‘You have to be bold’: Candace Neal shares her path to social justice work

February 22, 2023 /

Editor’s Note: To celebrate Black History Month, Kern Sol News is highlighting notable Black leaders in Kern County who are working to create positive change in their community.

Candace Neal moved to Bakersfield when she was around six years old and when she was seven, she was removed from her mother’s care and placed into the foster care system. During her freshman year of high school, Neal was placed back with her mother and stayed with her until she graduated high school and went to the University of California, Berkeley, for college.

At Berkeley, Neal minored in both education and African-American studies and majored in social welfare, and following her graduation she worked in a bank for a year before deciding to go back to law school.

Neal originally thought about becoming a social justice lawyer doing criminal law but went on to realize that she loved business and real estate and that she could utilize those as vehicles for social justice as well.

“That type of field is typically very, very male and very, very white and here I am this young black woman doing this kind of work and bringing this social justice and community focus into that role,” Neal stated.

Neal went on to reveal that typical stereotypes about black women being aggressive made those around her want to stick her in litigation work.

“Of course, I have it in me, I can argue about anything and we’re bred to make our case in this world. That’s transferable into any profession, and so that’s where I was placed and I just didn’t like it,” Neal admitted. “I felt like I spent all my life fighting to get here, I’m not gonna sit here and fight for these companies to keep all their money.”

In the business against business world she was in the middle of while working for this law firm, Neal stated that money was always a central focus.

“People got run over in the process and when money is being talked about, they forget about the people,” said Neal.

Her litigation work representing banks started amidst the economic recovery following the recession in 2013. Neal noted that during this time, the Homeowner Bill of Rights had just been passed for homeowners that may have lost their homes or those that weren’t getting the loan modifications they needed.

She went on to explain that her job was to go to court and fight these homeowners that were suing the banks for fraudulent incidents that cost them their homes. Neal stated that sometimes she wishes she would have been able to tell them what to say to be able to keep their homes, but she couldn’t due to her duty as a lawyer to protect the banks’ position.

“And I did that, and I did it very well, but I didn’t like that,” Neal reminisced. “I didn’t feel good about that and I knew that if I was going to be in real estate I wanted to do it in a way that empowered people and in a way that addressed concerns that people have about their living situations.”

Neal continued by going more in-depth about the road that led her to where she is now and highlighted some of the struggles that she experienced along the way. She emphasized the importance of confidence and being able to put one foot in front of the other.

“And on that path, when you happen to be a person of color from a broken home and don’t have someone at home that you can lean on, you might be working while you’re going to school and this was my situation,” Neal revealed.

She learned to make her way into spaces that she wasn’t normally invited into and discovered how to be herself in these spaces while also developing a finesse to use her voice in spaces that are challenging for black people.

“Yes, it was difficult — and it’s always going to be hard on the individual level just being a person, but also being a woman and being black in a space that’s typically very white and very male — but having people you can call on and mentors have made the difference,” Neal commented.

Alongside having support, Neal stated that having a boldness about you is essential in these spaces. She went on to state that God has been one of the biggest influences for her throughout her life.

“The only way you can kinda survive all of the things I’ve been through and still smile is having some type of spiritual basis and so God has been a major influence and I’ve just continued to study and learn about spirituality and connect and love and goodness and all of those things,” Neal stated.

When Neal became pregnant with her now three-year-old son, she decided to come back to Bakersfield for her maternity leave.

“I bought a home here thinking I’d have a second home here ’cause I’d be back and forth. I wanted my son to not be like me when I was a foster kid — I wanted him to actually be connected to his biological family. And when I came we went into a pandemic so I decided to stay,” said Neal.

Neal is now a Senior Associate Counsel for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools (KCSOS) in the Business and Construction Department. She helps build schools by handling the legal aspects of building and approving facilities. Additionally, Neal participates civically in her community, and in April 2022 she was the first African American woman to be appointed to the Bakersfield Planning Commission for Ward 1.

As part of the Planning Commission, Neal reviews development proposals by asking questions and using her community-centered focus to determine if the proposals are good for the community and how they can be improved to address the impacts they could have on the community.

Neal stated that in her current position, ensuring equality amongst schools is essential. One thing she does is try to make sure that schools on the east side are just as nice as schools on the west side.

“I help the schools get funding for those sorts of things and see opportunities to make improvements because when we improve our facilities — whether it be at home or in schools or out in the communities — we improve our quality of life,” stated Neal. “I found my route to social justice by doing this kind of work.”

The parts of her work that she enjoys most are being able to create and bring something new or reimagined into the world. Outside of work, Neal enjoys spending time with her family, dancing, and glamping. She also enjoys traveling and once lived in Egypt and Brazil for four months.