The Law Alumni of Color Association celebrates four decades in which members have supported and inspired one another to work for change.

BY RACHEL BURNS

The Law Alumni of Color Association (LACA) began “out of a sense of urgency, out of an idea that community could trump sexism, could trump racism,” current LACA President Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II ’00 said at the group’s Annual Spring Dinner in April. This year’s dinner was especially significant, commemorating the alumni group’s 40th anniversary. 

LACA was founded in 1978 by a group of students and young alumni—Barry Cozier ’75, Ruth Gordon ’80, Joanne Johnson ’79, Wendy Scott ’80, Betty Staton ’79, and Barry Stevens ’78—who wanted to create an organization for Law School graduates of color that would ensure a continuation after graduation of the communities that law students forged during their time at NYU Law.

Fritz Alexander II ’51, Betty Staton ’79, Luis Booth, and Joanne Johnson ’79 in 1985

Cozier, formerly an associate justice of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, observes that the LACA founders came of age in the politically tumultuous era of the 1960s and early 1970s, and had lived through the events surrounding the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. “There was a lot going on during that period of time,” he says. 

The key event, however, that motivated the founding of LACA was the US Supreme Court’s decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which stated that while universities could consider race in admissions processes, the use of racial quotas was banned. “One of our major concerns was to continue minority enrollment at the school, and to respond to the backlash to affirmative action,” says Stevens. 

It occurred to Stevens—who was working as an assistant in the Law School’s admissions office at the time and who was also the vice chair of the Black Allied Law Students Association (BALSA)—that an alumni association made up of graduates who had been involved with BALSA and what is now the Latinx Law Students Association (LaLSA) could work to ensure that NYU Law still continued to accept students of color, even in the wake of Bakke.

One difficulty they encountered was that no definitive directory of Law School alumni of color existed. Stevens joined with several of his co-founders to gather names. “On several afternoons after our classes, we would meet in the admissions office around a table…. And we were given access to certain records and we would research it, and also ask students if they knew any black and Latino students who had graduated from NYU,” Staton recalls. “It was difficult just pulling together a lot of names and addresses but we worked at it, and worked at it, and got as much information and as many alumni names as we could find.” 

Next, they sent out invitations—with calligraphy by Johnson—for a reception, sponsored by BALSA, that would introduce the new alumni organization and its founding committee. On April 22, 1978, the group held its first Spring Dinner. 

Although LACA can attribute its origins in part to the political and legal events of the late 1970s, it also owes much to its founders’ talent for leadership and entrepreneurial innovation. Gordon, who is now a professor at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, had previously started a black women’s association as an NYU undergraduate. Stevens, who is now a judge on Connecticut’s Superior Court, would go on to found Hartford’s George W. Crawford Association, the leading black attorney association in Connecticut. Staton eventually became a founding partner in 1987 of the law firm of Boyd, Staton & Cave, the first law firm in New York to be led entirely by black women. 

“The fact that I was one of the founders of an organization that has grown to what it is today, that’s a source of pride,” says Staton, who has also been a New York State Family Court judge and is currently president of Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Legal Services. “Once you do something that seems small and you see it grow…it just lets you know that you can take the risk of stepping out. Maybe that’s why I was able to step out and help to form a law firm after practicing for so many years—because I could look back and I could see that I was part of a growing of something. And it had an effect on me in terms of giving me the courage to stand up and be a lawyer.”

A Place That Feels Like Home

In the years since its founding, LACA has continued to grow and evolve. In fact, the name of the organization has itself changed multiple times. Originally the Black and Latino Law Alumni Association, the name was later changed to the Black, Latino, Asian Pacific American Law Alumni Association (BLAPA) under the leadership of Eduardo Padró ’80, an alumni association president who later became a justice of the New York County Supreme Court. In 2016, after Raymond Fadel ’17 noted that the BLAPA acronym did not encompass his Native American identity, BLAPA became the Law Alumni of Color Association, to ensure the inclusion of all students and alumni of color under its umbrella.

“For me, the inclusion of Asian American communities was incredibly important to my experience feeling supported in this Law School, so I’m very proud that LACA made the choice recently to include all communities of color, because it’s incredibly important for us to recognize our shared struggles,” says Professor Alina Das ’05, who was honored as one of LACA’s 40 alumni under 40 at the 40th anniversary celebration. “I know it made a big difference in my life as a student, as an alum, and now as a professor at the Law School.”

Grasford Smith ’05, a shareholder at Jones Foster in Palm Beach, Florida, noted that he particularly appreciated the sense of community that he found in LACA as a young alumnus. Finding out that he had been named one of LACA’s 40 Under 40 Rising Stars, Smith said,“felt like getting an award from home.”

Continuing a Tradition of Making Change

The 40th anniversary Spring Dinner blended LACA’s past and present as it honored leaders from the civil rights movement and the legal leaders of today. The “sense of urgency” that animated LACA’s founders was still evident, as speakers emphasized the importance of continuing to strive to make the Law School—and the world—a more equal and just place.

Charles Swinger Conley ’55Judge Charles Swinger Conley ’55, who had represented civil rights  leaders such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and served as Alabama’s first black judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Macon County, was posthumously honored with the Arthur T. Vanderbilt Medal—the Law School’s highest honor for graduates. His widow, Ellen Conley, accepted the award on her husband’s behalf. Lisa Marie Boykin ’95 also presented a tribute to the late Professor Derrick Bell—a mentor without whom, she said, she would never have attended NYU Law. 

Noting that she had journeyed from being the first member of her family to graduate from college to becoming the first Latina partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Damaris Hernández ’07, a former AnBryce Scholar and a recipient of LACA’s 40 under 40 Rising Star Award, urged her fellow alumni to take their new positions of influence seriously. “It is our responsibility to effect change in the spheres where we have power now,” Hernández said.

And Jennifer Ching ’00, recipient of the 40th Anniversary Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award, stressed in her keynote speech the importance of listening to the voices of those who do not have power and of helping to make those voices heard. “It’s an amazing privilege to listen to so many lived experiences, and to be changed because an individual’s perception of justice can alter our own sense of what is possible,” said Ching, who is the executive director of North Star Fund, an organization that supports grassroots activism. “So be a radical listener. And when you listen…allow yourself to change.”

 LACA’s next generation also took the spotlight as Devika Balaram ’19 and Lauren Richardson ’19 were named as recipients of the Derrick Bell Scholarship for Public Service, which helps to reduce the law school debt of second- or third-year students who plan to pursue careers in public interest law and who have demonstrated a commitment to social justice. Established in 1994, the scholarship was originally known as the BLAPA Public Service Scholarship, before being renamed in 2011 in honor of Derrick Bell. 

Richardson notes that she first attended the LACA Spring Dinner as a prospective student. The experience helped her feel more comfortable as a 1L, she recalls. 

“NYU had always been the school I wanted to go to, so I didn’t need much convincing,” Richardson says, “but [LACA] did make me feel like maybe this is a law school that isn’t going to be like all those scary things people think of law school. Maybe it cares more about relationships than other places.”

“No one in my family is a lawyer, or anything close to a lawyer,” Richardson adds. “LACA creates a space for a wide variety of students to find some way into [legal] culture. I think that’s probably one of the most important things that LACA can do for the Law School—keep supporting people who have different experiences but nonetheless have a lot to contribute.” 

Rachel Burns is a writer at NYU Law. Additional reporting by Kelley Spencer.

Posted September 4, 2018