2020 Last Lecture Series | Ruth Okediji

JACOB: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the third lecture in
the 2020 Last Lecture Series. Thank you guys so
much for joining us on Tuesday and Wednesday
to hear from Professor Umunna and Professor Renan. We’re extremely
excited today to have the distinct honor
of having Professor Okediji join us to speak today. And before we hand that off,
just quick logistics like we do every day. So we will have Professor
Okediji’s remarks, followed by a question
and answer period. The remarks will be
recorded, but the Q&A will be off the record. So feel at ease
to ask questions. For questions, use the raising
hands function, the chat, or message myself
or Professor Okediji privately if you want
it to be anonymous. So with that, I’ll hand
it off to [? Casey ?] to get things rolling. Thank you. CASEY: you, Jacob, Professor
Okediji, and everyone for joining us today. I’m Casey, one of the class
of 2020 class marshals. And it’s a distinct honor to
introduce Professor Okediji. I first saw Professor
Okediji speak as a 1L at the WLA Shatter
the Ceiling Awards, when she was presented with a faculty
award for the second time honoring excellence in advancing
equity in the classroom in inclusivity and mentorship. Her impressive
record of scholarship in international
intellectual property law seemed only matched by
her warmth, charisma, and caring demeanor. I knew I wanted to take a class
with her before I graduated. Luckily I was given
the opportunity to take Intellectual
Property with her this fall. I learned that the treaty
that means the most to her is the World Intellectual
Property Organization Marrakesh Treaty to promote access
to published works for visually impaired persons. She was the lead negotiator
and senior expert for 54 countries
in the negotiations to ensure that the
world would have a treaty guaranteeing
disabled persons access to copyrighted works. While drafting and
negotiating IP treaties is what most people
know her for, contracts is her
stated true passion. In class, not only
did Professor Okediji generously share her wisdom
on IP, Innovation Policy, but she also arranged to
have cookies and berries with whipped cream for us as a
mid-afternoon treat every week. Professor Okediji is
the foremost authority on the role of
intellectual property and social and
economic development and a wonderful professor and
role model to many students. Professor Okediji,
we’re so looking forward to hearing from you today. Thank you. RUTH OKEDIJI: Thank you, and
thank you, class of 2020. Thank you for honoring me with
this invitation to deliver one of the Last Lectures. I am so honored, and I
can’t express that enough. This is an especially
meaningful invitation for me because you, this
unbelievable class, this class that I
describe as uncommon, you, the class of 2020, are
my first full generation of HLS graduates. I started with you
on August 30, 2017. I had accepted the position of
being the Jeremiah Smith Junior Professor of Law. I joined the ranks of
the tenured faculty earlier in 2017, and I showed up
almost as wide eyed and nervous as many of you did. Many of you referred
to me as Mama O, and it’s a title
that I bear proudly. You have shared with me
your triumphs, your sorrows, your fears and hopes,
and your dreams. You’ve invited me
in to the secret and sometimes sacred aspects
and chambers of your lives. You’ve asked me to walk with you
as you’ve planned out classes, as you’ve planned out your
semesters, your summer jobs, and now as you plan your
lives after law school. I’ve met boyfriends and
girlfriends and fiances and children and husbands and
wives and all kinds of friends. I’ve prayed some of them in, and
I’ve had to pray some of them out with you. We’ve broken bread together. We’ve had breakfasts
and lunches and dinners. We’ve had office hours
that have been punctuated with laughter, with tears, with
distress, with prayer, lots of prayer. I’ve prayed for so many of you. And now here we are. Two years, eight months, 13
days later, this day has come. How do you even feel? I can’t imagine how you
are taking it all in. And as much as I try, and
despite the joy that I have and the joy that I feel
that this day has come, let me tell you that
I will miss you. I will miss your
passion, your intensity. I will miss the days
when my office hours stretched long
because we’re debating arcane details in a case. I will miss every part
of this vivacious, visionary, distinctive class. Every class is different. Every class individually and
collectively, each of you bring with you
your own adventure. And yours is one that
