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Juana Bordas
Diversity leader

Juana Bordas

Juana Bordas is president of Mestiza Leadership International, a company focusing on leadership, diversity, and organizational change. Author of the 2007 book Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age, she is a board member of the International Leadership Association.

The Supreme Court's immigrant roots

Q: Elena Kagan's nomination has raised the prospect of an "all-Ivy" Supreme Court. Is it a good idea for any institution, or any sector of society, to rely so heavily on a handful of elite universities to educate and train its leaders?

I asked my twelve-year-old grandson Ismael - a smart straight-A student and a Black/Latino athlete from bustling L.A. -- where he would like to go to college. He knew he had a lot of choices. "If I were you I would go to the most prestigious school I could," I told him. "Some place like Harvard or Yale."

A school like that, I said, "is not just about the education, but the people you'll know - it's like a very exclusive club. People who go there have doors opened for them. In America it is who you know that counts." I could have just as easily given him a thesis on the ruling class.

How times have changed. As a Nicaraguan immigrant entering college in the 1960s, going to Harvard or Yale never crossed my mind. The only thing I knew about Ivy League schools was they were elite, private, and expensive - only the top tier in America went there.

The score on the Supreme Court is now Harvard Law School, five, and Yale, three. Only Justice Stevens, who is retiring and who went to Northwestern, did not go to one of these schools. If U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan joins this prestigious brotherhood, she will add her Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard credentials to the list. She's in the club.

But on the question of leadership, it is important to dig deeper - to till the soil of a leader' early years to determine the values and experience that shaped him or her. Regardless that all the justices were educated at the most elite schools in America - what got them there, what are their roots, what values do they hold dear?

Justice Robert's father was a Czechoslovakian immigrant who worked as a plant manager with Bethlehem Steel. Justice Scalia also comes from immigrant roots. His Italian mother taught elementary school. The Alito parents were Italian immigrants as well, and Alito's father taught high school.

Justice Sotomoyor's Puerto Rican father had a third-grade education and worked as a tool-and-die maker. Her mother was a telephone operator. Sotomayor grew up in the Bronxdale Housing projects. Clarence Thomas is a descendant of slaves; his father was a farm worker and his mother cleaned homes.

Certainly it is a testament to the American dream that these five justices who came from such humble beginnings were able to scale to our most prestigious universities.

In communities of color there is an admonition, "Never forget where you came from." It is whispered by grandmothers and community leaders who know that to advance their children must go on to college. Perhaps, like me for my grandson, they even dream that they will go to a prestigious Ivy League school.

Martin Luther King Jr. believed that our children were the "dream deferred." Immigrants, people of color, and women in the past century held on to the hope that one day one of their own would have the education, personal connections, and know-how that would allow them to become leaders, policy makers, elected officials, and, yes, Supreme Court justices. But behind the dream was always the hope that our children would "never forgot where they came from."

That is the challenge the Supreme Court justices face. No doubt Yale or Harvard diplomas were one of the credentials that got them this prestigious post. But now, as they recluse themselves from the lives of ordinary people, as they become part of one of the most elite clubs in the world, as they make decision that will affect people who are like their parents and grandparents, will they remember the lessons of their childhood?

Will they provide opportunity for the newly arrived immigrants as was given their ancestors? Will they ensure that the doors of education that were open to them will not be closed to those who follow? Will they safeguard job opportunities like those of their parents? Will they remember where they came from?

By Juana Bordas

 |  May 19, 2010; 2:20 PM ET
Category:  Leadership development Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Wicked smart, despite naysayers | Next: Not in the gene pool


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I think Bordas is championing not so much "immigrants" as "illegal immigrants." Invaders don't have a place here.

Posted by: wmpowellfan | May 21, 2010 4:49 AM
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What is the article's point? Possibly that immigrant descendants are now on the Supreme Court? If so, it seems a distinction w/o a difference.

Isn't all Americans having immigrant backgrounds the standard line? Ms Borda seems to be hinting that the latest justices are immigrant descendants who are replacing God-knows-what. And, however well-meant, suggesting American blacks migrated here for better conditions is a ludicrous abuse of language. With all due respect to Justice Thomas, most blacks hardly came willingly or for a better life, as any angry black person will make clear.

