Retiring at 19 is not usually what you hear from someone leaving a professional career. But it was my reality when my identity as a ballerina was ending before I turned 20. What was next? I began to question my future during one of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s unemployment breaks in the 1970s. I had deferred my admissions to Barnard College in New York City, thinking I would have a gap year or two before college. My mother had other notions and encouraged me not to wait to start college.
I was fortunate that Barnard had admitted me, or I might have been auditioning for jobs with ballet companies in Europe or trying to learn to sing to make it through a Broadway audition. In an interview for a newspaper in Fort Wayne, Indiana, during what turned out to be one of my last tours with the Cincinnati Ballet, I was asked what I would do if I could not dance. I said I would be a lawyer. There it was—something seeded long ago.
My dad, Halloway Charles Sells, was an executive director of a settlement house called Seven Hills and my mom, Mamie Earl Sells, was a volunteer, sometime substitute teacher, and social columnist for the Cincinnati Herald. During the 1960s, my parents marched in civil rights protests with my brother and me in tow. Their friends were teachers, lawyers, doctors, librarians, and businesspeople. Arts were part of our life, but the adults around me were “professionals.” Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley were heroes, as were Maria Tallchief and Arthur Mitchell.
This is how it all started—leaving a career that from age 4 I thought would be my whole life. Once college was over, I went straight to Columbia Law School in New York, and then to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, where Elizabeth Holtzman served as the first woman elected to the District Attorney’s Office in New York’s five boroughs. Her office emphasized that justice was not just for victims, but those charged with crimes. Our job was to seek the truth.
When I joined the office in 1984, it had a trial bureau called Sex Crimes focused on handling rape, child abuse, and domestic violence cases. We went through workshops on handling victims of trauma, working with children as witnesses, helping witnesses access services, and thinking through alternative sentences for defendants. It was an amazing growth experience for a newly minted lawyer. The level of responsibility was scary and exhilarating.
Most witnesses and those accused of crimes were men, women, and children of color. In every case, there was always surprise on the faces of the witness, police officers, and defense attorneys meeting me as the assistant district attorney, an African American woman. The best was a judge who asked me to leave the courtroom because witnesses are not allowed in the courtroom before it opens. I realized he really was speaking to me when I said, “I am Assistant District Attorney Sells.” He responded, “Well, things have changed.” This was 1984.
It is sad that even after all these years there are still few people of color choosing to work in a prosecutor’s office. Yet this is part of a larger trend. Today, we are still seeing low numbers of African Americans applying to law school.
As the dean of students at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I realize how critical this situation is, not only because it impacts the numbers of students at Harvard, but also because the reduced number of African American students will be reflected in fewer lawyers of color in big firms, prominent legal services organizations, and federal clerkships. The ripple effects are felt across our profession. Our schools and leaders in the legal profession have to present a reason to the next generation of African Americans why law is worth pursuing—that, more than just earning an income, legal training can provide people meaning and purpose in life, and the skills that can carry them through many types of career and other opportunities.
My own career includes serving as a prosecutor, working as a lawyer in a big firm, running organizational development at Reuters America and the National Basketball Association, and serving as dean of students at Columbia and now at Harvard. All are possible because of a law degree. I do have to add that my life in ballet helped, too. As in law, in dance you get more creative after you have learned the foundational steps. The more these ideas are baked into your “muscle memory,” the more creative you can become and stretch yourself through various disciplines. My career in ballet inevitably had to end, but it was a great rich life that helped prepare me for an even longer career in the law.