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve had the sheer delight
in getting to know you. And I’ve tried in vain
to stop many of you from going on
international trips when I was nervous that
you would get killed or wouldn’t come back safely. And I have stayed
on my knees those trips time and time again. And time and time again, you’ve
proven to me and to others that you get this
thing called justice. You get it, this end
goal and this purpose that I hope and pray
will shape the entirety of the rest of your lives. And it’s true that
you don’t have to be a lawyer to do justly. Being a lawyer
isn’t a requirement for people to do just things. But I will tell you, class
of 2020, that being a lawyer makes justice your
unavoidable calling. It’s unavoidable for you. Being a lawyer gives you tools
and skills and a capacity to influence not just one case,
not just one moment in time, but entire systems and
institutions and, yes, even entire nations. And I know that
today I am speaking to future senators and
congresspeople and presidents and prime ministers. I know that I’m speaking
to a graduate class that will be filled with
leadership for tomorrow. But most importantly,
giving you a legal degree, giving you an
education in the law will give you opportunities. It will give you a
dedication to seeking justice because you see a dedication
to seeking justice needs the skills and the
tools to bring justice to someone’s doorsteps. Because justice can
be this abstract and distant and unreachable thing. And a justice that’s
distant, a justice that isn’t really experienced
and encountered is really no justice at all. Being Harvard Law
School students means that you have the
opportunity– not just one, but many opportunities– to
bring justice closer to many. This is the gift that the
law school has given you. It’s an infinite
variety and diversity of opportunities to do something
that will affect one and many. You arrived here in 2017,
just as the law school was celebrating its bicentennial. You stepped into 200 years of
history, a daunting history full of legendary figures whose
stories not only indelibly shaped the school, but that
defined the legal profession and that profoundly shaped a
nation and continues to do so. You stepped into history. And in so doing, you began this
slow, steady, inexorable march to your own futures. Today you’re transitioning
from the cocoon of what has been a home
of sorts for three years, sometimes
uncomfortable, sometimes leaving you hungry for
something more, sometimes making you weary
of the relatives that you have to
live with day by day. But nonetheless, it’s been home. Many of you will agree that you
are leaving this place changed. Because although you arrived
at Harvard Law School as adults in some way already,
already formed by experiences, the truth is your
future is going to be distinctly
affected by what you are taking away from here. Even if you don’t
feel different, you will be different. And even if you don’t
think you’re different, people will presume
that you are different. You’re not just going to be
or [? Brooke ?] Justice. You’re not going
to be just Kennedy, or Camille, or
Casey, or Jennifer. You’re not just going to
be [? Penny, ?] or Nick, or Nicholas, or
[INAUDIBLE],, or Jacob. You’re going to be someone
with a mark on your name. You’ll be the one that
went to Harvard Law School. They’ll point you
out in a crowd. People will watch you to see
whether you behave different, whether you eat different
or even walk different. For better or worse, you’re
going to attract attention, a raised eyebrow. Oh, and they went to Harvard? Greater acknowledgments,
higher expectations. You’ll have automatic prestige,
or immediate resentment. You see, you carry on your
backs those 200 years. You carry on your backs the
burden of Harvard’s history. And yet you carry
on your chest, you wear this badge of
its future as well. Your pathway from here on
out will add to the story that Harvard Law School is. So what are you going to do? How shall you then live? To be clear, let me say
that arriving here in 2017 was in some ways not very
different from arriving here in 1843. From the diaries of
Rutherford Hayes, who later became the 19th
president of the United States, we still find
striking similarities. He wrote, “I have now
finished my first week at Harvard Law School. I’ve studied hard. And I wonder if I
made a mistake.” And many of you in those
first few weeks thought that. You asked that. And about seven weeks
into law school, President Hayes was cold
called on for the first time. And he wrote in his diary,
“I was poorly prepared, and my success was in
