At CUNY Law’s 32nd commencement held on May 12, Sherrilyn Ifill urged the 91 graduates to stand up and protect public life and institutions.
“All we have to do is go to our battle stations and prepare to fight for the soul of this democracy. That’s all. That’s kind of a big job. I know. I know. But it is what we signed up for,” she said.
Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and served as the commencement speaker. She shared some of her personal story, namely that 37 years ago, she sat in the same seat as the audience, for her high school graduation ceremony, also held at Colden Auditorium at Queens College. She described the impact that the investment in public institutions had on her life as a child of Barbadian immigrants with nine other children, growing up in Queens.
“Those public schools, public parks, public transportation, public universities force us to interact with each other and really see one another and see our destinies as interconnected.”
She noted that the right to vote is a key aspect of public life that needs protection.
“I want to encourage you to fight for the maintenance of all other aspects of public life, not just in this city but in this country that give working class people the chance to improve their lives and be in a position to see the humanity in one another. Whether it’s the public university, the public park or the public square, fight for it.”
Ifill also had some practical advice for the graduates such as to exclusively focus on studying for the bar exam for the next couple of weeks, enrich their perspectives by working outside of NYC at some point, drink lots of water, dance, read novels and visit their families often.
Ifill received an honorary Doctors of Law from CUNY Law and shared the stage with Ann Cammett ’00 who received the Outstanding Professor Award, and Shoshana M. Brown ‘17, who was selected as the student speaker by her peers.
In her speech, Brown noted that CUNY Law gave her a chance when other schools wouldn’t. Prior to entering CUNY Law, she was part of the Pipeline to Justice program which prepares individuals underrepresented in the legal profession for law school.
“For many of us, today marks the day when we become the first law school graduates in our families,” Brown said. “Together we are breaking the mold of centuries of oppression as women, as people of color, as gender non-conforming individuals and as LGBT people. We are opening the gateway of a law school education for our children, our grandchildren and the many future generation of non-traditional law school students to come.”
Brown pointed out numerous practical ways in which the Class of 2017 has already fought for justice. She recognized the considerable challenges that lie before them at this time but reminded her classmates that they are boosted by the trailblazers before them.
“We are anchored by the bravery and resilience of the leaders who have come before us and we are carving an umistakable path for the next generation of fighters to follow. We see the humanity in people and we can invoke this vision into the law. The time is now when we must not be afraid to tear down the darkness with our legal arguments and our advocacy on behalf of our clients.”
The enormous need for effective public interest lawyering and the ability of CUNY Law graduates to fill this need was a sentiment echoed throughout the 2017 graduation ceremonies, led by Dean Mary Lu Bilek. Dean Bilek returned to the law school last year as the fifth dean.
At the Lawyer’s Pledge the night before, Tracey Dorval, a front desk security officer selected for the Community Service Award reminded the graduates that they are capable of meeting the challenges before them, while Professor Ramzi Kassem, selected by the graduates as a Distinguished Public Interest Leader urged them to “seek allies, not admirers.”
Speaking to her classmates, Kathryn Joseph ’17, recipient of the Dave Fields Prize for Student Achievement and Leadership noted that “now is a moment when your background in public interest, your clinical experience, your willingness to advocate, to appear in court on behalf of people who would not have anyone to advocate for them, if not for you, will be called upon.”
Judge Ronald Ellis who led the Class of 2017 in taking the Lawyer’s Pledge when they first came to law school in 2014 and now again, when they are ready to enter the legal profession expressed confidence that their time at CUNY Law has equipped them with “the strength and courage to make the difficult decisions ahead.”