Online Additions

Get Connected (Full Text)

By Torrey Maldonado '96

Every three years The African-American Alumnae/i of Vassar College helps young Vassar minds to get connected with experienced Vassar alumnae/i by hosting an on-campus conference called Triennial. Various social mixers, entertainment events, and forums are held and at any turn you’ll make a connection. It happened to me.

My connection began at Alumnae House and took me to Washington, D.C.

Standing in Judiciary Square, the cacophonous sound of hundreds of weighty decisions being simultaneously made by people in suits on cell-phones around me was dizzying. I looked up, saw the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse, and went in its direction. If weighty decisions were made outside, weightier decisions were made in there. After clearing a near impenetrable wall of heavily armed security officers and metal detectors, I stepped onto an elevator and toward the floor of Richard Roberts ’74.

Roberts is a Federal Court Judge in the United States District Courts. The judicial power he represents is awesome. The pressure he shoulders is quite a feat. How did he get from Vassar College to presiding in our nation’s Federal Court system? What advice would he offer young Vassar minds? Ricky Roberts is just one person you can connect with at Triennial. Below is the complete text of the interview I conducted with him.

Maldonado Where were you born?

ROBERTS Harlem. I was about four when my parents moved to Jamaica, Queens.

Maldonado I’m looking at you now and you’re a judge, yet I recall hearing a story about you during your Vassar days. Is it true that you and a significant number of other Black male students met out on one of the lawns in martial arts uniforms and blowout Afros?

ROBERTS Yes, it’s true. Who would’ve thought my black martial arts gee back then would turn into a black judicial robe? I had no clue. This wasn’t even my aspiration. My aspiration was to become a criminal lawyer and represent all the brothers in prison who had been railroaded by the system, prosecuted unfairly, jammed by the FBI, and all that. Career planning turned out to be my short suit. My first job out of law school was as a civil rights prosecutor. We prosecuted police brutality and racially motivated violence cases and I was prosecuting consistently with my basic principles. There were benefits to being a prosecutor. We were of assistance to working class, poor people, and people of color in a lot of regards. We address grievances and vindicated rights.

Maldonado You have an impressive life. Who at Vassar helped you get here?

ROBERTS Milfred C. Fierce: the first director of Black Studies. He stayed on the faculty for about four to five years. Also, Norman Hodges: a professor in the Black Studies department. I identified them immediately as having my best interests at heart. There was something natural about my gravitating to them to share my experiences and concerns with them. They were welcoming harbors for a guy who might have felt like a ship adrift. They lifted up my experiences as an African American beyond the walls of the college and beyond the confines of New York State and beyond the confines of the United States. They internationalized my existence. They showed me how what I was going through was not unique to me and that my experiences were shared throughout the country, throughout the African Diaspora, throughout the whole world. At that time, we were confronting issues of race and racism and revolution and war and peace. It was very easy to get narrowly focused on just what was happening to me. It liberated me to learn from them that there was a context for everything happening in my world. And that context has national and international applications. That emphasis was brought up all the time by Fierce and Hodges.

Maldonado How does that aid you now?

ROBERTS When I get a case, I really have to unlock the main controversy. Meaning, “What is this case really about? What is the real problem? What is the real conflict? What is the way to bring real justice to the parties that have come before me?” Fierce and Hodges helped me look beyond the papers I see, to look to the human beings and institutions that are before me and identify what is at the nub of this controversy. It was and is about meaning and context and trying to do something in ways that have a broader context.

Maldonado What types of cases do you adjudicate?

ROBERTS We get cases that are filed under the wide variety of Federal statutes that exist, although we are a court of limited jurisdiction. As you know, when the United States of America was first formed the states were sovereign and they had courts with unlimited jurisdiction to hear virtually any kind of a controversy. The stated ceded to a new federal government a limited number of issues that the federal government could deal with and made the jurisdiction of the courts limited to that which the Constitution or statutes passed by Congress said the courts could hear. What we often get here in this court, on the civil side, are cases that involve employment discrimination, the Freedom of Information Act, access to government records, cases involving alleged prisoner violations. We get securities fraud cases and cases involving union disputes. There are a wide variety of federal matters. On the criminal side, we get large drug cases—importation and conspiracies. We get federal firearm violation cases. We get white-collared frauds. With the advent of the death penalty attaching to some of the federal offenses, we are starting to get some death penalty cases as well. We don’t get some of the matters that typically are state court related like divorces and child custody.

