It was an event marking a milestone, but the focus was on the future: The Columbia Law School Black Law Students Association (BLSA) celebrated a quarter century of honoring civil rights icon Paul Robeson, class of 1923 and, as gala co-chair Alexis Campbell ’20 put it, “the positive impact that black minds bring to the law.”
BLSA members joined faculty, friends, and alumni on February 7 at the University Club to celebrate the gathering’s 25th anniversary. In addition to recognizing student scholarship winners, the event honored litigator Sheila S. Boston ’93 and Eric H. Holder Jr. ’76. Holder was raised in Queens, New York, and served as President Barack Obama’s attorney general from 2009 to 2015.
Holder said the nation is “at a bleak crossroads, at a time in our history that I could not have predicted [as a law student] and frequently cannot comprehend now.”
Instead of reasoned debate, “non-evidence-based, visceral and often ugly emotion” is driving national policy, and that has put social progress at risk,’’ he said. “Many of the pillars at the center of the American experiment—the press and the courts in particular—have been needlessly challenged by those at the highest levels of our government. The reliability of the media is put into question by the use of specious assertions and so-called alternative facts.
“In Queens, we call those lies,” Holder said.
Representation in the Profession
Holder cited the drastic overrepresentation of African-Americans in prisons: “Too many people go to too many jails for far too long for no good law enforcement reason. This is wrong.” Meanwhile, he said, minorities are dramatically underrepresented in the legal profession: In 2018 just 5 percent of lawyers were African-American and 5 percent Hispanic. “All of us, both collectively and as individuals, have more to do not only to improve diversity in our profession but to advance equality more generally.”
But Holder also quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s aphorism that “only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”
“Today, once again, it is dark enough,” he said, and the stars can be seen “in you, the students who are investing in your education to empower yourselves—so that you can change the damn world.”
BLSA convened the first Paul Robeson Conference and Gala in 1994, though the founding of the organization at Columbia dates to the 1970s. This year’s Robeson Conference, on March 1 in Jerome Greene Hall, will focus on the theme of “Ubuntu, the Power of We.” The term is a Xhosa word whose meaning “I am because we are” describes a southern African philosophy of humanism and community.
Sheila Boston, a product liability defense litigator with Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, touched on the ubuntu theme in reflecting on people who had helped her achieve her education and career. “I just want you to know tonight the importance and the power of community. Don’t you let anybody tell you that you pulled yourself by your own bootstraps. We stand on the shoulders of greatness,’’ Boston said, thanking previous generations “who did so much for us, so we could get to a place like this tonight.’’
BLSA awarded three scholarships, one to a student in each year of law school. The Eric H. Holder Jr. Scholarship, for a first-year student who has advanced the interests of social justice, was awarded to Udodilim “U.d.” Nnamdi ’21. She serves on advisory committees of both the Human Rights Institute and Columbia Society for International Law and participates in the Human Rights Institute 1L Advocates Program. Nnamdi is also an inaugural recipient of the Davis Polk Leadership Fellowship.
Gelsey Beaubrun ’20 earned the Robert L. Carter Scholarship, for a second-year student who has shown exemplary dedication to BLSA and the Columbia Law community. Beaubrun serves as co-chair of BLSA’s Academic Committee and is president of the Christian Legal Society. She is also a debate coach for the nonprofit Legal Outreach, helping high school students of color prepare for debate tournaments.
The Constance Baker Motley Scholarship, for a third-year student pursuing a career in public interest law, went to Delia Addo-Yobo ’19. She was a Beyond the Bars fellow, working for racial and gender justice within the legal system. Upon graduation she will join the Bronx Defenders’ Still She Rises project as a public defender, working to end the criminalization of acts of self-defense by survivors of domestic and gender-based violence.
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Published February 21, 2019