Surly, Activist—Online

Erin Smith Aebel’s concerns about the country’s direction inspired her to launch an activist page on Facebook—for starters

Published in 2020 Florida Super Lawyers magazine

By G.K. Sharman on June 4, 2020


When an obstacle lands in Erin Smith Aebel’s way, she only knows one response: channeling her concern into activism. 

That’s what she did after the 2016 elections, when she redoubled her involvement in progressive social and political causes. And that’s what she did 11 years earlier, when her daughter’s pancreas quit producing insulin at age 4 and Aebel signed up for the fight against diabetes.  

“If I’m helping other people,” says Aebel, a board-certified health care attorney and partner at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick in Tampa, “it makes me feel better inside.”

Until the election, her advocacy was mostly with the American Diabetes Association in Tampa Bay, where she chaired the Community Leadership Board and the Step Out to Stop Diabetes walk.

Then came that “watershed year,” she says. “I started to question a lot of things. I had always been interested and involved politically, but the 2016 presidential election told me I needed to get involved on an unprecedented level, out of concern for our democracy and our country’s future.”

To Aebel, it wasn’t about conservative versus liberal but about basic principles like tolerance, women’s rights, income equality, access to health care. “We need to check our values and find new norms we can tolerate, hopefully even embrace, and get those into our government,” she says.

The first thing she did—even before marching in the St. Pete Women’s March the day after the 2017 inauguration—was co-create a Facebook group: Surly Feminists for the Revolution. It numbers more than 13,000 members; provides a forum for discussions of politics, feminism and racism; and promotes political events and candidates. 

“All genders and gender identifications are welcome,” Aebel says, “so long as you are somewhat surly and feminist.” 

Aebel is a past board member of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida; on the board of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay; mentors business women through Tampa’s Athena Society; and sits on the state advisory board of Ruth’s List, which encourages female candidates.

“Whatever your political persuasion,” Aebel says, “you have to recognize that we don’t have enough women in leadership commensurate with the population.” 

Aebel learned the importance of community activism at Loyola University, where she earned bachelor’s and law degrees—and met husband Bruce, also an attorney. In addition to daughter Lillian, now 15, they have a son, Beau, 12.

“The Jesuit priests were always involved, always active in the community,” she recalls. “I believe in that model of a lawyer as a professional who is a problem-solver, community advocate and leader.”

Her advocacy for diabetic children also became a pro bono niche, dovetailing with her main practice. “I work to make sure the schools and other agencies are aware of their legal obligations to accommodate diabetic children,” she says. “I try not to file lawsuits unless it is necessary.” 

Aebel speaks the language of HIPAA and Stark, licensure and employment agreements, liability, and the emerging complexities of cannabis law. Clients range from doctors in solo offices to group practices, pharmacies, labs and hospitals. One of her largest projects was the sale of Bayfront Health to a for-profit hospital system. 

“I like taking complex regulations and rules and explaining them to medical providers in ways they can understand and practically comply with,” she says. “A physician owning his own practice has to know almost as much as a large facility.”

As serious as she is about her legal career and activism, she still finds time for whimsy. Which is its own form of serving others.

“I’m a Rent the Runway-style ambassador for people like myself—curvy middle-aged women,” says Aebel, who has more than 1,400 followers on Instagram and more than 4,000 friends on her personal Facebook page. 

“I often take photos of my clothes and post them on Instagram. It’s stress relief. It makes me feel good about myself and makes other women feel good to see someone who looks like them.”

“If you only look at all the unfairness in world, it can keep you up at night. So sometimes I just post a picture of myself in a cocktail dress.”

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