keeping with my preparation.” And many of you have
experienced that as well. We all remember that
feeling of being cold called and not feeling
prepared and feeling like we did a terrible job. And just in case you
wondered if this really was HLS in 1843
still, if you wonder if, in fact, the president
had walked through these halls and taken these classes,
he wrote in February– and all of you
remember Februarys. He said, “It was cold today,
and it rained, and it snowed.” Welcome to Harvard Law School. Welcome to the New England
winters, the infamous New England weather. So you’ve survived. You survived 1L
and 2L and 3L year. You survived the New
England stormy weather. You survived Ames and LRW
and many, many cold calls. You are leaving a
campus that is familiar, a routine that you know as
intimately as your next breath. And the question
is, what will hold your collective and your
individual futures together? What is the thing
that will hold you, that will hold the
bits of knowledge that you’ve learned
in your time here? What will tie together
the cases, the clinics, and the causes that you
took up and that you took on while you were in law school? What’s going to anchor
you in the privilege that is Harvard while you strive
to define what it will mean to you in your own life? Because make no mistake
about it, class of 2020, you’re not just graduating. You are transitioning from being
students into becoming lawyers. And there’s so much that I could
add to what your professors have already shared with you. I could say the first
thing that I always say, which is have faith. What will you believe in? What will determine the rest of
your life and all of eternity for you? Because if you
don’t have a faith, you should seek
one and find one. And make it your faith. Anchor your life in
some immutable truths and some unshakable convictions. I could tell you what I tell
you next often in my classes. Work hard. I could tell you to be
diligent and to prioritize your family and your
personal relationships. I could say be true to yourself. Do good to others, and
exercise self-restraint. Be someone that
people can depend on. Remember that a good name
is better than riches, so be a person of integrity. Believe in something that
doesn’t depend on you. Find what you love,
and pursue it. And all of these things
you have heard before, but I want to spend a little
bit of time on this last one. There’ll be no cold calls today. This is, after all, my
last lecture to you. And I will make it a lecture. You see, I believe you
should find what you love and pursue it. But I want to caution you. It takes more than
loving something. Many of you have loved
things in the past, and you have left them behind. Many of you will find yourself
working on cases, or in firms, or in areas of law that are
really different from what you thought you would be doing. For many of you,
you may not have found that one topic,
or subject, or area that makes your heart skip a beat. Perhaps you never have hugged
an IP case, like I have. Or maybe you’ve never written
a poem about a contract’s casebook like I once did. If you can’t love it
now, be committed to it. Choose to be committed
when you can’t love. Choose to be committed
to whatever you’re doing, and do it well. Whatever your hands
find to do, do it well. Because people and
nations and communities are counting on you. But I guarantee
you, class of 2020, there will be something
that you will love, something that will
compel you, that will capture your
attention, that will become the fuel
for your life’s journey. And in general
terms, this should be the same thing for all lawyers. So what is that thing? In 2017, when you arrived
at Harvard Law School, Dean Manning was just beginning
his first year as dean. And you, too, are his first
full three-year class. And in your welcome
address, Dean Manning said, he emphasized. He said it’s important. It’s an important
time to be a lawyer. And he said that
good lawyers are indispensable for the
contributions they make to law and to justice. Justice, this idea that
governs our understanding of how people are treated,
or what is owed to people. It comes from the Roman law. And in the sixth century,
as far back as then, we see it being defined as this
constant, perpetual, insistent decision and commitment to
render to each person what is right, what is due to them. And all of you, regardless
of what area of law that you work in, regardless
of what you are doing, you will find opportunities. And ultimately you will be faced
with these constant questions about how to solve issues, and
how to answer hard questions, how to improve social
institutions so that each person
