I would like to take a moment to reflect on the humble beginning that I came from and how the efforts of many people contributed to my ability to make a better life for my family. It’s a bit of a long read but please stay with me because I think it has a blockbuster ending.
I grew up on a small farm in Indiana. My parents worked full-time day jobs and then farmed our land when they returned home in the afternoons. In addition to saving every penny towards building a better life, my parents emphasized the importance and transformative power of education.
Due to financial constraints, my father had dropped out of high school to work on the railroad. This would have likely been his job for the rest of his life, but for a visit from the high school basketball coach. If my father agreed to return to high school, the coach offered to provide my father with a paid assistant position with the basketball team. My father agreed, and this arrangement provided the financial means for my father to finish his high school degree. He then went on to get a college degree so he could be a teacher and be a positive influence for others like the coach was for him.
As a teacher, my father could provide better for our family than as a railroad laborer. The county provided pensions and other benefits for teachers as well – all opportunities he unlocked by increasing his education. He wanted to make sure that others could access teaching opportunities and provide for their families too. My dad got involved in a program to help young Black students from the South become teachers.
Racial segregation had created significant obstacles for aspiring Black teachers in the South, so program participants traveled up to the mid-west to complete their training. When participants were paired with my father, they stayed with us and went to school each day with him to learn how to teach. I learned this would be my work as well….to fuel a never-ending cycle of paying forward empowering opportunities.
I initially thought I would grow up to become a teacher, like my father because that was what I knew. However, during my senior year my high school English teacher encouraged me to consider becoming a lawyer. Her encouragement changed my life, just like the basketball coach’s support had changed my father’s. A legal career had been beyond our wildest dreams on the farm, but I began discussing the possibility with my parents. Although my parents had modest jobs, they had saved furiously for my college education. My mother especially wanted a college education for me since she had been denied it. With my parents’ help, I obtained a good education at a state supported college and law school. Thanks to the encouragement of my teacher and the support of my parents, I went on to become a lawyer and made a living helping others. Although I worked hard, I know much of what I achieved in my life is made possible by the contributions of the previous generation.
Just as I stood on my parents’ shoulders, the next generation stands on my shoulders. Today, I am blessed to have a daughter attending Harvard Law School. About a month ago, she called me up and asked me for money – as I am sure many parents of students have experienced. However, the money was not for her. She asked me if I would donate to a student organization to support a trip to Washington, D.C. in April. Although the student organization was able to leverage the school’s name and connections to schedule two days of meetings, tours and appointments with leading progressive judges, lawyers, and politicians, the cost of traveling to D.C. was a barrier for many students. Attending Harvard Law School makes once-in-a-lifetime thing possible, such as meeting with a Supreme Court Justice. But the door to that opportunity is not truly open if it’s only available to the law students who can afford it. Additionally, such barriers disproportionately impact diverse communities. Christie’s student organization therefore was committed to fundraising for the trip.
I and other donors did give to the trip. Students from all levels of the law school including first, second, and third year and LLM students attended the program. Several students honestly declined financial aid from the organization. Trip participants met with lawyers in the White House and the Capitol and the Chief Judge for the D.C. Circuit. But why am I telling you this? Because on April 8th, the day when the students spoke with attorneys working in the White House and at the Capitol, newly confirmed Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson – a Black, female graduate of Harvard Law School – was in the Rose Garden, adjacent to where the law students were just moments before. She addressed the public, saying “I am standing on the shoulders of my own role models.”
The coincidence of this timing is not lost on me. Each generation stands on the shoulders of the past generation. We must continue to inspire and uplift others, and especially to empower diverse communities to access the same opportunities as others. I’m excited for our future as our brightest minds work to go forward. If I have done anything to propel us toward a new future for the next generation, I am tremendously grateful. It makes me so happy to work here among young attorneys, paralegals, and staff where I can see them accomplish their dreams. This firm is about helping people all over the world.
I feel the gratitude of clients when they reach out to tell me their son has graduated from high school or a new baby was born. On one time a man called and said tell Jo Ann that my son graduated from college and I would never have been able to pay for it without the settlement she got me many years ago. Now you know our secret, “Helping the injured is our passion” and we thank all of you who have stood by us over the years, JoAnn