SEATTLE - Janis Millete is part of a team that keeps Chief Joseph Dam, the second-largest hydropower dam in the nation, running. The dam generates enough power for the Seattle metropolitan area, home to over half of Washington's population. Millete provided legal review and guidance for the $160-million contract to ensure the generators that power 27 house-size turbines remain maintained over the next eight years.
In her time working for the Corps, Millete has developed expertise in compelling areas of law essential to support the Corps' broad mission that directly and positively impacts communities in every region of the nation. For example, she provides procurement law guidance to ensure the Government properly awards contracts and defends against protests and claims so that projects essential to national defense and infrastructure can proceed. In addition, she advises regarding the compliance and enforcement of many environmental laws that sustain the nation's environmental and cultural resources.
"We do major infrastructure projects I can see physically and know have impacts, and so I realize the magnitude and the importance," said Millete.
Before applying and being accepted to the competitive Chief Counsel's honors program in 2009, Millete had little knowledge of the Corps' mission. Still, her formative years laid the foundation for her current service.
Millete was born to parents Jules and Janine on the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines, originally home to one of the United States Navy's most significant and key strategic overseas military installations. Her parents are originally from the Bikol region of the Philippines and immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s when she was five months old.
"My father grew up in a poor, rural family of eight children. He wanted to come to the States, and he knew that Filipinos could join the U.S. Navy as enlisted members to become citizens," Millete said.
Millete recalls her parents' work ethic impacting her growing up.
"My parents were good role models for me," Millete said. "They worked hard, so I worked hard. My mom was working a lot. My dad also had a second job for a few years delivering pizza to make sure we lived comfortably. Not only was he supporting our family, but he was also sending money back to the Philippines to support his siblings and their families. He wanted us to have a stable life."
From a young age, Millete emulated her parents' work ethic as a conscientious student and fell in love with reading, which prepared her for her current profession.
"Man, I loved reading, so I was always getting books from the library," she said. "It was mostly books I read from borrowing. My parents didn't really purchase books. I remember being excited for books with female leads. I was intrigued by Abigail Adams. In second or third grade, I did a report on her. Later, it was Maya Angelou."
Millete also credits her grandmother, whom she called a "second parent" and who lived with her growing up, as having a large impact on her life.
"My grandmother lived with us, and she's the one that I remember day-to-day, just her presence because my mom was working night shifts as a nurse and dad was often out at sea," she said. "Growing up, it was common amongst immigrant Filipino families to have multi-generational households. Established Filipino families would welcome new immigrant arrivals and house extended family until they could establish housing and income, etcetera."
Bikol cultural and religious traditions were a part of life growing up in Virginia Beach, home to the largest Filipino community on the East Coast. Millete attended the Saint Gregory Parish with her mother and grandmother growing up, but her religious affiliation was decidedly Filipina-centric. Church venues were reserved for celebrations such as the annual Peñafrancia Festival, which honors the Virgin Mary, referred to in Pilipino as nuestra señora de Peñafrancia.
"As a child, the parties, food, dancing, music were so fun – you know, all the Filipino stuff that you get to do – with people that looked like you and could relate to."
Millete's parents and grandmother spoke to her primarily in English but enjoyed speaking in their native language of Bicolano and connecting with others from the Bikol region. The Bicol Association of Tidewater hosted fun parties, preserved cultural heritage, fostered religious affinity, functioned as a community support group, and provided fertile ground for community activism.
Navigating the world in her early years, Millete was conscious of how she felt in different environments.
"As a child, I kind of had a bifurcated life," she said. "In those settings where it was all Filipino people, where it was safe, I celebrated my Filipino identity. At that time, I probably didn't know what it was, but I always felt uncomfortable to be myself in the non-Filipino settings, going to people's houses. I always felt tentative and uncomfortable, especially around adults, because they would always say little things that made me feel different, even if the comments seemed innocent or came from a good place. Once I was in school, I tried to make sure I assimilated and liked the same music or the same 'whatever' because I wanted to fit in."
At an early age, Millete realized that physical appearance distinguished her and her family from others in the community around her. One particularly vivid memory was when her dad was wrongfully accused.
"My dad was accused of shoplifting when I was around eight or nine years old, and it made an impression on me," she said. "It didn't seem to matter that he worked for the Navy, but more the color of his skin. My dad has an accent, and he's 5'7" and really skinny and so in a lot of settings, he was always smaller than the people we would encounter. I definitely felt that he was intimidated and did not want to say the wrong things. I picked up on that vibe."
Later, she learned that her father also faced discrimination in the Navy.
"I felt like it was unfair," she recounted. "You are in the Navy; you are going above and beyond. You are actually putting your life on the line, and you are being mistreated. To doubly prove yourself, you have to exceed expectations to prove that you are loyal."
The experiences acquainted her with injustice but also encouraged her to learn what she could do to combat it. In high school, Millete expanded beyond the Bikol community and became affiliated with the Filipino American National Historical Society, where she learned about Filipino culture and history. She recalls attending meetings and participating in productions that would reflect the experience of Filipino Americans. She also educated herself about issues impacting her community, such as advocating for Filipino World War II veterans who were offered less than equal pensions and benefits for their military service, contrary to what was initially promised when joining the Navy.
