Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, joined the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Program in March for a conversation about the crucial role that civic engagement plays in our society and ways to inspire civic action by all Americans. Alongside Latinos and Society Executive Director Abigail Golden-Vazquez, the Justice discussed Latino identity, youth empowerment, and more — you can read her answers and watch the entire event below:
Abigail Golden-Vazquez: Civically engaged citizens reach higher levels of education, make more money, and have better health outcomes. But who has access to civic opportunity? What would you say about the state of America’s civic culture, and what can we do to reignite civic spirit?
Sonia Sotomayor: We are never going to reach equality in America until we achieve equality in education. That’s why we’re unequal in this society, and it’s what we need to change if we want all people equal – not just under law – but in participation in society.
None of us can afford to be bystanders in life. We create our community, and we create it by being active participants in our community. Since I joined the board of iCivics, I’ve been an active participant in three new initiatives: moving into high schools, creating models for how teachers can create programs to do civic problems, and making things accessible to ESL students.
There’s no single Latino identity. But there are some characteristics Latinos are known for – hard work, family values, belief in the value of education, or an entrepreneurial spirit. Latinos start businesses at four times the rest of the nation – but we lag behind in civic participation. Why?
Let’s be honest. If you’re working 14 hours a day at your job, it is hard to make time for civic participation. And for many Latinos, that’s the quality of their life. We have to engage with that reality. It’s very hard to motivate people who barely have time to sit and think about involving themselves in other people’s problems. That’s why I think teaching civic involvement as a bettering not of the world, but of your community, becomes more powerful and easier to sell. That, I think, every Latino does intuitively. That’s why we have such extended families. But I don’t think it’s going to be easy.
What can we do to empower Latinos who are not one in a million?
There’s a continuing tension in America between the image of the person who pulls themselves up by the bootstraps, and the person who believes that you need a lift to get up sometimes. Those people who believe that everyone must pull themselves up – they don’t believe that people are entitled to help. For those of us who understand that sometimes no matter how tall the heel on your boot is, the barrier is so high that you need a small lift to help you get over it – they will understand that the inequalities in society build that barrier so high. Unless you do something to knock it down or help that person up, they will never have a chance. I had those things. I had a unique mother who was able to understand the benefits of education and encouraged me to use education as my liftoff. But not everyone knows that. If you come from a country where society is closed to equality, why would you believe that education for your kids would lead to something different?
How many kids hear that they can’t go to college, that they have to support the family? That comes from a parent whose own life has constricted their understanding of opportunity. So for me, that’s a constant conversation. It’s not an issue about whether someone is willing to lift themselves up. There are so many barriers that we have to bring down before we can change the outcomes. It’s a very different talk …
Take one child in your life and engage them in something to help their community. I don’t care what it is. Take them on a field trip to feed the homeless at a center. Take them to a nursing home and have them meet and talk to someone there for the afternoon. But take one child in your life and show them the meaning of helping someone else. Don’t assume that kids know what that means. You have to actually get them to participate by doing.
Is there one person who inspires you to move forward?
There are two questions I ask myself every day. One is: what have I learned today? I try not to limit it to the law. That would be cheating. It’s usually something I’ve read or listened to on the news. It could be anything. But it has to be something with a rich meaning. The richer I am, the more I can give.
The second is: who have I helped today? There are days where all I’m doing is working on my computer. Then I get home, look at my messages and think about someone who is sick or someone I know who is in need, and reach out to them. If it’s not too late I do it with a phone call. I ask how they are and how things are going.
But I don’t look to people to motivate me – not in that way. I’ve had many mentors. But there are people who I hear about and think that they inspire me to keep going. When I hear about everyday, normal people who have just decided to do something extraordinary. If they can do it, so should I. That’s how I organize my life and thinking.
Between 2012 and 2016, we saw an unprecedented number of millennials become eligible to vote for the first time – but one of the most contentious election processes. What would you say to people who are feeling disillusioned?
You let it happen. Anytime you are disillusioned by any election or anything that happened, you have to ask who’s responsible. Whatever happens is because we don’t take control and ensure that our voices are heard. Look at how close the last election was. Every time I look at people I want to ask, did you vote? And any Latino who complains to me – that’s the first question I ask. My point is: we don’t have a right to despair … What’s left once you walk away? All the bad things you hate? You’ve done absolutely nothing to change them. At the end of my life I want to be able to look at myself and say, I tried. If you can’t say that, you can’t claim a meaningful life. And that’s what spurs me on in everything I do. If we give up hope, we have nothing left to live for. There’s too much at stake for the people I love. For the community that is such an integral part of who I am. For the children who want to grow up and have the world I want and the future I imagine for them. My life is worth my effort, and so is yours.
This conversation on the critical importance of civic engagement in America was held by the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Program. It has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.