, and although Sands laughs about it, she says she was “traumatized by the Detroit winters.” Part of the issue was that the snow drifts would pile so high on the edges of the sidewalk, she couldn’t see over the top and she needed her mother to walk her to school. Another problem was that the local public school had bathrooms with broken windows, and metal toilet seats. That made using the accommodations in sub-zero temperatures quite miserable.
Little Red Wagon
Just getting out of the door itself was hard, Sands says, with her father having to shovel a path out from the front door. She remembers standing by the front door with her little red wagon and having her father fill it with snow as he was digging, then taking the wagon to her mother in the bathroom, where her mother would dump the snow in the bathtub where it would melt.
Sands says “it was me and my little red wagon, going back and forth” until her father was able to get to the driveway and then could shovel snow on to the sides. Sands says she was struck by how hard her father would have to work on those snowy mornings, to even get to the car to go to work.
When she was about eight years old, the family moved to Southern California, and Sands was relieved to learn there was no snow. She encountered a different form of trouble though.
The family moved around a lot, requiring frequent changes in schools for the children. “Every time we moved, the local bullies would bully us because we were new,” Sands says.
A further complication was that Sands’ older brother was small for his age, making him an easy target for the aggressors. Sands says she would “always come to his rescue,” as a “typical tomboy” who also happened to be “big for my age.”
The fights were never fair, she remembers. Usually there would be two or three combatants versus her, so, “I’d lose the fight,” but she always made sure each bully got something to remember her by—a bloody nose, a loose tooth, or a black eye. That would lead to the bullies making the collective decision that it’d be better to pick on someone else, where they wouldn’t get hurt in the process. So after that first fight, “nobody would pick on me and my brother again, until we moved to the next school and we had to do the whole thing over again.”
Sands says these experiences taught her, “You can lose the fight but win the war.” It’s a lesson she carried into her legal practice, she relates, as she often heads into a trial knowing she’s likely to lose, but “I play the long game” and she prepares for the eventual appeal as she prepares for trial. “I make sure my cases are tight and will make it on appeal,” she says.
But being an attorney was not something she prepared for as a child. In fact, she was told by the insensitive counselor “the most I could hope to be was a file clerk.”
Becomes a Bruin
Sands was a good student at Jordan High School, and she credits her teachers with helping her get into college. “They changed my life entirely,” Sands remarks, as she was able to secure a spot at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a dorm room.
“Living on campus took me out of Watts, which was a very violent environment,” she reflects. “It was a whole new world that I didn’t even know existed.”
However, the new environment overwhelmed her. She was working to put herself through school, but she also “got involved in way too many organizations,” Sands brings to mind, explaining: “Every organization that asked me to join, I joined.” She says she “was way over-extended” and “sort of let studies go to the wayside.”
Sands wound up dropping out, working a variety of low-paying jobs.
“That’s when I remembered what that counselor had said and I said no, uh-uh, I am going back to school,” Sands says. “I told that fool I’m smarter than a file clerk and here I am working as a file clerk.”
She looked for a school that had an evening program available, “because the only person that was paying my rent was me,” and California State University, Dominguez Hills accepted her.
Sands majored in business administration and minored in accounting, graduating in 1976. She says her intended career path was to become a certified public accountant, although she is not sure exactly why. Sands posits it was “the only thing I could think of or was exposed to,” as “someone probably came through on a career day or something.”
She took a job as an auditor with the California Public Utilities Commission, only to learn later that her experience there would not count toward the two-year requirement for her to earn her certification as an accountant. Sands then became a business consultant with the accounting firm of Main, Hurdman & Cranston, now known as KPMG.
Before she left the Public Utilities Commission, however, the seeds of a new career path were planted when Sands was called as an expert witness for a lawsuit.
“While I was sitting there testifying,” Sands says she was thinking, “these attorneys and judges, they make double what I make and they’re asking me to be an expert?” Sands says that must mean she knew something they didn’t, and “Shoot, if I’m smarter than they are, I can be one of them.”
Sands therefore decided she wanted to become an attorney and she left KPMG. She became an assistant vice president with Security Pacific Bank, working during the day and attending Southwestern Law School at night.
“ ‘Enjoy’ is not the word I would use to describe law school,” she says. “It was hard.”
That would be akin to “saying you enjoyed the CPA exam,” Sands remarks. “I did it, but I didn’t enjoy it.”
Sands earned her law degree in 1989 and joined the State Bar the following year.
As an attorney, Sands maintained a private practice briefly and served as a temporary judge for the Los Angeles Municipal Court before joining the Santa Ana office of the State Compensation Insurance Fund (“SCIF)” as an attorney.
She served as an early president of the Black Women Lawyers, as a president of the John M. Langston Bar Association, as a co-chair of the Multicultural Bar Association, and as a board member of Black Women Lawyers of Los Angeles.
She is currently secretary of the Senior Lawyers Section of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, and she will be on the Board of Directors for the John M. Langston Bar Association this year.
Sands also has been a frequent participant in career day programs for local high schools, served as an instructor for the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles Renaissance Program, which helped start-up small businesses, and she earned her real estate broker’s license in 2007.
“I love helping people buy and sell homes,” she says, explaining why she got her broker’s license.
Growing up, she says her parents were always telling her to “take care of your sisters and brothers” so “this thing kind of grew in my mind that I’m supposed to be helping take care of people.”
Administrative Law Judge
As for future plans, Sands says she’s thinking about applying to become an administrative law judge to provide another way to help others—and another title to add to her already plentiful list of accomplishments.
SCIF attorney Maria Frias says that Sands has been “a really good team member” who “does a great job with her cases” and is “very pleasant and helpful” with all her colleagues.
Fellow SCIF attorney Robin Pitchford says Sands is, in a word, “vivacious.” Sands is “always trying new adventures and opportunities,” but remains “dedicated and hard-working” as well, Pitchford says.
Culver City attorney Margo Bouchet says she and Sands have known each other “forever,” and that Sands is “the most kind, giving personable female that I know.”
The women served on the board of the Langston Bar Association together, and Bouchet says Sands “is the type of person that every organization should have.” Sands is “always volunteering for everything,” and “I don’t think she ever says no,” Bouchet claims. “I just can’t say enough good things about Ahda.”
Los Angeles attorney Shirley A. Henderson—who in 1978 became the third President of the Black Women Lawyers of Los Angeles County—says she has known Sands for “many, many years”, and remarks:
“We’ve worked together in a lot of local organizations, including the Langston Bar, California Association of Black Lawyers, Black Women Lawyers of Los Angeles, and we are very close friends now. She’s a wonderful person, very caring, always the first one to volunteer to help. She’ll always try to help you in any way she can. You know you can count on her and that’s very important in any friendship.”
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