can have their due. Many of you came to law school
with a sense of justice. You came with certain
moral failures that stirred your
heart, that stirred your mind, certain
causes that seemed to call out more loudly to
you than it did anybody else. And yet learning the law
is not enough, is it? You’re ready to
graduate, aren’t you? You are ready to get out
there and to do something. And what you want
to do is something that is good, that is
meaningful, that brings justice to the doorsteps
of someone, that brings justice closer to
a people, to a nation, to a community. So how do you get there? How do you get there? Let me offer a few insights
from my own journey, a journey that is
still unfolding. But I hope that these lessons
will help you get on your path and will help you
stay on your path. Number one, looks are deceiving. Looks are deceiving. See, I never dreamed
of being a lawyer. For many of you, you woke up. You came out screaming
and squalling as babies, squalling for justice. And you haven’t stopped since. But I never dreamed of being
a lawyer, and how I got here is a miracle. But when I started
my pre-law journey, I would have thought that
human rights, or civil rights, or constitutional law,
or torts were subjects that would most appeal to me. See, because my nickname in
high school was It’s Not Fair. That was my first
retort to everything. But that’s just not fair. That’s just not right. And so when I had to write
an undergraduate paper in my pre-law journey, I
went to a professor of mine that I knew well, and I said,
I have to write this paper, and I don’t know
what to write on. And he said to me,
go to my office. I just came back
from a conference. There are a stack
of papers there. Read them, and see if
anything in there stirs you. And I thought, OK. And I did that. And those stack of
papers changed my life. They were papers on the role of
patents and technology transfer in transforming nations
from agrarian societies into industrialized societies. There were papers about the
importance of innovation and the importance of
building a knowledge society. They changed my life. For three days, I did
not leave my room. I pored over these papers. My mind was expanded. Now, I guarantee you if that
professor had said to me, there are stack of
intellectual property papers from a conference
I just attended. Go read them, I would
have said, no thank you. Looks can be deceiving. Since that fateful day,
since that fateful weekend where I locked myself up and
read 300 pages about patents and the technicalities and
the global dimensions of them, I have worked with
governments since that day. And I’ve worked with
international organizations and civil society groups. I’ve gone worldwide doing
teaching and training about how technology
affects the potential for human development. I’ve debated the
risks of technology, its virtues, its limits. I’ve fought with presidents
and prime ministers and ambassadors and
politicians around the world, asking them, imploring
them, demanding that they make the right
choices and IP policies that will affect whether
students can afford books for school, that will
affect whether citizens can afford lifesaving drugs. Who would have thought that
IP law would get me there? Who would have thought that
this stack, this 300-page stack of technical papers
that most of my friends looked at and said yuck, who
would have thought that it would take me to the
forefront of human rights and civil rights and equality
and constitutional law? All of the things that we
are fighting about today and debating in our
technologically driven society revolve around this subject. So I want to encourage
you that as one of my favorite prophets
in the Bible declares, there are streams in the desert. Class of 2020, there are
roads in wildernesses. There are things
to be discovered. Don’t be fooled by
the experiences. Don’t be fooled by
what things look like. Don’t let the look of a case,
don’t let the size of a client, don’t let the appearances
decide for you. Don’t judge on
just one encounter. Be willing to look behind the
cover of the proverbial book. Cultivate the courage
to try something new. Second thing, even one
person, one case, one person is worth it. One person is worth it. I love this story in the
Bible about a shepherd who leaves 99 and goes after
one sheep that gets lost. We have to be this
persistent about justice. We have to be this persistent
about finding solutions so that people can
get what is their due. I mentioned earlier the
200 years of history that you stepped into when you
arrived at Harvard Law School. I’ve heard many of you say
