Skip to main content

Honoring a Pioneer and Civil Rights Advocate

March 02, 2023

Penn Carey Law’s BLSA honors Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander’s legacy by exploring critical legal issues pertinent to the Black community and working toward progressive legal advocacy.

On February 25, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA) celebrated a milestone with the 35th Annual Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander Commemorative Conference. Held annually since 1988, the Sadie Conference honors the life and legacy of pioneer and civil rights advocate, Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Ed’1918, G’1921, L’1927, Hon’1974. This year, the Conference returned to an in-person event for the first time since 2020 and culminated with a celebratory gala.

“What they’re doing is cutting edge,” Harvetta Nero L’00, Chair of the Penn Carey Law Black Alumni Association Leadership Committee and Managing Counsel at Anaplan, said of the BLSA members who plan and organize the Sadie Conference each year. “They’re convening leading experts, scholars, practitioners who have argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. BLSA members are putting in the work to develop the best slate of interesting, provocative speakers possible.”

This year’s conference, “The End of Affirmative Action: Diversity in Education in a Post-Brown World,” examined the historical developments and challenges surrounding affirmative action policies and their impact on the diversity of the American educational landscape, including segregation and inequity in K-12 classrooms.

This theme anticipated U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, two cases that are likely to have significant impact on affirmative action policies and the racial make-up of student populations at universities.

Fatima Ibrahiem L'24 Fatima Ibrahiem L’24“Penn Carey Law is an institution with social, political, and economic capital, and with students of color who will become future leaders in their respective careers,” said Sadie Conference Co-Chair Fatima Ibrahiem L’24.

“Educating students of color about inequitable education laws and policies will help them to understand the framework within which they exist and operate as Black students and will, hopefully, inspire them to work to increasing equity for Black students in both K-12 and higher education,” she said.

Expert speakers and panelists included: Cara McClellan GEd’12, Director of the Advocacy for Racial and Civil Justice Clinic and Practice Associate Professor of Law; Jin Hee Lee, Senior Deputy Director of Litigation, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.; Rakim Brooks, President, the Alliance for Justice; Deborah Klehr, Executive Director, Education Law Center; and Dennis Parker, Director, ACLU Racial Justice Program.

“Our speakers highlighted the profound education gap that was historically created and is presently perpetuated by our laws and policies that consistently place Black students on the losing side of the equation,” Ibrahiem said.

Connecting to an Enduring Legacy

Perhaps most well-known for numerous pathbreaking firsts in the face of overt racism – the first Black person to earn a PhD in economics in the United States, the Law School’s first Black woman graduate, the first Black woman admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, and many more – Dr. Alexander’s impact extends far beyond these historic achievements. An economist and dedicated advocate, Dr. Alexander’s dynamic career spanned the private and the public sectors. She devoted much of her legal career to advancing civil rights and was a founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Melany Amarikwa L'24 Melany Amarikwa L’24For Melany Amarikwa L’24, Sadie Conference Co-Chair, her connection to Dr. Alexander’s legacy started as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley with a scholarship to attend the Sadie Collective’s inaugural conference, an event and organization focused on expanding pathways for Black women entering economics and related fields.

“I was exposed to countless brilliant black female economists who had used their PhDs to effect meaningful change in their communities and abroad. It was a transformative experience and introduced me to Dr. Alexander’s legacy and the powerful movement that she helped to inspire,” she said.

Reflecting on her experience, Amarikwa shared how learning more about the struggles Dr. Alexander faced influenced her paper for “Privacy and Racial Justice,” a seminar taught by Anita L. Allen, Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy. “Social Media Platforms’ Reckoning: The Harmful Impact of TikTok’s Algorithm on People of Color,” which discusses the discriminatory impact of algorithmic moderation on people of color on social media platforms, will be published in the Richmond Journal of Law and Technology this summer.

“Dr. Alexander dedicated her life to uplifting marginalized voices and advancing opportunities for people of color,” she said. “Her work continues to inspire me, and I hope to follow in her footsteps.”

Making Change

“As a Black female law student,” Ibrahiem said, “I feel that it is very important to highlight the difficulties Dr. Alexander experienced as a student at the Law School and to address the ways in which inequitable education systems continue to impact the Black community.”

Penn Carey Law’s BLSA has a history of driving change to create a more equitable, supportive, and inclusive Law School community. In 1969, Black students – at the time, just 17 enrolled at the Law School – worked to formally establish BLSA and advocated for institutional support. Their advocacy at the Law School was part of a national movement that would ultimately establish the National Black Law Student Association, founded by Algernon Johnson “A.J.” Cooper in 1968 at New York University School of Law in 1968.

In 1970, the Law School’s administration officially recognized BLSA (sometimes also referred to as the Black Law Student Union (BLSU)) after a year of advocating for dedicated space and resources. In the mid-1980s, the Law School’s BLSU/BLSA became a member of the National Black Law Students Association and adopted BLSA as its official name. BLSA held the first Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander Commemorative Conference in 1989.

“In many ways, the Sadie Conference is the connective tissue between Penn Carey Law’s Black student community, Philadelphia’s community of Black Lawyers, and broader Black alumni community,” said Nero.

The importance of BLSA and the legacy of Dr. Sadie Alexander extend well beyond the walls of the Law School.

“Each year, the conference and gala offer alumni an essential opportunity to reconnect with each other and with current students,” said Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, Associate Dean for Equity & Justice; Chief Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) Advisor. “With their annual support and presence, our alumni demonstrate the deep connection, network, and community that supports and fuels the excellence and accomplishments of our students and graduates.”

Today, Penn Carey Law continues to honor Dr. Alexander’s legacy through the Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander Scholarship. In 2020, BLSA envisioned a scholarship program honoring Dr. Alexander and presented the idea to Law School administration who accelerated work to launch the program in February 2021. The Sadie Scholar program is a vital part of Penn Carey Law’s commitment to expanding access to a premier legal education. The Law School welcomed its inaugural class of three Sadie Scholars in fall of 2021 and expanded the program to enroll five Sadie Scholars in 2022. The next class of five Scholars will be enrolled in 2023.

Learn more about Penn Carey Law’s commitment to elevating the diversity of our community.