Leonard V. Jones
"Our tour guide [in South Africa] Nelson said to us, 'Vukuzenzele!' or 'Get up and do something for yourself.' He reminded us that the sky was the limit and that he would not be defined by his circumstances."
Good afternoon to our families, faculty, friends, and distinguished guests. It is an honor to have been chosen as the representative of the Rutgers School of Law-Newark class of 2014; I am truly humbled by your support.
I feel so fortunate that I have gotten to know so many of you over the past three years. Our class includes public school teachers, veterans, community activist, and a variety of talented individuals in so many diverse areas. So, it is indeed an honor to be your voice today.
In the month and a half since it was announced that I would be giving this speech, I have been repeatedly given the greatest gift that anyone can receive: unsolicited advice. I pondered what the subject of these remarks should be and the word that continuously resonated with me was resilience; the resilience of the class of 2014. Dare I remind you of the earthquake during our first semester, and the horror that was Super-storm Sandy, and the tragic lost of our fellow classmate, Kwazi Mendoza. PLEASE STAND!
We are a resilient class and we must carry our resilience into our post law school lives.
It was Charles Hamilton Houston, a civil rights architect known as the man who trained young Thurgood Marshall and as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow,” who said, a lawyer is “either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” Social engineers are those who work vigorously to solve human problems, utilizing their training in the law to benefit the communities around them. They take a stand for what is right, even in the face of adversity, especially when it is unpopular to do so. We, the class of 2014 must carry on the legacy of former social engineers by working to effect social change at all levels. We have a responsibility to be the people’s lawyer, trained with the ability to make, shape, and enforce the law. Most notably we must utilize the privilege of our Rutgers Law School degree to advance the collective good.
Rutgers Law Newark has been the training ground not only for our individual success, but also for leadership that can change communities. Since our earliest days, young dedicated lawyers have been using their knowledge and training to stand up for justice. We must remember that today we graduate from the “People Electric Law School.” The law school that served as the headquarters for the local civil rights movement during the Newark Riots of the 1960’s, and the law that established the Minority Student Program aimed at training a new generation of indigenous minority lawyers. Today, I am proud of be graduating the law school as an MSP student.
We must commit our skills and legal training to the struggle for equal justice. I am more than confident that we are not a class willing to sit on the sidelines, but we are individuals willing to zealously advocate for what we believe to be right. We will challenge the views of those who label our generation as social media advocates. We will do more than post hashtags on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
We all have the ability to affect change. Today we are being given credibility and now we have a responsibility to be the advocates who give a voice for the voiceless. I must share with you an experience from this past semester. I had the pleasure of traveling to South Africa in March with some of my classmates. During our stay we visited Langa Township, an experience that will forever be embedded in my memory. Words cannot possibly describe the living conditions and the level of poverty that exists in Langa. Despite living in extreme poverty, they remained resilient and optimistic about the future. Our tour guide Nelson said to us, “Vukuzenzele!” or get up and do something for yourself. He reminded us that the sky was the limit and that he would not be defined by his circumstances. You see fellow classmates, Nelson represents the hope of black people in South Africa, a people who refuse to allow a history of apartheid to continue to oppress or suppress them.
I want to say to you today, that we are more than just the false dichotomies of corporate or public interest, more than just transactions or litigation. Our potential goes beyond the limits of the job market. We are more than the limitations and labels that we put upon ourselves. Most importantly, we are charged with the duty of upholding the values of equality and justice regardless of our practice area.
Today, as we celebrate and conclude this chapter of our lives, we must remember to recognize those who have made this day possible. We must first thank our teachers. I, like so many of you, have benefited from great teachers. With professors like Prof. Ball, Prof. Gold, Prof. Kim, Prof. Eakeley and too many others to name, the past few years have been no exception.
I would be remised if I failed to acknowledge Nicki Fornoratto. All I can say is Thank you.
On a personal note, I must thank Dean Rothman, Dean Bouchoux, and Dean Bravo-Weber for their support during my extended hospital stay in our first year. It was then that I realized that I could not have gone to any other law school.
Finally, our friends, our family, and our parents, particular those who raised us, to you we say thank you. I am the son of a single mother from Liberia who moved to Hillside, New Jersey on January 6, 2000. A mother who was determined to make sure she provided for my sister and I. I am more than confident that you don’t know how much you have inspired me, working from 7a.m. to 11p.m. to make sure the bills were paid and we had food on the table. I stand here today because of your hard work and dedication, you taught me the value of hard work and a quality education. And for that I am eternal grateful.
So, to all the foster parents, the stepparents, the grandparents, the godparents, and the parents we lost before and after starting law school, we thank you and we love you.
Class of 2014, I want us all to remember to seek our purpose and allow that purpose to be our guiding light. We must pursue our passions with great tenacity and urgency.
Thank you. And may God continue to bless you all.