Greeting and Congratulations to the members of the Class of 2010, and to Family, Friends, Staff, Faculty, Administrators, and Fellow Travelers
I am Andrew Fields and I have had the great privilege, honor, and pleasure of teaching for the past 8 years with Professor Rhonda Copelon in the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic.
It is a great honor then, albeit one taken at a time of great sadness, to be here today to address you on the occasion of this honor being bestowed upon Professor Copelon or, as we knew her, Rhonda.
While some of you knew Rhonda even before she came to this Law School, many of you are learning of her only today. Whichever category you fall into, your life has been touched by Rhonda.
You may have been touched by the love and caring you shared with Rhonda as her student, colleague, comrade, or friend.
If you didn’t know Rhonda personally, you nonetheless have been touched by her many accomplishments.
Indeed, the world has been made a safer place for all of us by the paradigm shift in human rights law and international criminal law, instigated in part by Rhonda’s work, that recognizes the universal prohibition against sexual and gender violence, whether perpetrated by armed combatants or by our intimates in our homes.
When Rhonda received the M. Shanara Gilbert Human Rights Award from the Society of American Law Teachers, she noted that awards - such as the one you bestow today - are a form of theft. As Rhonda explained, the award has been given to her but:
“We all know it takes not only a good dose of serendipity, but also a village and even a global movement—at least in the field of social justice and women's rights—to make change.”
With this in mind, then, I first want to acknowledge that all of the accomplishments for which Rhonda is being recognized today were done in collaboration with and with the assistance of so many of you. Most especially, the insight, hard work, sacrifices, and patience of the many generations of students and staff in the IWHR Clinic was integral to the accomplishments for which Rhonda is being recognized today.
This is also a good point to emphasize that Rhonda was every bit as committed as a teacher as she was committed to changing the world. She was tireless in her efforts to promote students, their understanding, and their work and these efforts knew no boundaries.
I spent some time with Rhonda just a few days before her death and, recognizing that she would not be here today, she asked me to relate a message with her advice for leading a well-lived life.
But before I relate the message, I want to challenge some of the assumptions you may be making at the moment. With all the pomp and circumstance that surrounds this graduation, and with the reverence that we bestow upon someone who has recently passed away, and with Rhonda’s world-changing accomplishments, how can it be that Rhonda’s suggestions for a well-lived life have any relevance to us who are far less perfect?
Now those of you who knew Rhonda don’t need me to tell you that if all people have their complications and contradictions, then someone as great as Rhonda most assuredly must have had some pretty great complications and contradictions. And this, of course, is true. For example:
-Rhonda’s thinking was years if not decades ahead of her time. Yet she was always late for meetings.
-Rhonda has literally changed the world, but she never could figure out how to change the ringer setting on her mobile phone so it wouldn’t go off at inopportune moments.
-And Rhonda, who was so committed to the importance of process as a means of limiting power and thereby ensuring fairness, somehow could never limit her remarks to the time prescribed by that process. [And so, if I go over my allotted three minutes, know that I do it with Rhonda close to my heart].
As I return to sharing Rhonda’s message, know that she was as normal and complicated as the rest of us, and and therefore her advice is not tarnished by greatness but rather is equally relevant to all of us.
Rhonda explained that looking back at her life, she was comforted and satisfied because she felt that her life was well-lived. A life-well lived, she explained, was one marked by purpose and a search for meaning. And, she explained, there were two hallmarks to a well-lived life: your relationships and your life-work.
The nature and quality of the relationships that you cultivate during your life are key to a well-lived life because it is through these relationships that you will be able to effect positive change within yourself, in the many communities in which you participate, and in the broader world. Rhonda urged that “you find colleagues for life and join together in your search for meaning.”
Rhonda included among her significant relationships those with her friends, her colleagues, her intimates, those with whom she fought for social change, and, importantly, the students (and graduates) of this Law School.
While the ingredients in any successful relationship are complex, the success of Rhonda’s relationships were based in large part on respect and love.
Rhonda was a feminist and an activist at heart, and she brought this to her roles as a lawyer, a scholar, and a teacher. Her life work included combating entrenched and long-standing assumptions about gender that created, perpetuated, and protected an unjust distribution of power and resources to the detriment of all people. As Rhonda would tell you, rigid and constricted notions of gender limit the freedom of all, even as these limitations are most conspicuously experienced by women, girls, and by those of us who live at odds with those assumptions about gender.
Rhonda’s advice was that you will find meaning and satisfaction through choosing a path of life work that has meaning for you and the communities around you.
Rhonda’s life work was difficult and constantly being challenged, but Rhonda was successful in large part because the relationships that surrounded her made that work enjoyable and sustainable. And just as the people around Rhonda sustained her through her life-work, so too did she - with unbounded love and commitment - sustain those around her.
In this time of “me, me, me,” Rhonda’s advice sounds like such a difficult task - to find and cultivate relationships that can sustain you through the difficult life paths you have chosen as public interest lawyers and as activists committed to important social change. But you are already well on your way. Just look around you, at the people seated throughout this auditorium. These are the people who will support you, sustain you, and challenge you, as you do your glorious life-work.
This is a community that sustained Rhonda through her life-work, and it will sustain you through yours. Good luck!