It was an afternoon rich in touching moments, from a student’s reading of her essay where she graphically revealed being the target of racial slurs at tennis matches to Judge Hubert Grimes describing his ascent toward becoming the judicial district’s first black judge in 1988 to Bill Bosch, the Palm Coast attorney and president of the Flagler County Bar Association describing the discrimination his wife faced as a lawyer, whether being called “little girl” by colleagues or pressured to drop out of cases when she was pregnant, to Mark Dwyer, also an attorney, vividly recalling the history and legal consequences of the lynching of Ed Johnson in 1906.
Yet none matched the moment when Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano stood before the small assembly of 30-odd people who’d gathered for Flagler County’s first annual Minority in Law Participation symposium at the Government Services Building’s main chamber Friday, and described, in a voice that twice broke, what his own journey to the bench had been like, from Panama to Flagler, and what it has come to mean, even though he’s never considered himself to be a minority.
“Many, many people helped me get here, and I sit here as a judge. You do the work, it’s a job, just like any other,” Zambrano said, “but from time to time you’ll see a person standing in front of you, looking at you, and you can see the pride they have in you. They see one of them made it. You can do that too,” he told the few students in the room, pausing to collect himself. “Don’t mean to get emotional, but I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had come up to me and say, I am so proud of you, because you stuck it out, you studied, you put in the hard hours, you got to where you got, because you worked hard, and it takes hard work.”
He continued to his larger point: “But you as a minority represent a lot of people, you know. Today, we stereotype. That still exists in our society. People think of criminals in terms of race. People think of certain crimes in terms of race, or ethnicities. We still have that. Even in the law profession sometimes I get confused with not being a judge. I don’t look like a judge. I don’t act like a judge. But I am. My favorite story to say is I was trying a case once and the judge was a visiting judge, and the defense attorney had never met his client, and I had never met the defense attorney. And no one knew anyone in the courtroom. I came out of the elevator just like I am now, decked to the nines, I was trying a case. It was a jury trial. And the defense attorney looked at me and says, man, you are the best-dressed client I’ve ever had. I wasn’t smart enough to say to him why don’t you tell us what your strategy is going to be.”
The symposium was organized by Mark Dwyer, the attorney and recent candidate for a judgeship (he just joined the firm that renamed itself Chiumento Selis Dwyer), at the behest of the Florida Bar Association. The Florida Bar is putting an emphasis on nurturing minorities for careers in the law. The local bar organized an essay contest for high school students and invited Grimes and Zambrano, among others, to speak in what turned into a two-hour event that often sounded like a small-scale graduation ceremony, with words of advice mixing with life lessons.
Grimes went through his own personal beliefs–treat others with respect and kindness, be honest in word and deed, build bridges, “because you never know when you may have to retreat across that bridge,” expect to succeed in everything you do, and “never consider a job complete until it is good enough to put your signature on it.”
Then he concluded by addressing the matter at hand: “Because we are minorities in the law and numerically in this country, there are often times that the media represents to people that it’s expected you’re going to fail, that you’re going to populate the prisons of our country, that you’re going to not be a success, unless it’s running a football, running a basketball, or doing a host of quote unquote athletic pursuits. But I say to every one of you today, each young person today, each parent whose influence is upon another youngster, be it your own, be it your grandchildren, be it your nieces, your nephews, your neighbors, the kids that go to church with you, the kids you just see in the malls, you see in the shopping centers: let us never give up on our young people. They’re our future. Truth be told, they’re really us. You know we might be a little cleaned up today, but all of us have done some stuff in the course of our lives that causes us to fall short of the mark.”
The Flagler Bar Association awarded a $500 scholarship to Alan Forehand, the runner-up in the essay contest, and a new iPad to the winner, Jasmine Perez. Three essays were read at the symposium, one of them by Rebekah Lam. The piece, titled “Resilient,” described Lam’s youth in a Philipino-Italian household and the “Beat that Chink!” slurs she heard the parent of a tennis opponent spew within earshot during a competition. “As a child, my mother, who is also of mixed race advised me not to let others define who I am,” she wrote. “As a minority, I believe that my life experiences has given me empathy to the plight of people who have received unjust treatment. I realized that I didn’t belong to this group or the other for a reason. I belong to my client. I am their ally, advocate, and confidant.”
Bosch, speaking of the totality of the essays, said he was impressed by their quality and optimism, particularly several students’ notion that diversity was a fat in law and society.
“It seemed to me that many of the essays took for granted the fact that law is already diverse,” Bosch said, “or is becoming more diverse with regard to the type of individuals, that it’s just no longer white male dominated, and to be honest with you, that is not true. We need diversity, and please do not assume that law is being integrated, is being increased in diversity, because it’s just not—not to the degree to which it needs to be. “