UW Today

March 11, 2014

Justice Sonia Sotomayor on finding life’s work, facing discrimination

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Sonia Sotomayor poses with UW students

Following her talk with UW students, Sonia Sotomayor walked the crowd so that students could get photos — including many “selfies.”UW

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor asks herself two questions when she goes to bed at night: What have I done that’s something nice for someone else today? And, what did I learn new today?

“It doesn’t have to be big momentous things, but they’re building blocks to growing,” Sotomayor told an audience at the University of Washington. She was in town promoting her memoir, “My Beloved World.” She gave two talks in Seattle on Monday – one for mostly UW students arranged by Undergraduate Academic Affairs and a public talk at Seattle Town Hall.

Sotomayor, the third woman and first Latino to serve on the Supreme Court, talked about reflecting on each day as the way she gives her life meaning, and she encouraged the UW audience to do the same.

Read more about Sotomayor on UW President Michael K. Young’s blog.

She offered other life lessons spanning discrimination, public service, power and what makes her optimistic. The justice spoke for about an hour, responding to questions submitted beforehand by UW students and curated by UW Provost Ana Mari Cauce. Here are some highlights.

Advice to college students: “Don’t cocoon yourself”
Sotomayor said that she’s learned best from experiences. “Think of college as a growing experience, a learning experience, one in which you become a more interesting person,” she said. That will build curiosity, Sotomayor said, which will make you learn things that you do not already know and give you confidence in your ability. To that end, she encouraged UW students to seek out people who are different (“Talk to them, find out what their families are like”), take classes that they know nothing about simply because the topics are intriguing, and follow the news as a way to understand the world.

Responding to discrimination: “Don’t call me ‘honey,’ call me ‘justice’”
Sotomayor shared two stories to illustrate how she gauges a person’s intent – mean-spirited or just ignorant – before responding to discrimination or stereotypes. For a court security officer who had gotten to know her well enough that he once called her “honey,” she knew he didn’t mean it to be insulting. So she quietly, gently reminded him that it would be better if he addressed her as “justice.” But in high school, when a friend’s father used a racial slur while watching a Puerto Rican parade on TV, Sotomayor had a more aggressive response telling him “You see, that’s me.” Sotomayor also told the UW audience, “I don’t let others judge me. I judge me. If you can take pride in what you’ve done and how far you’ve come and the improvements you’re trying to make in yourself and in the life you lead, then frankly, to hell with them.”

Power: “it’s shared”
Cauce joked that if she were ever to write a memoir she might title it, “How I Became a Straight White Man.” When the laughs and applause settled down, Cauce used the working title to pivot to a question of how the justice handles power despite coming from a minority background. Sotomayor reminded the UW group that she is just one voice and has eight colleagues. “The one thing you learn about power is it’s shared,” she said. To make change, she said that you have to have enough “strength in your own character, judgment in your own sense that what you’re doing is right that you can convince others to join you.”

Careers in public service: “It doesn’t really matter what you choose”
The justice encouraged UW students to sample their options to figure out what is most important to them and what work excites them the most. “There is not one area in America that goes without needs, so it doesn’t really matter what you choose,” Sotomayor said of choosing a major to study. “You can figure out how to do almost any job and make it a caring job.”

Optimism for “a more inclusive society”
The UW audience clapped and cheered when Sotomayor said that she is optimistic about the power of minorities to change the dialogue in the U.S. “I am deeply optimistic that we are going to have a more inclusive society in the next 20 to 50 years,” she said. “The great optimism of America will need to come back for us to survive as a nation.”

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