Monday, March 22, 2010

South Florida’s First Ladies Honored

The St. Thomas University School of Law’s Black Law Students Association & Caribbean Law Students Association hosted their Annual Spring Gala this weekend. This year’s program was dedicated to South Florida’s First Ladies. The first ladies honored were V. Lynn Whitfield, City Attorney for the City of North Miami, who was appointed in June 2006, and is the first African American women to hold the position since the City of the North Miami’s incorporation in 1926. The other honoree was the Honorable Barbara Lagoa, Third District Court of Appeal, who was sworn in November 2006, and is the first Hispanic woman to serve as an appellate judge in the history of the State of Florida. This was very disheartening to learn.

The first ladies shared their individual, yet eerily familiar stories of struggle, pain, “lesser than treatment,” self-determination, faith, perseverance, and ultimate success. I sat listening to Ms. Whitfield’s interpretive reading of Langston Hughes famous poem, Mother to Son, and Judge Lagoa’s words of often being mistaken, for a court reporter, a court clerk or a paralegal but rarely considered as actually being “the judge.” I slowly realized that the 1980s slogan “you’ve come a long way baby,” is not true for minority women, and certainly not true for Hispanic women in particular.

Judge Lagoa shared some disturbing statistics regarding the number of women of color that hold judicial positions in the State of Florida. The numbers were extremely low and disappointing. I thought we, in the collective sense, were doing better especially in geographical areas that have a strong concentration of Hispanics like South Florida. Unfortunately, this is one of those instances where perception is not reality. Judge Lagoa’s statistics confirm that Hispanic women are the smallest category of judges in the State of Florida. Ironically, the percentage is so small that Hispanic women judges are almost statistically “insignificant,” which is to say that the number of Hispanic women judges is so small that in terms of statistical regression analysis (the number of Hispanic women judges is so far away from the median or mean of all judges in the State of Florida), that the number of Hispanic women judges is “irrelevant.” It is as if there were no Hispanic women judges. This is shocking. It also means that there is much work to be done.

As I sat watching the faces of the young law students, soon-to-be-young-attorneys, listening to the speeches they stopped smiling, they sunk into their chairs, and hung their heads almost in despair. In my heart I shouted out to them, “Listen. Learn. Be Determined to Succeed.” And almost like a silent message from my heart to Judge Lagoa, I heard her next words, “my story should not sadden you, it’s a story of achievement. I succeed and so can you.” Yes, I silently applauded, that is the lesson for each of us, and all of us because in the words of Langston Hughes “life for [us] has been no crystal stairs … it's had tacks in it…and splinters…and boards torn up … but don’t you set down on that step … cause you find it’s kinder hard…don’t you give up … you keep climbin’….”

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