Grilled by a Supreme Court Judge

I survived a cross-examination by Sandra Day O’Connor.

Despite the 1980’s being a blur for me as I struggled to balance family, school, and career, I distinctly remember the widespread excitement when Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to be appointed as Justice to the United States Supreme Court in 1981 where ultimately she was to serve for 24 years as a pioneering force.  In 2009 she was acknowledged by President Obama who honoured her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Consequently, it was quite thrilling for me to learn that Justice O’Connor was to serve as the Honourary Dean at the Kids at Hope Masters Institute in Phoenix where I was also scheduled to present two workshops last week.

During her keynote address, O’Connor expressed concerns about threats against judges and judicial independence believing it is the result of people not understanding the role of judges and the court system. She attributes this directly to the lack of civic education in schools.

While her references were obviously American, it is true, as she points out, that the various levels of government means it is not an easy system to understand. However, she also points out that while public schools were originally established to focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic, they evolved to include civic education that promoted an understanding of the essential nature of participation in civic life. Unfortunately, civic education, and thus civil literacy, has often recently taken a backseat as low test scores have returned the emphasis to math, science, and writing.

In the US more than three-quarters of high school seniors and nearly 80% of eight-graders scored below the proficient level. One third of high school seniors cannot describe civic life or the levels of government. What’s even more frightening is that these statistics don’t reflect high school dropouts.

As Justice O’Connor points out, “Democracy demands an educated system. It is not a luxury, it is a necessity. High quality civic education can ensure that our democracy has a vibrant and robust future…it is also the best antidote for cynicism to help people understand that they are a part of something larger than themselves and that they can make a difference.”

Further to her initial comments, audience participants were asked to discuss and then share what they were doing to promote civic literacy in their communities. As the result of my group’s discussion, I was encouraged to approach the mic and share our belief that civic engagement and literacy begins with strong community leadership. In our opinion, investment in the development of local leaders needed to be the first step because, as with so many other issues and challenges, communities get better when leaders get better.

While up until that point, Justice O’Connor had mostly listened to comments from participants, after my initial remarks, the feisty 81 year old, leaned forward, and with rapid fire staccato, proceeded to grill me for the details of how exactly we were identifying and supporting leaders. Apparently I passed muster as she continued to probe and seemed satisfied with the answers. All well and good, but I was a wreck and returned to my seat with rubbery knees, receiving a few pats on the back on the way. After that, interestingly enough, those willing to approach the mic sharply declined.

Regardless of my own trauma, I must say I really liked the woman - her pragmatism, passion, directness, and focus on solutions.

I liked her even more when she explained how she has become very involved with an amazing website that has been designed for teachers and students at www.icivics.org. It is teaching through 13 plus different games that are focused on promoting critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving, engagement, and fun.

Like Justice O’Connor, the website is a practical solution to preserving government and making it work. 

Just as importantly, Sandra Day O’Connor serves as a pristine example of an inspirational community leader serving as a change agent committed to ongoing growth and development and giving back to her community.

Perhaps the woman beside me said it best as we rose to a heartfelt standing ovation and she leaned over to whisper, “When I grow up, I want to be just like her.”

Posted on 05-15-11

Comments:


Way to be brave, Brenda and stand convicted in the importance of community leadership.  I love your story of strong female leaders as well and I hope you consider yourself one of them.

•Posted by Janet Naclia  on  05/16/11  at  08:27 AM


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