Maldonado Can you tell me more about professor Fierce?

ROBERTS Professor Fierce was one of the House Fellows at Kendrick House—the then African American Residence Hall and cultural center. Outside of class, we saw him frequently because he lived there and he would sometimes host meetings there. Professor Hodges lived elsewhere, off in faculty housing. We would have meetings with the SAS—Students of the African-American Society (now BSU)—in the lounge of Kendrick and Professor Fierce would often attend those meetings. We asked him to and he would. We got to see him in social contexts and in community activity contexts. We’d pursue activities down at the Smith Center—in the Smith Street Housing Projects—and he’d be a help in that regard. Whatever time we got to spend with Fierce, it wasn’t enough.

Maldonado What did those faculty of color give you?

ROBERTS The Black Studies Department, to me, was like another home. When I walked in there, I’d find that smooth water, a welcoming environment, and a higher standard for me. There were others who expected students of color weren’t able to perform and they weren’t surprised if we didn’t. Fierce and Hodges wouldn’t let you get away with mediocrity.

Maldonado Could you verbally distill what Fierce and Hodges gave you?

ROBERTS Decide within your heart and your mind what is right and establish for yourself what your reputation is and who you are by doing what you must do with integrity. If you abandon integrity early, you will ruin your opportunities later on to earn any kind of respect that you want or might deserve for good works. One word: perseverance. Things come fairly easily now to when you compare how things came to just two generations ago—our parents and their parents. Now think of five generations ago to African ancestors who were brought here against their will. Things come easier to us but that also might mean we tend to decide things are hopeless and give up more quickly. We can’t do that. Keep an open mind to new thoughts and new ways of doing things and learning. Recognize helping hands out there that may not appear to be initially helping.

Maldonado Any other advice to students now at Vassar?

ROBERTS See how many extra classes you can take, even if it’s on a Pass-Fail basis. Join another organization that exposes you to another group of people. Don’t sit back and wait for a professor to embrace you as a mentee. Go and find a professor and make yourself a mentee and that professor a mentor. One thing you really can carry away from college are relationships with faculty and sometimes administrators.

Maldonado Any advice for faculty?

ROBERTS During the 70s, Black students started coming in larger numbers to the college and it was tough for them to find a mentor on the faculty. Many of the faculty members just weren’t accustomed to having all of these Black people around. It wasn’t easy then because the campus was much more predominantly white. Many faculty members just didn’t know how to reach out to people of color. They didn’t realize that reaching out to people of color is no different than reaching out to anybody. If you identify a talent or skill in a student that you think ought to be developed, reach out to that student and develop it. I don’t know if students are having any issues with the frequency with which white faculty reach out to mentor them, but one thing I saw carried away by my white classmates were wonderful relationships with a broader number of faculty members than I was able to have. For all the money that gets paid, the faculty owes students and that includes students of color. They need to be mentoring students. If there are students at Vassar who are not getting mentored, they need to get the President of the College in the face of those faculty members. Also, I don’t know what kind of mentoring faculty of color are doing with students. There are so many additional issues that faculty of color—like people of color generally—have to deal with in a predominantly white environment. I wonder if they are reaching out to students of color like Fierce and Hodges did with me.

Maldonado So you’d encourage both faculty and experienced and young Vassar minds to reach out for those persons and interests that are outside the norm for them?

ROBERTS Yes. In the 70s we were so focused on issues of race and African liberation and things that caused us to bond tightly as Black students on campus. We didn’t see as much value in accepting overtures or reaching out to different kinds of people who might have been able to share some good and interesting and fun things with us. As a consequence, I rarely found myself going to other dorms where there weren’t significant concentrations of Black students. There could have very well been a variety of other people in those dorms who could have benefited me or whom I could have benefited. There are some non-Black people with whom I don’t share much in common with and there are non-Black people who I share a lot in common with. If I could do it over again, I would have looked past some of the artificial barriers and achieved other bonds.

Maldonado How did you do that at Vassar?

ROBERTS At Vassar, I took dance.