Many grow disturbed that Kagan's selection would leave no Protestants. Was there ever a Protestant quota?

Ms Kagan is very able and balanced. If she is approved, should a Protestant quota then guarantee later appointees must be Protestants until a Protestant fills the next vacancy? Quotas are a disguised back-of-the-bus.

What difference would it make if at some point all Sup Ct justices happened to be blacks, Jews, Catholics or from the Far West? Isn't getting the ablest on the Sup Ct the aim rather than just sprinkling diversity around to make nice?

Today's diversity movement is surely the cleverest PR campaign in some time, because hardly anyone noticed it effectively got around prohibited quotas.

When the diversity kick started is vage, but the earliest obvious catastrophe seems Pres Carter's feckless insistence on all armed services having a contingent in the Iran Hostage rescue operation. Such misguided symbolic gesture-ism led to that slapped-together operation's huge coordination problems, ending in failure and humiliation. (Hey! Carter's soaring visions got my vote. I believe many learned the hard way none were anchored in anything thought through.)

When there is a vital job to do, getting the best people on it should be the focus, not airy diversity esthetics.

And what hooey is it to suggest that Roberts and Sotomayor went to Ivy law schools to get in touch with their roots? Whether at others' urging or from wanting to be the best, the hope was that they would join the elite. Diversity or elitism? It seems a healthy elitism or meritocracy, if you like, but it's all about performance not feel-goods. Performance comes 1st and if diversity happens, fine. If not, fine. Performance is what we need and if Ms Kagan went to all top schools, is rejecting her for someone who didn't, the smart thing? Well it's surely diverse! Think back to Carter.

J Borda's article is a sentimental journey into fantasy. Facts? Hah!

And for the record, MLK got his PhD at Boston Univ., not Harvard as one reader imagines.

For Heaven's sake, are facts now passe? And in our times is such a concerned question baroque rather than essential? Supporting facts should be essential, always.

Posted by: fritzr1950max | May 20, 2010 9:59 PM
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Watch how the professional Left squeals whenever it's suggested that we need a Holy Roller or former Catholic on the SCOTUS.

Mainliners and RCs are OK, as long as their credentials are current, but ex-Catholics, or ORTHODOX (Oh, my goodness, who are they eh) are certainly unwelcome.

What we need are doors open for everybody, not just the latest wave of migrants.

Posted by: muawiyah | May 20, 2010 4:32 PM
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"Will they provide opportunity for the newly arrived immigrants as was given their ancestors?"
As long as those newly arrived immigrants really ARE immigrants and NOT illegal aliens. Our immigrant ancestors earned the opportunity by following the laws--all the laws, not just the ones that they would benefit from.

Posted by: Ali4 | May 20, 2010 2:35 PM
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Interesting that you quote Dr King, but didn't mention where he went to school. He got his Doctorate from Harvard.

Posted by: cyberfool | May 20, 2010 1:55 PM
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Roberts' father was an EXECUTIVE with Bethlehem Steel, Roberts grew up in bedroom suburbs and attended private schools.
Get your facts straight!

Posted by: jezebel3 | May 20, 2010 12:12 PM
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Roberts' father was an EXECUTIVE with Bethlehem Steel, Roberts grew up in bedroom suburbs and attended private schools.
Get your facts straight!

Posted by: jezebel3 | May 20, 2010 12:08 PM
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Robert's father was not a Czech immigrant and his original name was not Jan Robot. It was his mothwer's family which was Czech.

Posted by: ravitchn | May 20, 2010 11:19 AM
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The problem with elite is their disconnection with a common man. If you were pampered from an early age, sent to a fancy school and made your way through social ranks through connections and friends in high places, how can you possibly understand and represent a common 9-5 hard-working American? This is the same thing when we see a Hollywood actor turn political activist start spreading their wisdom - all while living in multimillion dollar mansions completely disconnected with average person out on the street.

Posted by: joebob2nd | May 20, 2010 11:03 AM
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An interesting and thoughtful comment. Thank you.

Posted by: thmas | May 20, 2010 12:40 AM
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