Goal IX Newsletter

Summer 2005, Volume 11, Number 3

The Risk of Silence by: José C. Feliciano

These remarks were originally delivered by José C. Feliciano as a speech on the occasion of the 2005 Spirit Of Excellence Awards Luncheon on Saturday, February 12, 2005, in Salt Lake City, Utah at the Mid-Year Meeting Of the ABA at the Grand America Hotel.

I am grateful and honored to receive the Spirit of Excellence award from the Commission On Racial and Ethnic Diversity In The Profession. I am humbled to be in the company of my fellow honorees. And let me extrend a heartfelt thanks to my home section, Dispute Resolutions, and particularly to its former director Jack Hanna, for my nomination and for the privilege of service. I am grateful indeed.

Jose C. Feliciano

Today is a day of celebration and renewal--a day of pride and hope: pride in our progress to date and hope for the future. We have the opportunity to build on our accomplishments and to expand our vision of diversity and push forward on our journey.

In January, we celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Among Dr. King’s many contributions to our culture and our literature was a book called “Why We Can’t Wait.”

We are now in the middle of Black History month dedicated to remembering Dr. King’s struggles—and those of many others in the civil rights movement. We, as a nation and as a profession, have seen much progress. The American Bar Association, as an organization, has been instrumental in pushing us forward and in making sure this progress is taking place.

We should be proud of these accomplishments, and of the role we (as individuals and as an organization) have played in this history. But we cannot simply assume that progress will continue. We cannot stand by, waiting to see whether the promises of our magnificent country will be fulfilled for all of us. We—as individuals, as an organization, and as a society—have made progress because we have been active. We need to remain active and to continue pushing forward.

Let me suggest how we can best do that. First, we must understand the responsibility each lawyer has to our country and to our profession. Our history has placed on us a unique obligation. In the past, the legal system has sometimes been used as a tool for oppression, to deny rights and freedoms we all deserve. As lawyers, we were part of this system in the past. This past creates for us a special duty, in the present and future, to address this history of oppression and to see that past injustice does not continue.

This is a special obligation. Let me suggest that probably the best way we can discharge that duty is also the simplest—to speak up and be active. Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish philosopher, once said, that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Regardless our good-intentions, if we remain silent or inactive we allow past injustice to be a continuing evil.

I want to warn you about the dangers of silence. I consider it an honor to stand up and speak up for diversity. I never regret speaking up. I always regret my silences.

There have been times I stood silent, hoping that I did not hear what I had really heard, or, worse, hoping that it would just go away and I could forget it. But silence never lets things go away. It makes them worse. It is only by standing up and getting involved that we can make things better.

When you speak up, you are going to attract attention. It is unavoidable, and it can be uncomfortable—for you and for those around you. Sometimes even your friends may suggest that, in speaking up, you are being too sensitive or overreacting.

But one of the greatest gifts we are given is our voice. One of the greatest freedoms we have is the right to use that voice to speak up for what is right. We owe it to ourselves, to each other, and to our society to use that gift and that freedom. It is therefore a joy and an honor to speak up for people of color and for diversity.

This is something that can and should be woven into the fabric of our life. The older I get, the more Puerto Rican I become, and the more I want people to know about my heritage and my identity. The older I get, the more I want people to know that my middle name is Celso. The more I want to speak Spanish in a public setting. The more I want people to know I was born in the hills of Yauco, Puerto Rico. The more I want people to know that I am not only a proud American but also a jibaro--a man of the land, the culture, and the people of Puerto Rico. I am a prouder and more patriotic American, because I am love my culture, background, and history.

By speaking with our own voices, by presenting our own stories, and by listening honestly and appreciatively to the voices and stories of those around us, we can go a long way towards living lives of diversity. By speaking out when those voices and stories get silenced, and by working to protect the diverse voices around us, we can help to continue our progress and fulfill the promise of our country.

Let me end by thanking God Almighty for the many blessings he has granted to each of us. God made me and everyone in this room exactly as he wanted—and we should celebrate that and be happy in our differences. I thank Him for making me an American and a jibaro, for his gift to me of my Hispanicness, for giving me the chance to serve, and for giving me a voice to speak and opportunity to be heard.

BARRISTERS, 09900, 01040, 500867049.2, ABA speech as essay

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