January 9, 2009
Ann Cammett: Society of American Law Teachers Introduction of Rhonda Copelon
Good evening. My name is Ann Cammett and I am a new law professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ Boyd School of Law. Before I begin my remarks I also want to extend my congratulations to another deserving awardee, Steve Wizner, for his receipt of SALT’s Great Teacher Award.
Tonight I have a unique opportunity to offer a few words of introduction for an extraordinary woman, Rhonda Copelon. I do this at my first Society of American Law Teachers dinner in a space filled with fellow travelers, so to speak, which only compounds my joy in this honor. I am delighted that you have had the good judgment to honor Rhonda – one of the most thoughtful, creative, and generous people that I have ever known.
In just a few minutes you’ll hear from Charlotte Bunch – an incredible activist in her own right – who will comment on Rhonda’s incalculable contributions to the field of International Women’s Human Rights. My task here is a more modest, but I believe important one: a story about one activist teacher’s profound influence on another, and I’m sure that in the telling I am channeling the story of a hundred others.
As SALT represents “a community of progressive law teachers working for justice, diversity, and academic excellence” I can think of no more appropriate place to make these remarks as I trace my desire to become a law professor to Rhonda’s unique style of mentoring.
Let me start back in the 1990s, when I was a student at CUNY Law School and fortuitously landed in Rhonda’s Constitutional Family Law class. At CUNY, unlike other law schools, family law is a required course. That turns out to have been a true benefit to me, as I ultimately became a family lawyer working with women in prison.
Now: Rhonda’s class was fascinating and as you would imagine, often controversial. She had already established herself as a special Supreme Court litigator in reproductive rights cases and all the movements for gender equality, arguing such cases as Harris v. McCrae, which challenged the cutoff of Medicaid funds for abortion. Rhonda’s cases always focused on improving conditions for those most at risk as there was often an economic justice component to her work, and I truly admired that.
During one law school class in particular I was in for a treat when she delivered a lecture essentially equating the institution of marriage with slavery. Even the most stalwart young feminists squirmed in their seats as it appeared that she had shot a thunderbolt through their most core belief systems. But in Rhonda’s inimitable soft-spoken (barely audible style), she continued to in a non-polemical way deconstruct the institution of marriage and challenge heteronormativity, and moreover - push people to think of the family as a political unit like any other where specific rights and responsibilities countenanced by society – i.e. a feminist analysis of marriage.
I chuckled in the back of the class as the classroom drama unfolded, and Rhonda quietly calmly engaged the students, without a trace of defensiveness. Needless to say I was impressed, and resolved to work with this woman. Luckily, she soon asked me to be her teaching assistant.
Now, most of you here who know Rhonda also know that being a teaching assistant isn’t just being a teaching assistant, right? In essence, it’s like signing up for a lifetime commitment to Rhonda’s global social justice juggernaut!
Once she gets her hooks in you it’s all over. The good fortune for those who work with her is not just that you benefit from Rhonda’s passion, creative thinking and generosity of spirit, it is also that you are instantly connected to a (literally) global network of activists that provide more than just camaraderie, but who offer support to each other year after year of grueling, tireless and often thankless work. But no one works harder than Rhonda, which is why it is so easy to be caught up in her orbit… There is always an injustice to tackle around the corner.
So, this is how an exchange with Rhonda might typically work: the phone rings; “hi darling it’s Rhonda”; “hi Rhonda”; “Listen, I have an idea. I think we should [fill in the blanks]”; uh oh. [Laughter] You know when you hear the royal “we” that what comes next will likely involve significant work or a commitment of some kind. In fact when you first got the phone call, Rhonda had some sort of hairbrained scheme, which through her intense hard work and imagination, somehow magically morphed into what will later be referred to as “creative litigation.” But one of her talents is being able to see talent in other people and to help them to utilize their talents in the best possible way, and to bring them along with her… I’ve had the benefit of her sage personal and professional advice ever since I was her teaching assistant at CUNY Law School. I am the richer for it.
I’ve learned three important things from working with Rhonda:
1) Don’t let the current state of the law or your circumstances limit you. Because she fails to be limited in her approach, she is not afraid to take chances. So the first thing you learn is not to be limited in your own approach to achieving a goal. If the federal courts are inhospitable to civil rights, pursue the fight for justice under the rubric of international law… For activist lawyers this is an incredibly important lesson. The political landscape is constantly changing and being effective in social justice work depends upon your ability to become a shapeshifter.
2) Patience: The second thing you learn is to have plenty of time, flexibility, and a sense of humor. [Laughter] Know that she will be late, engaged in six other activities on the way, exasperate you with the variety of angles that she MUST review a problem. But when she is with you she is completely with you and often way ahead of the curve on many issues.
3) Finally, Rhonda was my model of how to be an activist law teacher. I was a veteran activist before law school and would have been a social justice lawyer in any event. That’s just what some of us must do. But in thinking about Rhonda and what I learned from her, I am reminded of Toni Cade Bambara saying, “What is the work that you want your work to do?”
What Rhonda offered to me is a model of how one could continue to important work in the world, do scholarship that had meaning (in that it served to improve people’s lives); and inspire students, should they choose to, find their own way to make a contribution. And, as it turns out, it has been a good fit for me. But then again, Rhonda knew that back in the day, before I could see it, when she commandeered me into being her teaching assistant – and to my joy – a beloved friend.
I want to close by saying this: It is a rare gift to be able to publically honor someone that has meant as much as Rhonda has meant to me personally, philosophically, and professionally. I may have had the inclination to be an activist law professor, but Rhonda gave me the tools to make it happen and for that I’ll forever be grateful. Thank you Rhonda from the bottom of my heart, and congratulations on a much-deserved honor.