Tonight, May 9, 2013, I had the honor to be the keynote speaker for the Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY) Law Program Graduation Ceremony at the Santa Clara County Building in San Jose. The youth, mostly at-risk minors on juvenile probation, were being celebrated for completing a intensive 12 week legal education course. Here is the speech I delivered to the FLY graduates:
Honored guests, parents and to our graduates: It is such an honor to deliver these words to each of you. I thank the great people at FLY for inviting me here today.
I grew up here in San Jose pretty comfortably: my parents provided me my own room, food on the table, clothes on my back, shoes on my feet, school supplies, all the luxuries and amenities I needed. These privileges I enjoyed had roots all the way back to India, dating back to my father and mother’s ambitions and to a grandmother that I never had a chance to meet.
My father, Mahboob Khan, was born in 1939 as the 2nd of 7 children to a father who was an uneducated factory worker and a mother who was a homemaker without any formal education. They lived a village life in relative poverty with little luxury. My father’s father, my grandfather, actively discouraged my father’s academic interests. In fact, when my dad graduated high school, my grandfather insisted that he start working rather than go to college. Ambitious and undeterred, my dad attended college in Madras, India despite the lack of support and was the first in his family to receive a college degree. Once he graduated, my grandfather, once again, deterred him from continuing his education. My father knew the value of education and kept fighting to earn his Masters degree. He didn’t stop there. He travelled alone to the United States in 1965, thousands of miles from India, so that he could he attend the University of Wyoming for his PhD in physics. My dad came first to NYC with a scholarship and 50 dollars in his pocket, taking a bus across country to Wyoming, all for the opportunity of higher education. Just a few months after he arrived in the US, his mother, my grandmother, died in India. My father wanted to return to reside in India to be with his family but he listened to professors who insisted that he continue his degree. He did. He went on to complete his PhD and it was through his education, despite all odds and despite a lack of family support, that he enjoyed his dream job for many years as an engineer and manager, a job that made my privileges possible.
My mother, Malika Khan, was born in India in 1948 to a father who she never met and an illiterate, widowed mother. My mom lived in what can only be described as poverty: no father, a cramped residence, barely enough light to read at night, a daily struggle to eat and go to school. Despite my grandmother’s lack of schooling, she stressed to my mother the significance of higher education. Education was my mom’s ticket out of poverty. In an era when women in India were not often educated beyond elementary school, my grandmother did everything she could to see that my mom went to and graduated from college. With the support and sacrifice of my grandmother, my mom went on graduate from college in India, the first college graduate, male or female, in her family. She came to the United States in 1969 after marrying my dad. She continued to pursue education, graduating with a second degree from Cal St. Fullerton in Southern California and went on to become a licensed clinical lab scientist, working for over 20 years at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, a career that she loved and that helped make my privileges possible.
The emphasis on higher education was relayed from my grandmother to my mother and from my mother and father on to me and my brothers and sisters. Throughout my childhood, my mother and father stressed upon me the value of higher education as means to opportunity, success and happiness. So even after my dad passed away when I was 16 and a senior in high school at San Jose High School, the message was already established: higher education was the key to a meaningful, happy adult life.
So I took the values instilled in me by my parents and went to college at UC Berkeley and then law school at UC Hastings in San Francisco. It was during my 2nd year of law school at Hastings that I discovered my passion for criminal law and criminal defense. I enrolled in my Criminal Procedure class taught by a former Federal Prosecutor named Rory Little. I took the class because it was a subject tested on the California Bar Exam, not because of any particular fascination or interest in how the criminal justice system functioned. But, as I would later write in an email to Professor Little after I started my career as a public defender, his class changed my life. In it, I found my calling. Through his course, I fell in love with public defense.
The lectures, reading and discussion on the 4th Amendment, which reads in part, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,” were particularly striking, compelling, and ultimately life-altering.
Teeth grinding, heart rate rising, body tense as I read the various Supreme Court decisions stripping us of our dignity and most basic rights. The ruling that several uniformed officers could board a public bus and ask to search people’s belongings without needing reasonable suspicion of any criminal activity, the decision that police can initiate a car stop for some minimal vehicle code violation, like a malfunctioning license plate light, even if their true intentions involve blatant racial profiling, the findings that cops can pull people from their vehicles during basic car stops without justification. Just a sampling of the cases that would make my blood boil.
I then asked myself as the semester wore on, “Who on the ground fights and litigates to protect these most basic civil and human rights, stands up for minorities and the underprivileged against overzealous police searches and seizures?” The answer became clear to me: Public Defenders.
It clicked. I turned that anger, surprise, shock, frustration and emotion into a resolve to struggle as a public defender to protect the fundamental rights we all deserve and expect to be free in our homes, to walk and drive our streets without fear of arbitrary police contact. I wanted to fight on behalf of criminally accused to protect their rights and provide them representation in their most difficult times.
From that class onward, I pursued a career as a public defender, starting as a law clerk during law school here at the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s office and then as a lawyer in the Contra Costa County Office of the Public Defender after law school. I was honored and privileged to be hired as a lawyer back with the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office in 2008 and now enjoy the opportunity to represent and fight for juveniles in the juvenile justice system and to interact with the great work that FLY does with our youth in the community.
It was through higher education, what my parents and grandmother valued so highly, that I discovered my passion for public defense, the work that I get to do each day. Through higher education, I found a career that I enjoy getting up in the morning for, that excites me, that I love.
But this speech shouldn’t just be about me or my family; we’re here to celebrate all of you, the FLY law program graduates. I’m so proud of you all. I saw the program first hand when I participated in a mock arrest at Del Mar High School’s FLY law class to help illustrate the law surrounding police contacts. I got a chance to meet the students, some of you, who each impressed me with your knowledge, analysis and creativity. I saw many future lawyers that day and was excited by the potential in that classroom. From what I saw, without question, it is a tremendous accomplishment that you’ve graduated from the FLY law program.
My message to each of the graduates: in the same way that my grandmother urged my mother to pursue her education, in the same way that my father overcome so many challenges to complete his educational goals, and in the same way my parents instilled that value of education in me, I ask all of you to pursue your education vigorously, no matter the obstacles. Fight, kick and claw to receive the education you crave and deserve. Let today’s FLY ceremony be just one of many graduations you participate in. Use this graduation as a springboard: finish high school, go to college, medical school, law school, business school, a trade school, whatever it might be, so that you can discover your passion, discover the job that makes you jump out of bed in the morning. Chase higher education to help you find your calling, the career that fulfills and excites you.