that sometimes Harvard Law School can be a burden. It’s true. I get it. And as I said before, as
an HLS graduate, sometimes you are more of an exhibit
than you are a person. People will treat you
different and expect these unimaginable
things from you. That’s true. But I want you to know that
some burdens are worth it if you learn how to carry them. Now many of you, in your
journey through HLS, you’ve passed through
Hemingway Gym. Maybe some of you
woke up every day or came to school every
semester promising yourself you’d get to Hemingway,
and you never made it in the three
years you’ve been here. Maybe you went to another gym. Maybe you’re still dreaming,
OK, when I’m done with the bar, I will start this thing. But here’s the point. My point is if you
did get to the gym, you hopefully
lifted some weights. Why did you do that? To build muscle. Class of 2020, your journey
is going to require muscle. This is how justice happens. Justice is persistent. It requires insistence
and the careful lifting of historical weights, the
weighing of measures that define who people are,
that define the pathway for a particular cause or case. For some of you, your weights
may comprise the 50-pound bench press of leading
institutions or of running for political office. For some of you, it may
be a 15-pound weight that will tone your arms to
craft that national policy, that community policy, that
law, that legislation that is so necessary to right a wrong. For some of you, it may
be the 10-pound weight of a pro bono case that
will set a prisoner free, that will right a wrong. Whatever your weight
is, carry it well. It will build muscle
for the journey ahead. It doesn’t matter
whether your work will impact one person,
whether you are doing it in the shadows of a small
firm or of a public interest organization or a civil
society organization. It doesn’t matter that
it’s one person or one case or one line in a statute
that needs to go. It is worth the journey
you have endured at HLS. Casey mentioned the
Marrakesh Treaty, which is a treaty that
facilitates access to published works
that are copyrighted for disabled people. And prior to that treaty, if
you were visually impaired, it was difficult for
you to go to law school. It was difficult for
you to go to any school. And this was a burden for
me as a copyright scholar, and I struggled with this. And so when I was asked
to help do this work and to conduct
these negotiations, never in my wildest
dreams did I imagine that I would be sitting
around these tables in Morocco and in Geneva and in
London doing all these things. And it sounds fancy, but
it was just a hotel room with a bunch of lawyers
sitting around a table fighting over this treaty
and whether or not visually impaired persons would
have access to the materials, whether they would be
able to go through school, whether they would be
enabled and empowered to live their best lives
despite the disability. And we finally got
that treaty done. And I heard from Stevie
Wonder and so many people that we think of as
icons who have struggled because of a disability. And I was so grateful to
God for that opportunity. And I actually, frankly,
didn’t think much of it. I was just glad
that it was done, and I was hopeful that
countries would take it and that it would transform
the lives of people. Well, on August 30, 2017,
your first day of law school, at 8 o’clock, I showed
up in my Contracts class. I talked about offer and
acceptance and consideration. We didn’t quite get
to consideration, but we were going there. And at the end of that
lecture, one of your colleagues walked up to me. He said, Professor
Okediji, you don’t know me. You don’t know my name. You don’t know who I am. But I was able to read
three volumes of Montesquieu this summer for the first
time because of the Marrakesh Treaty. I’m a 1L in your class,
and I want to thank you. In my wildest dreams, when
I was frustrated and angry and getting to my wit’s
end, when I thought it just wasn’t worth it and
we should just walk away, that the established
interests were just too entrenched in
the copyright system, that we would not
get this done– and in fact, I had uttered
those words at the beginning. This is unlikely to happen. When I looked into my 1L
student’s face, I almost wept. He was worth it. He was worth it. And today he is a proud
member of the class of 2020. The third thing that I want to
leave with you, class of 2020, is look at the right things. Look at the right things. The situation that we are in is
concerning on so many levels, and there’s so much
global uncertainty. And I have had to have occasion
to call on a verse that says in Philippians [? 4, ?]