"I wanted to know what my rights are in cases where we encountered injustice," she said. "I wanted to assert my rights and defend my family. In high school, I got into political issues. I thought, 'How can I educate myself? And how can I make a change, or how can I better my community?' It's like I wanted a seat at the table, and if I saw something, an injustice or something that's needed, I would be involved and find a way to participate."
Despite dreams of college in California after high school, Millete attended the University of Virginia (UVA). Her decision to attend UVA had as much to do with Virginia resident tuition being within reach of family financial resources as it did with the school's prestige.
"I was happy to go there," she said. "It's a good school, but there was a limited pool of schools for me to go to. It was too expensive to go outside of Virginia."
At UVA, Millete broadened her perspective beyond her Bikol-Filipino community and formed alliances with minority communities.
"I have a love-hate relationship with my time there," she said. "It was hard to be a person of color there. I was the president of the Asian Student Union. I gravitated toward those affinity groups and coalition building with the Black student group, the Latino group, the LGBT group. That's where I felt like myself and could be authentic."
While at UVA, Millete advocated for significant change initiatives, including the establishment of an Asian American Studies minor, the establishment of the Multicultural student center, the creation of an Asian American peer advisor family network, and the eventual dismantling of the university's honor code under which disproportionate rates of minority students were expelled under a single-sanction expulsion process. Through coalition building, Millete was inspired to run and won the election as Vice President of the College of Arts & Sciences, as it was a goal for the affinity groups that students of color be "at the table" to be taken more seriously or have credibility as student leaders.
After earning a degree in Foreign Affairs at Virginia, Millete contemplated working within the university system or studying law. In the end, she did both by taking a full-time job in the Georgetown University Law Center, Continuing Legal Education, and Academic Conferences department for three years before attending law school in its part-time program, where she finished in three and a half years.
"I thought 'Georgetown's perfect,'” she recounted. "They have an evening program, and they have tuition benefits for full-time workers. I already had public loan debt from UVA, so I could not afford law school without this critical benefit. It's also a great school and really focused on public interest. It was a cool place to be. I definitely felt like I fit in there."
While juggling her job and law studies at Georgetown, Millete worked one semester as a clerk at the Federal Trade Commission and worked summers, first as a Legal and Policy Intern at the International Organization for Migration, Migration Policy, Research & Communications in Geneva, Switzerland and the following summer at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. She started to envision herself working in Government.
"Without really knowing it at the time, it was because my dad was in the military and my mom was a public servant working for the Department of Veteran's Affairs," she said. "I gravitated toward public service, so I think the government was always sort of where I wanted to go and be."
At a public interest job fair in her second year, she learned about the opportunity to apply for the Corps' Chief Counsel Honors Attorney Program. Millete applied, was selected, and was offered the opportunity to begin her career at the Corps' headquarters in Washington, D.C., after graduating from law school.
"From the start, I got to work on really critical, important projects," she said. "I was working a very large Hurricane Katrina debris removal bid protest and reviewing work for projects in Afghanistan. These are the kinds of things that would cross my desk. I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, you know, this is pretty cool that they trust me to review these very critical, important actions.'"
Millete credits several mentors with helping her early in her career.
"I got hired in headquarters in the procurement branch," she said. "I think that's an atypical path for honors attorneys. I interviewed with Amy Pereira, who was the head of procurement, and I think she connected with me. Amy was a female senior attorney at headquarters. It was rare to see women in that position in 2009, but maybe it's a little different now. There are elements of our stories that were similar – the Georgetown connection and I think she also worked full time and went to school at night. She was definitely planting seeds in my head of how to progress, to be purposeful. I always was so thankful that she was my boss."
"There were mentors like Mike Adams, who used to be the New York District Counsel and former Chief Counsel for Procurement at headquarters," she said. "He was a rehired annuitant, and one of his duties was to train me. I credit my knowledge base to him because he sat with me and took the time to break things down."
After working at Corps headquarters, Millete took a position with the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a small federal agency, before returning in 2016 to the Corps in the Honolulu District, where she expanded her subject matter expertise into Civil Works, international issues, and environmental law.
"I always thought about the possibility of a return to the Corps," she said. "I credit my expanded knowledge base to those I worked with in Honolulu and am grateful for the experiences there."
While Millete joined the Corps when she was single and had more time to invest in work, she is now married with two young children and enjoys the work-life balance afforded to Corps attorneys.
"My boss respects our desire for balance," she said. "I'm happy I can attend my kids' events. On days I telework from home, I can go to their school, which is a seven-minute walk away, and attend an ice cream social or volunteer at lunch and go back to work. I love my family and always enjoy spending time with them."
While maintaining a work-life balance, Millete has still been able to advance her career. She was recently selected for a promotion to serve as the Seattle District's Principal Assistant District Counsel for Procurement Law and feels supported in expanding her subject matter expertise and pursuing leadership opportunities. She also noted appreciation for the attorneys that she works with.
"We've have a very solid office," she said. "People work hard. They respect each other. It is collaborative. Yeah, it's good. I am very happy."
Although she no longer lives in the community that raised her, Millete still carries her Bikol roots as an advocate for her family, her local community, and the nation.
"Beyond the day-to-day grind of your practice, and if you have the mental and emotional aptitude to make time, there is a lot of learning you can do and things to get involved in, whether that be leadership development, mentoring or special event committees," she said. "I try to build community within my district or wherever I am. That makes me feel more connected."