Smith Medalist Deborah N. Archer ’93: ‘Uncertainty gives you an opportunity’
Deborah N. Archer ’93, a leading expert in civil rights, civil liberties and racial justice, is president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as well as professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law and faculty co-director of the Center on Race, Inequality and the Law. She previously worked as an attorney with the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., where she litigated in the areas of voting rights, employment discrimination and school desegregation. As a graduate of Yale Law School, she was awarded the Charles G. Albom Prize, and is an award-winning teacher and legal scholar whose articles have appeared in leading law reviews. A former chair of the American Association of Law Schools’ Section on Civil Rights and the Section on Minority Groups, she has served as chair of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, the nation’s oldest and largest police oversight agency.
Archer will receive the Smith College Medal during Rally Day, which will be celebrated virtually on February 24 beginning at 1:30 p.m. The event will be streamed on Smith College’s Facebook page.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
My mission in life has always been centered on the fight against racism and classism that made life so difficult for my parents as they raised my siblings and me. My election as president of the ACLU is certainly the biggest and most public platform I have ever had. I am proud of that election. And I am proud of my work as a litigator, a writer and a teacher. I have led litigation and advocacy challenging racism in elections, education, public works and employment across the country. I am deeply proud—and honored—of whatever I have done to make this unjust world a more just place.
What Smith lessons continue to resonate with you?
At Smith I learned the power of creating your own community. In my professional life I have forged a community that includes former colleagues who now serve in leadership roles across government, business, advocacy and academia. But communities do not thrive on their own—you have to cultivate them and nourish them. This was true for the lifelong relationships I formed at Smith, and it is true for the professional community I engage in today.
What advice do you have for the senior class?
The world faces the challenges of the global pandemic, war, climate change and racial and gender oppression. The economy, our democracy, our planet—things feel so uncertain. But that uncertainty gives you an opportunity. Engage with these problems. There are things that everyone can do—including not standing by when evil is happening and not being silent in the face of inequality or injustice.
What does receiving the Smith Medal mean to you?
When people in the Black community experience success in our lives we often say that we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams. I believe that and I have felt that. In receiving the Smith Medal, I hope that I have honored all of the women who have come before me and fought and led and organized and survived so that this country could be more free—so that I could have so many opportunities to serve, and so that I could receive this incredible honor.
Is there a particular issue that you would like to see Smithies work together to solve?
I hope that Smithies will join the fight to protect our democracy. If the right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, we must acknowledge that the foundation is crumbling. I also hope Smithies will tackle the many challenges that stand in the way of racial justice and racial equity. We are at a point in this nation’s history where it is clear that we have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to finally dismantle the architecture of racial inequality and affirmatively advance equality and justice.
As part of Rally Day, the board of trustees is pledging to give a collective gift of $450,000 in support of financial aid if at least 2,022 donations are made to The Smith Fund before the end of the month. Why is supporting Smith important to you?
I would not have been able to attend Smith College without substantial scholarship support. And still, that support was often not enough. It is critical that colleges like Smith not only provide scholarship support, but that we think holistically about the ways in which poverty and socioeconomic status affect the college experience even when tuition is largely paid for.