New York, May 2, 2013—Civil rights advocacy must extend beyond law to journalism and culture, said Michèle Stephenson ’95, acclaimed Haitian-born filmmaker, former human rights attorney, and recipient of the Columbia Black Law Students Association’s (BLSA) Distinguished Alumni Award at the 19th annual Paul Robeson Gala.
BLSA hosts the gala each year to celebrate the life and legacy of renowned lawyer, entertainer, and civil rights advocate Paul Robeson ’23, one of Columbia Law School’s most distinguished alumni. Stephenson’s work involves interdisciplinary explorations of social justice and human rights issues, grounded in law and global advocacy. At the April 25 Paul Robeson Gala at the Columbia Club of New York, near Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, Stephenson credited her relationships at the Law School with helping inspire her career.
“BLSA was a place of nurturance, support, and sustenance that provided the ability for us to dream beyond the moment,” she said.
Attendees screened a trailer for Stephenson’s latest film, American Promise, which she produced with her husband Joe Brewster. The documentary follows the couple’s son and his best friend through more than a decade navigating New York City’s public and private educational system. Winner of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award, the film is scheduled to air on PBS later this year.
In addition to her documentary work, Stephenson is an accomplished global advocate for human rights. She is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Haitian Kreyol, and Portuguese.
Columbia University Professor Josef Sorett
The gala’s keynote speaker was Josef Sorett, assistant professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University, who discussed how contemporary social movements continue Robeson’s mission.
“I’m not going to say that gay is the new black, but justice is justice, unequivocally, whether for gay or immigrant communities,” Sorett said.
Sorett dedicated his remarks to the memory of Richard Iton, a scholar of African-American studies who influenced many, including Stephenson. Like Robeson, Iton and Stephenson, advocates for racial justice should look not only to law but to society at large, Sorett said.
“Human freedom cannot be measured through simple legal equality,” he said. “Beyond legal equality, the challenge is in the culture and the arts.”
Members of the BLSA leadership team
BLSA continues to be a thriving and dynamic force at Columbia Law School. At the gala dinner, current and incoming BLSA leadership updated attendees on recent initiatives and achievements. In the past year, the group co-sponsored Marching Towards Justice, an exhibit at the Law School about the importance of the 14th Amendment, and organized a silent protest of Fisher v. Texas, the controversial affirmative action case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Members also won regional and national awards in the 2012-2013 Frederick Douglass Moot Court Competition. In addition, BLSA has sponsored various events on campus and assisted minority students and alumni with networking and professional development.
Previous alumni honorees at the Paul Robeson Gala include Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. ’76 and Peter C. Harvey ’82, former attorney general of New Jersey. Keynote speakers have included former New York City mayor David N. Dinkins and scholar Derrick Bell. Jones Day and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP generously sponsored this year’s event.
Gala co-chairs Jasmine Bolton '14 and Elliot Watts '14
“Each year, the Paul Robeson Gala seeks to celebrate Robeson as a true Renaissance man,” said event co-chair Elliot Watts ’14. “He used his intellect and artistic ability to improve the human condition, even when doing so was controversial. His legacy as a Columbia Law alumnus continues to inspire students and alumni to return and pay homage.”
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