In December, the Institute honored Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor for her distinguished career in judicial service with the seventh annual Preston Robert Tisch Award in Civic Leadership at the Museum of Modern Art. The award, given in memory of Preston Robert Tisch, is sponsored by Steve Tisch, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. Sotomayor also joined the Institute at a Latinos and Society Program event in March for a conversation about the role of civic engagement in society and how to inspire civic action among Americans. Sotomayor recently joined the board of iCivics, an interactive website that aims to make civics lessons available at no cost to schools around the United States. Sotomayor discussed Latino identity, youth empowerment, her personal motivations, and more with Latinos and Society Executive Director Abigail Golden-Vasquez.
Golden-Vasquez: What is the state of America’s civic culture, and what can we do to ignite civic spirit?
Sotomayor: We are never going to reach equality in America until we achieve equality in education. It’s what we need to change if we want all people equal—not just under law—but in participation in society. We have to change the talk around education, and the understanding that it’s not just a local community problem. None of us can afford to be bystanders in life. We create our community, and we create it by being active participants in our community. Since I joined the board of iCivics, I’ve been an active participant in three new initiatives: moving into high schools, creating models for how teachers can create programs to do civic problems, and making civics accessible to ESL students.
Golden-Vasquez: Latinos start businesses at four times the rate of the rest of the population, but we lag behind in civic participation. Why?
Sotomayor: Let’s be honest. If you’re working 14 hours a day at your job, it is hard to make time for civic participation. For many Latinos, that’s the quality of their life. It’s very hard to motivate people who barely have time to sit and think about involving themselves in other people’s problems. That’s why I think teaching civic involvement as a bettering not of the world, but of your community, becomes more powerful and easier to sell.
Golden-Vasquez: What can we do to empower Latinos who are not one in a million?
Sotomayor: There’s a continuing tension in America between the image of the person who pulls themselves up by the bootstraps and the person who believes that you need a lift to get up sometimes. Those people who believe that everyone must pull themselves up—they don’t believe that people are entitled to help. For those of us who understand that sometimes no matter how tall the heel on your boot is, the barrier is too high that you need a small lift to help you get over it—they will understand that the inequalities in society build that barrier. Unless you do something to knock it down or help that person up, they will never have a chance. I had those things. I had a unique mother, who was able to understand the benefits of education and who encouraged me to use education as my liftoff. But not everyone does. If you come from a country where society is closed to equality, why would you believe that education for your kids would lead to something different?
How many kids hear that they can’t go to college, that they have to support the family? That’s not a bad parent. That comes from a parent whose own life has constricted her understanding of opportunity. So for me, that’s a constant conversation. It’s not an issue of whether someone is willing to lift herself up. There are so many barriers that we have to bring down before we can change the outcomes.
Take one child in your life, and engage him in something to help his community. I don’t care what it is. Put them on a computer and show them the iCivics site. Take them on a trip to feed the homeless. Take them to a nursing home and have them talk to someone there for an afternoon. But take one child in your life, and show them the meaning of helping someone else. Don’t assume that kids know what that means. You have to get them to participate.
Golden-Vasquez: How did your time at Princeton University and in law school help shape your civic identity?
Sotomayor: When I look at my life, I believe that the fact that I understood somewhere early on that involvement wasn’t limited to gender, or ethnicity—it wasn’t limited to anything but my belonging to my community—has carried me throughout my life. In every role that I have served, I not only continue to participate in whatever Hispanic issues that I can. I also join the larger community around me to address the issues that are important to them—because now, I am a part of that community, too.
I don’t see lines the way others do. I don’t see the law as black and white. Most people expect the law to tell you how to do things. We have lawyers and judges in our society because in fact the law is not clear. But the law interacts with all of our gray areas. And that’s how we have to live.
Golden-Vasquez: Who inspires you to move forward?
Sotomayor: There are two questions I ask myself every day. One is: what have I learned today? I try not to limit it to the law. That would be cheating. It’s usually something I’ve read or listened to on the news. It could be anything. But it has to be something with a rich meaning. The richer I am, the more I can give. That’s what’s so important about education. With it, you become a richer and more interesting person. Think about the people that you gravitate to. The leaders have new thoughts, a spirit about them, of engagement.
The second is: who have I helped today? There are days where all I’m doing is working on my computer. Then I get home, look at my messages, and think about someone who is sick or someone I know who is in need and reach out to them. If it’s not too late, I do it with a phone call. I ask how they are and how things are going.
But I don’t look to people to motivate me—not in that way. I’ve had many mentors. But there are people I hear about who inspire me to keep going. Everyday, normal people who have just decided to do something extraordinary. If they can do it, so should I.
Golden-Vasquez: This was one of the most contentious election processes the nation has seen. What do you say to people who are feeling disillusioned?
Sotomayor: You let it happen. Anytime you are disillusioned by any election or anything that happened, you have to ask who is responsible. This happened because we don’t take control and ensure that our voices are heard. Look at how close the last election was. Every time I look at people, I want to ask, “Did you vote?” And any Latino who complains to me—that’s the first question I ask. My point is: we don’t have a right to despair.
What’s left if you walk away? All of those bad things that you hate? You have done nothing to change them. At the end of my life, I want to be able to look at myself and say, I tried. If you can’t say that, you can’t claim a meaningful life.
And that’s what spurs me on in everything I do. If we give up hope, we have nothing to live for. There’s too much at stake for the people I love. For the community that is such an integral part of who I am.
For the children who want to grow up and have the world that I want, and the future that I imagine for them. My life is worth my effort—and so is yours.