United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor says she often finds herself wanting to reach out to people who have known hard times and lost hope for a better future. It’s what brought her recently to the city of Stockton in California’s Central Valley, where times have been exceedingly tough in recent years.
Poverty, unemployment and crime rates run high in the Stockton area, which was the epicenter of the 2007 California real estate crash and once led the nation in home foreclosures. The subsequent recession added to the problems faced by the City of Stockton, which is emerging shakily from a municipal bankruptcy declared in 2012.
So when she agreed to come to Stockton to be the keynote speaker at the Advancing Women’s Leadership Conference, Justice Sotomayor set aside matters of law to talk about life, learning and leadership. More than 3,000 people, many of them college, high school and middle school students, attended the sold-out event, which was held October 23, 2015, on the campus of the University of the Pacific.
“It’s important (to reach out) because, having grown up the way I did and the challenges that I lived through, I understand the need for hope. If I hadn’t found some hope in my life, those challenges would have overcome me,” said Justice Sotomayor, the third woman and first Latina to sit on the high court.
The justice spoke only briefly from the stage, spending most of her time strolling among the students seated in the upper levels of the auditorium. Her rapport with them was clear as she clasped hands, touched shoulders and gave hugs.
Justice Sotomayor, who was diagnosed with diabetes at age 7 and lost her father to alcoholism at age 9, told the students that everyone faces adversity. While growing up poor in New York City was not necessarily a happy childhood, she said she sometimes wonders if she would have achieved what she has had her experiences been different.
Justice Sotomayor said students need to learn how to learn. She recalled how she initially lagged behind her grade school classmates and knew she could do better. Shy about speaking to her teacher, she asked the smartest girl in class how she studied, learning from her about underlining, summarizing information and, most importantly, thinking about what she was doing and why. The real lesson, she said, was asking for help.
“Too many people are ashamed of saying the words ‘I don’t know.’ You have to be courageous enough to know when you don’t know and courageous enough to ask for help,” she said.
That philosophy has served her well throughout life, said Justice Sotomayor, who was appointed to the high court by President Obama in 2009. She recalled an early Supreme Court experience in which she expressed self-doubt to Justice John Paul Stevens about her ability to craft opinions. She said her confidence was bolstered enormously when the much more senior Justice Stevens responded, “No one was born a justice. You grow into it.”
She said students should always remember, “No one is born into anything. You have to grow into positions.”
Justice Sotomayor recognized teachers who had accompanied the students, describing them as the “most important people in most people’s lives.” The most successful teachers, she added, are passionate not just about teaching but learning.
As to how to achieve success and become a leader, the justice suggested that a college liberal
A delighted student receives a warm embrace from Justice Sotomayor
arts education makes for a well-rounded person with enough knowledge to interact with others on a wide variety of subjects.
Justice Sotomayor also took the opportunity to make clear her pride in her gender and heritage.
“It is very cool to be a Latina,” she said in answering a question from student member of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “And you know why it’s cool? We’re beautiful. We’re sexy. We’re smart. And we can dance.”
Asked about women in leadership roles by University President Pamela A. Eibeck, Justice Sotomayor said there are differences.
“As a generality, there is more compassion in the leadership of women. There’s more of a willingness to listen to others rather than dictate the answers. And I think that makes working together more inclusive,” she said.
Throughout her hour-long talk, the justice made frequent references to the importance of mentors and role models and urged women professionals to help others.
“Once you achieve any kind of position of responsibility, you have an obligation to give back. Women should mentor other women, minorities should give back,” Justice Sotomayor said, adding, “It’s why I am here.”
Justice Sotomayor’s appearance at the event was two years in the making, said Circuit Judge Consuelo M. “Connie” Callahan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, a Stockton resident who earned her law degree from UOP’s McGeorge School of Law.
“I told her the story of our community and who we are and how her story would inspire us,” Judge Callahan said in introducing the justice on stage.
“What I told the justice is that our community contains many students that face the same challenges that she has overcome in her life,” Judge Callahan later explained, noting that many young people in Stockton live in poverty and may have a parent in prison or having substance abuse issues.
“Our focus was on making the leadership opportunity available to young people,” she added.
Advancing Women’s Leadership was launched by a group of Stockton business, education and civic leaders as a one day public forum that brings outstanding women leaders to the city to inspire and empower youth and adults alike. The group, which is based at UOP, is intended to serve as a collaborative community effort that will promote women’s leadership throughout California’s San Joaquin County.
(Video of Justice Sotomayor’s remarks is available here. More information about Advancing Women’s Leadership is available from the group’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AWL2.0.