Connie Rice knows a thing or two about breaking barriers, and not just because her cousin is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Rice made her name as a civil rights lawyer, but has worked in policy reform on a litany of different issues.
She told UNC law students Thursday that she found success in rejecting the status quo, and that they should do the same.
“Don’t think of yourselves as just students,” Rice said. “Be fearless, be measured, but at the same time, don’t place the limits in the area of the law,” she said.
Rice told a crowd of about 40 people about her internship with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she worked on capital punishment cases after just two years of law school.
Jack Boger, dean of UNC’s School of Law, was the director of the Legal Defense Fund’s capital punishment project when Rice was an intern.
“Connie simply invented new ways of doing civil rights work,” he said. “She had the courage to form a path that simply didn’t exist.”
That’s exactly what Rice urged students to do.
“We had no idea that what (Boger) was asking us to do really couldn’t be done,” she said. “Because we were so full of ourselves we just set about doing it.”
Brett Currier, a first-year law student, said much of what Rice said resonated with him.
“It’s just the idea that nothing’s impossible so long as you don’t know that it is,” Currier said.
Rice also spoke about how she gained the trust of Los Angeles police. She sued them for 20 years before partnering with them on matters of policy change, she said.
“The police are the first guardians of civil rights,” she said. “I was standing with them instead of fighting against them.”
One of her major projects is the Summer Night Lights initiative, which aims to reduce gang violence.
“You can’t have the desire to be liked,” Rice said. “It’s about being able to stand where you have to stand.”
Steven Erkel, a first-year law student, said he gained an interesting perspective on civil rights.
“You have to work with your opponents to create change,” he said. “The law can only go so far when you’re alone.”
“It’s amazing that a woman at that time, who’s African American, had the courage and tenacity to stand up to a culture that adamantly opposed her being where she is today,” he added.
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