Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration
Thank you for the opportunity to say a few words about Rhonda, a founding faculty member of the CUNY law school.
At the time that Rhonda came to the Law School she was already recognized as a prominent feminist lawyer who had argued important cases in the Supreme and federal courts. She could have become a faculty member at many other law schools but she came to CUNY because she wanted to continue her life’s work of changing the world – she found a home at CUNY – in the aspirations for justice that she shared with our faculty and 26 years of graduates.
In those early years, Rhonda brought to her institution building and curricular designing her understanding that gender justice could not occur without breaking the public/private divide. A few examples: recognizing that child care was a public responsibility, she worked tirelessly to have one of the first day care center ever located in a law school, and she insisted that family law, a course focused on gender justice was as important as a course like contracts focused on markets - thus family law became and remains a mandatory course in our first year. She taught that course for many years and inspired graduates to work to break the private-public divide in family law and other areas.
Many professors teach but find their professional nourishment outside teaching in their research and activism. Rhonda found a way to link her two professional loves teaching and political lawyering – in the IWHR clinic. Not surprising that Rhonda saw the two as linked because she taught the way she lawyered:
Both her teaching and lawyering were bottom up. While highly theoretical with strong views, Rhonda listened and was profoundly shaped in her advocacy by her clients and in her teaching by her students. Lawyering she often said was to be done by “being responsive to what people in need want.” She insisted on listening to the world and working in Solidarity.
So to in her teaching, she sought and was hugely successful in listening to her students’ needs – as she herself said “Teaching is an openness to life.”
Rhonda accomplished something profound in her teaching. She genuinely listened to hear her students’ passion for justice and she tried to reach each of them in a way that not only gave them technical expertise but also touched their hearts.
One graduate at a recent gathering in which 50 of Rhonda’s clinic students came from all over the states and world to honor Rhonda -- described how Rhonda showed her how to keep her humanity, keep her heart open, as the student read pages of horror crimes committed against women and Rhonda taught her how to listen to this pain and yet not be paralyzed by it; but instead to lawyer against it. To teach these kinds of lessons, a teacher has to listen deeply to what students are saying and thinking.
This was not hard for Rhonda because she loved her students the way she loved her clients – in her own words from this same gathering, “the students were a true joy.” They were “delicious, delightful and important.” And she loved CUNY’s access mission that brings us an extraordinary and exciting group of students.
Rhonda lawyered with a philosophy that if justice is on your side, do not limit yourself in what you ask for. So too when she taught, she always aimed to get the students to do beyond what they thought they could do. She raised money and sometimes chipped in some of her own to take students around the world so that they could see the effects of their advocacy and do important first-hand listening themselves.
At the same time convincing, no demanding of them that their work be excellent, always reiterating that to lawyer in progressive causes you need to be better.
Demanding – there’s a word commonly associated with Rhonda. That demanding tenacity only worked because it came with a loving generosity and the warm smile that radiates from the buttons we wear today. A CUNY support staff member who heard I was talking today said please tell people how important Rhonda was to the staff and her willingness to listen to and support us.
I’ll end with this thought – We are in the middle of the Jewish holidays – days that Rhonda celebrated with family and friends. Central to these Holidays is a request: May we be Blessed and may we be a Blessing.” No doubt Rhonda was Blessed – with powerful intelligence, charisma, tenacity and a gentle spirit.” She was also a Blessing – to the women of the world and to those of us who got to work and learn from her at the CUNY School of Law.