Design by Mel Woodard/AS Publicity Center

Shawna Leader/The AS Review

No matter who you are, you have undoubtedly faced obstacles when pursuing goals. But according to former Washington State Supreme Court Justice Honorable Charles Smith, limitations, especially those created by society, should not stand in the way.

“I have the idea that all human beings are capable of performing any activity they choose, despite limitations superficially imposed by society,” Smith said in a recent interview.

Smith will speak at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 25 at the PAC Mainstage. Western Leadership Advantage (WLA), Fairhaven College, the Karen Morse Leadership Institute and the Associated Students will be hosting the event.  The event is part of the WLA Leadership Lectures and will focus on Smith’s leadership and life experiences, Luis Ibarra, graduate assistant for WLA, said.

Smith will speak about his personal experiences, ethics, social justice, crossing the color line and emphasizing community, he said.

“There’s so much you can learn from someone else’s life. … His leadership is demonstrated through everything he’s done,” Ibarra said.

According to information provided by WLA, Smith attended the University of Washington. He graduated from University of Washington Law School in 1955, a year when the school graduated only two black students.   He went on to work in the King County Prosecutor’s office and later became Special Assistant to United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. After returning to Seattle, Smith was a professor and a dean at the University of Washington. Smith was appointed to the Washington State Supreme Court in 1988 by Governor Booth Gardner.

During and after World War II, Smith was involved with the Redress for Japanese Americans movement, which sought a formal government apology and reparations for the Japanese internment. As a member of the Seattle Chapter of Japanese American Citizen’s League, he advised redress movement activists and raised awareness about the issue. In 1999, Smith was appointed by Bill Clinton to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In this position, he contributed to efforts to end civil war in Sudan and worked to end religious persecution of minorities in China, Egypt, India and Pakistan.

In addition to discussing his life experiences, Smith will talk about overcoming obstacles and keeping the community in mind, Joanne DeMark, leadership development specialist for WLA, said.

“We’re going to hear about his life, but for me the take-home [message] is to keep going, keep breaking barriers … keep making choices on behalf of the community,” DeMark said.

One barrier Smith will discuss is racial discrimination. After he graduated from law school, Smith was not hired at a law firm on the basis of his race, he said. But with persistence, he soon became a law clerk for Washington Supreme Court justice Matthew W. Hill. When someone encounters obstacles such as racism, they should not be discouraged, he said.
“One should not let those stumbling blocks prevent them from moving ahead,” Smith said.

In terms of leadership, how a person sees themselves is more important than how others see them, Smith said. It’s also based on a desire to give back, he added.

“The opportunity to become a leader is not based upon a formula. It’s based upon … a need to contribute to society,” Smith said.

Smith’s community focus is something that is not always present in leadership, Ibarra said.

“A lot of our leaders tend to forget about that, that it’s all about the people and your community,” Ibarra said.

Ibarra, who is hoping to go to law school, is interested in what Smith has to say about decision making. Smith has had to make some tough decisions and Ibarra said he would like to hear the thinking behind some of those decisions.

Another concept that will be discussed is resilience, DeMark said. She would like to know how Smith maintained resilience when Robert Kennedy was assassinated and how he faced that tragedy without becoming bitter.

“That’s a feat of leadership—to prevail in the face of demoralizing circumstances,” she said.

When students hear the struggles of previous generations, particularly those of communities of color, they can take that experience into the future, DeMark said.

Ideally, DeMark said, the event will inspire students to be leaders and be active in their communities.

“No matter where you come from, you can be a global citizen and be a leader,” Ibarra said.

Smith, now retired, continues to be an active member of his community. Smith is involved in several volunteer activities. They include serving on the board of directors for Camp Brotherhood in Skagit County, and involvement in the James W. Washington Foundation and the judicial council of the Hispanic National Bar Association, he said.

“I don’t consider my achievements as anything exceptional,” he said. “At the same time, I can reflect on those experiences.”