Maldonado You took dance as a Black man back in such a Black revolutionary time period? That’s impressive. Was there some stigma with you being a straight brother and taking dance?

ROBERTS I had to get over some male ego hurdles. I didn’t know a thing about dance and when I got in the class and they told me I had to wear tights, I said, “Oh, no, no, no, no. This can’t be” but I left the male ego at the door and said, “Okay, if I’m taking the class I gotta do what they say.” Also, there’s that assumption that a tremendous amount of gay men are dancers so I had to get beyond the concern that there was some stigma of, “Oh this is just for gay men.” I also had to get beyond the concern of, “What is a straight Black man doing taking dance? You ought to be out there shooting hoops.” I was dating a woman who was a dancer and introduced me to the dance community and showed me the discipline and rigor that accompanies particularly classical dance. It became great exercise. One thing that was comfortable about Vassar College was that you could do the unorthodox. You could try new things. If they didn’t fit, you didn’t wear them. But if you think it’s okay, try it out.

Maldonado Coming from a African American and Latino background I felt people at Vassar had expectations of how African American and Latino males should behave.

ROBERTS If peoples’ perceptions didn’t fit with who I was or wanted to do, it didn’t influence me. I brought to the college my own interests that may not have been stereotypical. I had the good fortune of having a mother who was classically trained in music and she imposed upon me piano lessons. As a result of that, I got into music and art in high school in New York. I carried that interest in music with me to Vassar. I wasn’t going to allow anyone else’s expectations of how I should behave interfere with my genuine interest in music. I joined the Vassar chorus and the Vassar Madrigal Singers because I had training in it and I wanted to try it out. Also, I was really into math. When I got to Vassar College, I got into computers. Others might have characterized that as geekish yet I didn’t apologize for myself. I loved what I loved at a time when a lot of other people were into other things. I did the Social Sciences too. I double majored in Black Studies and Political Studies. But as a Black man, I didn’t let anybody else’s expectations of me shut down what I had an interest in. If I wanted to learn something, I went ahead and learned it. Was it always comfortable? No. But what matters is what fits best for me and what fits best for what I want to give back.

Maldonado How’d you go from Vassar to here?

ROBERTS My first year after Vassar, I was in a graduate program that professor Hodges steered me towards in Vermont: the School for International Training. It allowed me to get a Masters degree and do an internship in East Africa. It was a capstone in my development as an African American male. I grew up in New York City, attended Vassar College, developed a broader perspective to the experience of African Americans, then was able to experience that perspective in East Africa for a couple of months. It was an invaluable. I returned to the states and enrolled in the CLEO program (Council in Legal Educational Opportunity). (A pre-law program for six weeks.) Then I attended Columbia Law School and that was quite a shift in gears. I went from living and working in Nairobi to living and attending law school in Manhattan and learning about alien things like torts, property, and civil procedure. The first year of law school is quite tough but as tough as it was, I don’t regret having made the choice to do it. We didn’t have lawyers in my family. We had never been sued or ever sued. It was a whole different experience for me. Yet it is a continuation of my expansion.

Maldonado What advice would you give to young Vassar minds who want to find and follow their yellow-brick road yet don’t have a clue where it is in their lives?

ROBERTS First, don’t worry that you don’t know where your yellow-brick road is or where it is going to point you. Youth is a time where you’re able to experience and expand and learn. Put no limits on what you’re learning and experiencing that can help you out. In due time, the yellow-brick road will be paved; it will have a direction; it will show you where you it will be going. It’s really you will be paving it, not it will be paving you. Secondly, practice excellence because whatever yellow-brick road you end up choosing mediocrity is not going to get you anywhere. Excellence will reward you and anybody you’re serving.

Maldonado What does “the decline of dedication” mean to you?

ROBERTS I hope I’m not witnessing a decline of dedication. I hope what I’m seeing, particularly in students coming out of Vassar, is a commitment to dedication. I hope people realize that what we need to do if we are to make improvements to our communities and world is a dedication to that selflessness. Being dedicated to only ourselves is not the way the Rosa Parks, Malcolms, and Torrey Maldonados of the world make big things happen. That comes from dedication to others and dedication to improvement and change.

Maldonado Thank you for this interview.

ROBERTS My pleasure.