Lessons from Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor

ast week I was afforded the opportunity to attend a conversation between President Paxton of Brown University and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. I didn’t really know what to expect, to be honest. I just knew that I wanted to be in the same room as Sotomayor and hear her speak, being that she is  the first Supreme Court Justice of Hispanic descent. I remember her appointment being a big deal back when I was in high school, so I was more than excited to hear her speak in person. The talk took place at the National Academy of Science and was centered around diversity in research.

As she navigated through the audience shaking hands, Sotomayor imparted a lot of useful wisdom to us.  On top of that she had great sense of humor that captured my attention from the very start.

Here are a couple of gems she dropped during this conversation.

1. The key to your success is finding your passion. Don’t define who you are based off of other people’s expectations. In order for you to be successful at something, you have to be the best at it. You can’t be the best until you want to be the best. And you won’t want to be the best at something if it isn’t what you’re passionate about. 

Once you find your passion acquire whatever skills are necessary to set you apart. When your colleagues and higher up see how well you handle certain responsibilities they’ll give you more. That, my friends, is called promotion.

2In order to remain in love with your passion fall in love with learning new things. Not every day on the job will be your best. It might be draining at times. The key to falling back in love with what you do is figuring out how to love it in a new way. Read up on your interests outside of work. Approach your profession from with a new perspective whenever you can.  Work in a law firm? Familiarize yourself with cases going on outside your firm. Studying medicine (like moi)? Get a subscription to a medical journal and read up on new studies in specialties that interest you. Switch it up a little bit, so that you're never bored doing what you love.


3. Make friends outside of your own group. Bridge the gap. Get to know people who aren’t like you.  Venture out of your comfort zone and interact with people who come from different backgrounds and walks of as you. Don’t isolate yourself. Build bridges, so that you can learn from others and vice versa. Explore the human condition from different perspectives. By doing so we can see the humanity in others which makes it easier for us to relate to one another and work towards common goals.I know that sounds mushy and too kumbaya for a lot of people, but let me give you a practical example. Sotomayor mentioned that one time she’d been working on a case with a diverse group of lawyers concerning a New York law that basically allowed police officers to confiscate a person’s vehicle if they suspected it was used in a crime. Depending on when a person could get a hearing, their car could remain in custody for up to a whole year even if they were completely innocent.

To this point one lawyer joked, “Well who needs a car in New York City anyways?”
 Sure  she was making light of the situation, but at the root of her comment was a problematic way of thinking.

To her statement Sotomayor replied, “The cleaning people who drive their own vans to work. People who commute to the city for work, but live outside of the city. Taxi cab drivers who drive their own cars to make a living.”  The list went on.

Her colleagues were silent.

Because of her upbringing and the things she saw around her, Sotomayor was able to expose her fellow colleagues to realities that they would have never had the chance to experience had they not been interacting with people outside of their normal sphere.

It’s through collaborative efforts that progress is born. For example, President Obama wasn’t elected purely on the African American vote. People from various walks of life with different, yet similar stories rallied together to vote for change and progress. And for some time, we had just that. We were living in a different kind of America. In light of the recent election, we must strive to do the same thing. What's done is done. 

 What do we gain from calling our bigot Facebook friends racist and then unfriending them? Their internal seeds of ignorance, intolerance, and hatred continue to be watered by their like minded peers in our absence.

We have a responsibility to build bridges with those around us and educate them on our concerns while acknowledging that theirs are valid as well. Things won’t change overnight, but we can each do our part by sitting down with those around to listen and collaborate.

If they still remain hateful, rude, or intolerant after a civil discussion then go ahead and unfriend them
In the wise words of K Camp, “It ain’t nothin to cut that trick off.”
And in the wise words of my intelligent and lowkey ratchet colleagues at Howard : “SNIP SNIP HOE.”

4. None of us are one thing. We’re complex human beings who are a conglomerate of our life experiences. What you’ve experienced helps you approach problems and teach others to think more broadly. Sotomayor acknowledged that she was more than a Latina. She was the product of a single mother upbringing. She was the product of 12 years of Roman Catholic school education. She was the product of affirmative action. She was product of both a  Yale AND Princeton education.

This multifaceted identity is what has allowed her to approach different cases throughout her career with fresh, open eyes each time. .

5. The biggest challenge to the United States Justice System is education. When asked what Americans should keep in mind to equalize the justice system, Sotomayor replied, “We cannot become an equal society until we equalize educational opportunity.” 

 Only through education and collaborative efforts (see above), can we engage with one another with a more common understanding.

Through education, Sotomayor was exposed to new realities beyond what she could imagine. Through reading (which she revealed she was obsessed with as a child) she was exposed to new ideas. After school programs offered her a safe haven and along with the efforts of her strict mother, prevented her from succumbing to the dangerous pressures of street life.

Her cousin on the other hand didn’t fare so well, becoming addicted to heroin and dying of AIDS all before his 30th birthday. Their paths, Sotomayor shared, diverged in the area  of education. Nothing more.

Never underestimate the power of education and its capacity to change the trajectory of anyone’s life.
Complaining about crime rates? Equalize education. Expose children to options outside of what they're used to. Complaining about police brutality? Equalize education. Expose people to other cultures and encourage them to see the humanity in people unlike themselves. 

6. Be a good mentee When picking a mentor, pick someone who’s doing something you want to emulate, someone who’s doing something you don’t know how to do. And once you identify that person take initiative and introduce yourself. And don’t just be a sponge that only soaks up knowledge. Show them that you’re taking initiative outside of your meetings with them and that you’re applying their advice. And if possible, help your mentor. Mentors are often busy people, so mentorship makes it worth their while.  For example, Sotomayor shared that while interning at a law firm, she’d help her boss/ mentor with any extra work they needed to get done. By staying after hours to help out, she was able to secure valuable one on one time with her boss despite his busy schedule.

These are just a couple of tips that Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor shared during her discussion with President Paxton. Overall it was a very eye opening, inspiring, and thought provoking discussion that I'm glad I was able to attend (instead of studying lol). 


originally published 11/9/16

Judy Oranika