whatever things are true, whatever things are noble,
whatever things are just, whatever things
are good, whatever things are pure and right, think
and meditate on these things. Many of you have
spent a lot of time in the three years of law school
finding and fighting injustice. When people ask you
why, you might say, but look at all the
injustice in the world. My typical response is, I
don’t need to look for it. It stares me in the
face every single day. I see it when I
travel to Europe and I am still refused service in a
restaurant because I’m black. I see it when I walk
into a boardroom to represent the
president of a country or presidents of many countries
and the first question that greets me is, could
you bring us coffee? I see it in the newspapers as
men are shot down in cold blood and in broad daylight for
the singular offense of being a different color. I see it in jail houses that
are full of young people whose lives might be different
if, as a country, we had a pathway for both
accountability and redemption. Injustice is everywhere. And that’s why, class of 2020,
justice must be persistent. But if all you look
for and if all you find is injustice, if that’s
what motivates you, you’ll always be in pain or
angry or paralyzed with fear. But worse, if injustice is
what you see most of the time, you won’t recognize justice. You won’t find and
fight the battles that are the most important. You see, finding
justice is just easy. That’s why we have
so much of it. People examine it. They find it. Then they imitate it. So much so that injustice
becomes our default. Justice becomes less
recognizable, less feasible, less probable, less
imaginable, less impossible. When we look and find and
live in the place of injustice all the time, we lose
hope for justice. So today, class of 2020,
I want to encourage you to be persistent in finding
and in securing justice. You must know the
persistence of justice. Because if injustice
is everywhere, you might be tempted to think
that justice is nowhere. And if justice is
nowhere, you have just spent three years
of your [? life. ?] The lifeblood of the law is
justice, persistent justice. The fourth thing that I
want to leave with you– I only have six, so
we’re almost done. The fourth thing I want to
leave with you is a proverb. And this is, of course,
an African proverb. It’s a west African proverb. It’s a Yoruba proverb. It says that when you are
crying, you can still see. It’s always important
to look back. Wise King Solomon said
the end of a matter is better than its beginning. And I’ve always wondered why. Because personally, I’m a
new beginnings kind of girl. I love the excitement
of the unknown. I love the freshness of
new experiences, the hope that there’s something
better ahead. But recently, I got a
glimpse into this truth that the end of a
matter can be good. I mean, to be honest,
doesn’t it feel good today to be at the end of
your law school journey? Don’t you feel accomplished? Don’t you know more,
or maybe know less? But you feel like
you’ve done something. And the end allows you to
put things in perspective. It allows you to judge
with more facts in hand. It allows you to reflect
on what you did right and what you did wrong or
what you didn’t do at all. There’s always something
about the end that makes the new beginning possible. But endings are tough. And of course this is
a tough ending for you. The world is beset
by a pandemic, one that is still unfolding,
that is still to be defeated. In a few short months, it has
upended our life as we know it. It’s marked your class. And many would argue that
it’s maybe redefined you. But I beg to differ, and
I hope that you will too. Because, you see, those 200
years that I talked about that you stepped in, unknowingly
and unwittingly, perhaps, in the journey that you are
about to leave behind, now 203-year journey, even the one
that you are about to start and embark upon,
there are buried histories of many plagues. Plagues that some of
you have read about. You’ve studied and
confronted in your courses. They’re plagues that have
marred generations past. And their consequences
and scars are still etched in the hallways of this
university and of this nation. They are like the
marks that smallpox would leave on a generation,
a generation ago when smallpox was– we could
not find a cure for it. We find the scars
of those plagues in our society and our world. And we describe them
as plagues because they bear doom on their wings. They exact a toll
on our daily lives. They compel us to
rearrange and to reimagine the ordinary routines of life. They are a burden around which
we navigate or Zoom around. We are forced to
abandon habits, then to adapt to new inconveniences. We’re disappointed
and we’re fearful. We grapple with lots of
emotions when we have a plague. But, class of 2020, the emotions
will come, and they will go. They’ll come back. So the point is not the
pandemic or the plagues. The point is you. You see, the reason
COVID-19 and, like any other large-scale
challenges that may follow, the reason it fiercely
grips our attention is that the consequences
are visible, and often they are immediate. We’re inundated with the
news of its spread and how many people have died and
its devastation every day. But as I reminded one
