Worth the risk

USC Gould School of Law • May 28, 2019
post image

By Jill Barone


Meet Allyson Sonenshine (JD 1996), an entrepreneur and women's health advocate in Orange County

Allyson Sonenshine JD 1996 admits that she is naturally risk adverse. But that did not stop her from taking a risk to start her own nonprofit.

Born and raised in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Sonenshine earned her undergraduate degree in communications and history from the University of Pennsylvania. There she met her husband Coby, a Southern California native. From an early age, Sonenshine had a passion for social justice and both she and Coby decided that they would attend law school.

Her husband missed sunny California and set his sights on USC Gould. Sonenshine knew of the law school’s impressive reputation. “I heard about the Trojan alumni network and what it could represent, especially if I wanted to practice in Los Angeles,” she says. “I went to visit the law school, sat in on a class and that was it.”

While at Gould, Sonenshine served as the President of the Student Bar Association and Auction Chair of the Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF). At the time, Prof. Scott Bice was dean and very supportive of the student group. She fondly recalls the PILF auction where the students convinced Prof. Bice to donate his famous plaid pants for auction. He obliged, exemplifying for Sonenshine (and her classmates) the generosity and great school spirit of so many Gould faculty and staff.

After her first year, Sonenshine interned at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she worked for an attorney who specialized in sexual harassment. Her time there sparked her interest in employment law, which she practiced as a litigator in her first job after graduation at McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen (now part of Morgan Lewis). She also became involved in pro bono work and eventually joined the boards of Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties and Essential Access Health, which proved to be the pathway for her involvement in the non-profit sector.

In 2007, Sonenshine began work as a Special Projects Officer for the Merage Foundations, where she helped to launch the SOS-El Sol Wellness Center, located at a charter school in Santa Ana. This pilot project offered coordinated on-site health, educational and social services, and case management to low-income Latino immigrant families.

While working and volunteering in Orange County, Sonenshine realized that there was no voice for women’s health in the area. While many other surrounding counties had some kind of infrastructure in place, with coalitions and resources to promote advocacy, Orange County did not.

“After political posturing caused our local Planned Parenthood to lose a long-term, publicly-funded contract to deliver health education to women and teens, it became clear that I would have to start an organization to advocate for evidence-based women’s health programs in the county,” Sonenshine says. “So, with the help of four deeply committed women, we got the Orange County Women’s Health Project up and running. It was the classic grassroots organization story. At the time, we didn’t even know what to call this kind of work,” she recalls.

In 2011, after 18 months of outreach and focus groups, the Orange County Women’s Health Project (OCWHP) launched. The organization’s mission is to advance women’s health in Orange County through education, collaboration and advocacy.

Each year the OCWHP hosts the Orange County Women’s Health Summit, which focuses on women’s health needs and disparities in the area, educating the field about the Affordable Care Act and local women’s health research initiatives. Their largest project is the Domestic Violence and Health Collective, an initiative that treats domestic violence as a women’s health priority, trains providers and links the local healthcare sector with other services that support Orange County domestic violence survivors.

Although Sonenshine no longer practices law, she truly values her law school education. “When I moved into the nonprofit space, people automatically assumed that my Gould degree meant that I was capable of leading projects and that I had all the skills I needed,” she says. “I am still learning, but my time at the law school has been vital to my nonprofit work in so many ways.”

Sonenshine works hard but also finds time for her family and fun. In her free time, she enjoys arguing politics with her teenage sons and volunteering with their school and sports teams. She also loves to hike and travel, and has been singing in rock bands on-and-off since graduating from USC Gould.

Explore Related

Related Stories