CHICAGO (JGL) – Nearly 20 years ago, First Lady of the United States Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote a best seller believed to be about an African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
On Thursday, June 4, Cook County, Illinois Circuit Court Judge Jessica Arong O’Brian told a packed Radisson Blue Aqua Hotel ballroom in Chicago how seven middle-income families in far-off Cebu, Philippines showed the village people’s random act of kindness and caring (bayanihan in Filipino). She said they took care of her from third grade up to high school until her mother was ready to take her to America.
O’Brien was installed president of the 101-year-old Women’s Bar Association of Illinois (WBAI) for 2015-16 by U.S. Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Circuit. She is the first Filipino and first Asian American president of the organization.
O’Brien considered those eight years in Cebu very critical and the turning point of her life as she found inspiration and motivation from her life’s struggles and lessons.
“I was really raised by a village. These families — seven moms and seven dads — growing up everyday, I recognize that all I have accomplished professionally are due to my amazing village,” Judge O’Brien said as she held back her tears. She wanted to return the favor by empowering “others to succeed.”
To give substance to her pledge to help other struggling members of the 1,000-member bar association, Judge O’Brien came up with a theme during her term: “Leave No Woman Behind: Empowering through Leadership.”
O’Brien, who can still speak Cebuana, said, “When I was in third grade, my mother wanted to pursue her medical residency. Her plans were not consistent with my father’s business agenda. She left for New York with $50 in her pocket with a plane ticket from borrowed money and with my sister.”
She said she was left behind with her father who was busy with his business relegating his responsibility to O’Brien’s grandmother, who could neither read nor write.
“My grandmother loved me. But education was not a big thing for her. With my cousins, I was a shy kid, scared kid, and I really did not want to go to school. And my grandmother, who did not care about school, told me, ‘you can stay home,’” drawing gasps from a stunned audience.
“HELD BACK ON MY THIRD GRADE”
“I missed one half of the year, and as a result, I was held back (on my third grade). It was really horrible. I became a more depressed child, and shy. But I was fortunate in a village when seven families, average-income family, heard about my being held back. One family picked me up and took me to school. Another family took care of my activities outside of the school and made sure I played sports. I played volleyball, which helped me with my self-confidence issue.
“The family even entered me in a beauty pageant. I did not win (but in the process), I learned how to play guitar and sing. Not really. But it helped me with my self-esteem.
“That family took me to vacation. Another helped me do my homework and checked on me. The family picked me up Sundays so I can go to church.”
Another experience that prompted her to focus on empowerment that she calls the “second turning point of my life” was when she was selected captain of her school’s volleyball team during her sixth grade.
“I know volleyball is not big in America like hockey. But in the Philippines, volleyball was huge. I was empowered to be selected as captain and it helped me with my self-esteem. Up until that point, I was a scared child, insecure child. Having someone recognized my talent and I was capable of being a leader, it empowered me. I now have a sense of purpose, and sense of value and in turn, it compelled me to keep reaching for the stars.
At 16, she graduated from high school and her mother brought her to the U.S. and enrolled her in a remedial class (a community college). She recalled that on her first day of school, it was like being in a “Breakfast Club”.
“That was the scene I was walking into. My English was bad, broken, my accent was thick. And all I did was study. I became nerdy student in my class and my classmates hated me because my teachers were always calling me.”
REACHED OUT TO MY FAILING CLASSMATES
Toward the end end of the first semester, however, she said she reached out to her classmates who were failing and extended her help but asked for a return favor.
“Take me out in New Jersey. I want to learn to speak English.’ They took me out, taking me to neighborhoods, telling me that I put earrings on, to New York, South Philly. I also put a streak (on my hair).”
From then on, she learned to assimilate to the American way of life and was grateful for that experience with them.
“I look forward to the WBAI village, to make sure no woman is left behind,” she said.
She paid tribute to many villagers, including her children: Samantha Theresa, 18, who is attending a law program in University of San Diego but had spent many hours serving homeless women that earned her an award; Judy Rose, “who is 11 turning 50;” Vanessa Kate; and her supportive husband, Brandon O’Brien, partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson, LLP, who is running for Circuit Court of Cook Judge. She said they are socially aware and conscious in giving back to the community.
She also thanked her grade and high school classmates in Cebu’s St. Theresa’s College, who were in the audience, namely, Christine Cadlaon, (who works at Cook County Stroger’s Hospital) and Mydi Manguiat (a Med Tech at Kindred Hospital Chicago) and Gay Ituriaga-Lebourg, founder of Calaiso, Inc., who came all the way from Cebu. Judge O’Brien thanked many other friends and mentors in her many villages.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Judge O’Brien was introduced by Cook County Circuit Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, who re-defined the “O” in her “O’Brien” name as “Oprah, she is marvelous.” Judge Evans said he was impressed by Jessica’s “star” quality and mission of “giving members of WBAI, a chance to build their leadership qualities, get in the business door, to learn to represent business, and to end up with clients, who are paying clients.” He urged the crowd to applaud “so hard that the applause should be heard all the way back to the Philippines.”
President Obama’s WHIAAPI Executive Director Kiran Ahuja lauded Judge O’Brien installation. “I applaud WBAI’s commitment to advancing the interests and welfare of women lawyers and promoting the administration of justice.”
The message was read by George Chunkau Mui, Market Access Team Lead of the Office of Business Development of the Minority Business Development Agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Comparing her story with his own, Filipino American Billy Dec, also a lawyer, White House Liaison to the Asian American Community, said: “My Mom, like your Mom, came alone here in the U.S. to work from the Philippines. I owe everything to that. Your sacrifice and her sacrifice led to so much goodness. I am overwhelmed. I congratulate you and I am excited for you.”
Dec encouraged O’Brien to be “the role model we look up”. “For all that you have done, we’ll follow you and support you.”
O’Brien’s fellow alumna at Chicago’s The John Marshall Law School and Illinois’ Lieutenant Governor, Evelyn Sanguinetti, said: “I’m the first Latina lieutenant governor of the country. I am challenging you, Jessica, run for President! It’s good to be here. My Mom is from Cuba. My Dad is from Ecuador. They came here for the American Dream. I went to John Marshall and saw lots of promise and lots of diversity and love.”