audience recently, there are things
far more stubborn and far more persistent
and far more debilitating than this pandemic. There are the
injustices and the pain that pervade the
fabric of our families and our relationships
and our society. There are attitudes and actions
and beliefs that maim us, that weaken us, that
divide us, that poison us, that diminish us,
and that ultimately destroy the things that are
most important for life. These things are
buried in the news. And sometimes they’re
not reported at all, or sometimes they just become
part of the fabric of life and we are used to them. But when we’re crying
over the current plague, I want us to remember that we
still need to look and remember the plagues past,
and the lingering consequences, and the
ongoing plagues that are buried below the headlines. I want to challenge you. Because these older
plagues that we often lose sight of in the
face of the current one, they share lots of things
in common with COVID-19. We often don’t know when
we have contracted them. We don’t know how we infect
others with these attitudes and with these mindsets. And we so often quickly
run out of protective gear. We run out of the protective
gear of forgiveness. We run out of the
protective gear of hope and trust and grace and love. So I want to challenge you,
as you pack up your books and bags, as you look toward
a future that seems uncertain, I want you to look
hard at what you’ve encountered in this pandemic,
how you’ve responded. And I want to
remind you that you want to keep looking beyond it,
and you want to look before it. Let your vision give you some
insight into what you believe and how firmly you
continue to press into those causes that
are so vital for justice to occur in our country. Make sure that what you
believe and that your faith is strong enough to sustain you. Because when the fight
for justice is long, it can also be lonely
and unrewarding. So when you’re looking,
when you’re crying now about the things
that have happened in the last three months
and 2 and 1/2 months, I want you to remember. Remember that there are
still [? many ?] plagues and pandemics that we
must not lose sight of that still must be fought. And the fifth thing
is take art lessons. This one has been
really important, and it’s been hard,
because I am not an artist. See, disagreement and division
are not conjoined twins. They’re not inevitable partners. It’s true that disagreements
are unavoidable. Despite being the class of 2020,
let me just tell you the truth. You don’t have perfect vision. You will need
others in your life that can help you
adjust your lens, or maybe just to clean them
so that you can see better. Disagreement, the art
of healthy disagreement, is one of the skills
you have to learn to preserve relationships, from
your most casual relationship to your most intimate
relationship. Now, again, there is nothing
unavoidable about disagreement and division. There’s nothing
unavoidable about division. You can disagree. In fact, disagreement is a
sign of healthy independence. It’s part of life’s journey. But the point of disagreement
is not to be divided. The point of
disagreement is to train your mental and your
emotional faculties so that you can identify
ways to reconcile things. And you’ve done this for three
years in law school classes where you’ve had to reconcile
competing precedents. Precedents that were
intention, maybe even conflicting precedents. It is a way to better
complete yourself when you know the art of disagreement. You are better as a person. You are more complete
by having people in your life who
are not like you, who have walked a different road
in life, who have made choices that you would have
never made, and who find themselves in situations
that you would never imagine. Healthy disagreement is an art. Take art lessons. No matter how talented
you are, you’re going to need those lessons. So make a commitment to engage
with difference intentionally, with compassion,
and with conviction. You see, the best
artists, they don’t paint exactly what they see. No, no, no, they add
their own interpretation. They bring new hues and textures
to what most of us might think is mundane and dull. Artists reinvigorate the new. They add fresh and
unusual perspectives. So bring your best
self to a disagreement. And be open to what
the other person’s best self is trying to show you. Be committed from
the very beginning to seeing what they see, even
if you don’t like the pink color that they choose or you
are perplexed by the object that they seem so
passionately engaged with. The comma at the
end of the sentence or the period at the end of
the sentence and the comma that separates the
clauses, people get worked up about this in firms. And you may be befuddled
about these things. But bring your best self
in because disagreement and distrust, disagreement and
division are not inexorable. They are not natural allies. If you allow disagreement
to amount to distrust, you give license to
allow every disagreement to breed [INAUDIBLE]. OK, my last tool
for your suitcase. Unmute yourself. I often find myself
in situations where I’m the only woman
or I’m the only person of color on a team. And in those
situations, I’m pretty conscious of the importance
of listening closely, speaking when I have something to say. And to be honest,
sometimes I’m also alert to the possibility
that my voice won’t be heard. So recently, I was involved in
a high-stakes negotiation with a significant– a number of economic and
political consequences. And I was surrounded by
an astonishingly good team of lawyers. I had spent hours preparing. I felt ready. I felt good. I was a senior legal
expert, and I felt confident that I was representing the
right side of the story. And so we all dialed into
the conference call on time, and we were waiting
for the call to begin. And the conversation began,
and I listened closely. 10 minutes, 15 minutes,
and then 20 minutes. And then I had a thought. I had a response to a point
that had been fairly compelling and that had been really
made quite powerfully. And so I cleared my throat,
and I started to speak, only to be interrupted
by someone. So I kept quiet, and I
waited for the person to conclude his point. And then I began to speak again. And again, I was interrupted. And I said, excuse me,
may I have the floor to make this intervention? I’ve been trying to speak. But the speaker just ignored
me and went right on speaking. My moment was gone. I’d lost my point. I was mildly irritated. But I said OK. An hour into the
conversation and many points later, I still had not
been able to speak. And by then, class
of 2020, by then, my mild irritation
had turned to steam. I mean, imagine those
cartoon creatures with fumes coming out of
their– that was me. That was me. I was sufficiently aggravated. I was so aggravated that
I missed the last 30, 45 minutes of the conversation
because I was starting to imagine in my mind
the conversations that I was going to have when this
conference call was over. I was going to call some people. We were going to have a talk. Because I wanted to make
it clear to my colleagues I wouldn’t be silenced,
that they couldn’t treat me as lesser
just because I’m a woman or a person of color. And I’m telling you, class
of 2020, those conversations in my mind were good. They were good. Two days after the call,
a member of the legal team called me and said,
Professor Okediji, why didn’t you speak
during our conference call? We were waiting
to hear from you. And so, you know, I waited,
as I’ve learned to do in life. I took a deep breath. And I said, this poor person
is just the messenger. I’m not going to go off on them. Let me just walk in love here. And so I took a deep breath,
and I said, I did try to speak, multiple times. But each time that I opened my
mouth, someone interrupted me. And even when I asked
that they let me finish, they just ignored me. It was the most
disrespectful call that I had been in a long time. And I won’t participate
in such a call again. We need to have a conversation
about this going forward. There was dead silence
on the other end, maybe for about two minutes. And finally this very senior
lawyer said, Professor Okediji, did you press *6? I said what? He said *6 to unmute yourself. In the blink of an
eye, class of 2020, my racist, sexist,
disrespectful, rude colleagues were
transformed once again like Wonder Woman used to do. And they became
normal, kind people. And I became the [? villain. ?] You see, by dialing
into the call, I had automatically
muted myself. It was my responsibility
to unmute myself. I had the power, the
means, the opportunity. My voice, even if not wanted,
was invited and even necessary. So as you leave Harvard
Law School, class of 2020, I encourage you to
unmute yourself. Identify those things that
unknowingly keep you silent when your friends or your family
or your community around you need your voice. It could be fear. It could be apathy. It could be pride. It could be blindness to the
world and the needs around you. It could be blind ambition
and self-absorption. Because when you’re
muted, you’re only talking to yourself. You imagine conditions and
motivations that may not exist. You ascribe ill will to others
without ever once stopping to examine yourself. Self-examination is crucial for
your ability to unmute yourself and to contribute to the many
conversations around you, to make your voice count
persistently and insistently in the cause of justice. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
loved this verse in Amos 5:24. “Let justice roll down like
a river and righteousness like a never failing stream.” Your voice is a tributary
to that river of justice. So, class of 2020, I salute
you, and I bless you, and I congratulate you. And like arrows that
have been sharpened, I release you to persist
in the cause of justice. Find your mark, and hit it. And don’t forget that those
of us you’ve left behind are a part of your tomorrow. Congratulations, class of 2020. I’m excited for you. God bless you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

6 thoughts on “2020 Last Lecture Series | Ruth Okediji

  1. I just graduated from Law school (in South Africa). This lecture is incredible! Congratulations Harvard Law class of 2020!

  2. I did not attend this class and clicked on this assuming it was a lecture, but damn, what an inspiring and caring woman. Good to know there are professors like this teaching people out there. Congrats on your graduations, guys!

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