Margarita Ramos

Margarita Ramos '85
Global Head of Human Resource Compliance for Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Convocation Address
August 27, 2018

I am really excited to be here today. I want to thank the students, Board of Trustees, the William Smith and Hobart Alumni Associations, Interim President Pat McGuire L.H.D. ‘12, Geneva Community Leaders, and HWS administrators and professors. I also want to thank my daughter Angelicia, her partner Nick, my grandchildren Esabella & Giovanni, and my partner Kirk Gordon. I feel honored to be surrounded by family and friends.

What does it mean to have a voice? Have you ever wondered what your voice is, or struggled to speak the words that seem trapped inside? What does voice have to do with identity and how you will experience the world— and follow your dreams? Do you take your voice for granted because you’ve always been welcome to debate, question, wonder out-loud?

I was like you 37 years ago, preparing to enter this whole new world at HWS—a world that was very different from where I came from and seemed so foreign at the time. The reasons why I think these Colleges are so special are too numerous to mention. But, if I had to choose one reason, I would say this place is where I began to understand that I have a voice. My voice is strong. It matters. This environment was a foundation where I could experiment with that voice—and it changed my life.

I’m going to share with you today how I found my voice—here, at these Colleges.

I used to feel like I didn’t deserve a voice. Part of that was because of my culture. I am Puerto Rican, raised by an old-school Puerto Rican mother who had firm rules about what girls should and should not do. I wasn’t allowed to whistle, that was something boys could do. And, I loved to whistle. I’d whistle privately so my mother would not hear me. This small example illustrates why it was so hard for me to find my voice. I was not expected to use it.

I’m the youngest of five Latina daughters raised in New York City by a single mother. She migrated to New York in the 1950s and had no formal education or command over the English language. I was her translator.

My mother worked as a seamstress in factories in Queens or the Bronx. It wasn’t stable work, so she sought assistance from a variety of social service agencies. I grew up understanding poverty and marginalization. I lived it.

As my mother’s translator, I learned how to listen—I learned when and how to challenge, and how to articulate what we, as a family, needed. I have come to know many Latinas who grew up with the same role, which was translator—a voice, but not our own.

As we waited in crowded rooms for our turn to be considered for social services, my mother would engage in small talk with other Latina women, and she would often volunteer my translation services. These Latinas were maternal, warm, proud, hilarious in their native tongues, protective, and beautiful. However, in this environment, they were lost, and powerless. I internalized their pain, and I tried my best to bring light into their situations. We were in it together. I was proud to be my mother’s voice.

I learned a lot by being my mother’s voice. It wasn’t my voice, but by acting as her voice— her translator— I learned how to manage and evaluate adults. I was particularly adept at managing angry adults. When social workers rose from their city-issued desks and waved their fingers at me to admonish my mother for failing to evidence a document that would make us eligible for government assistance, I learned how to smile at my mother. I removed humiliation worn by the crease on her brow. I understood that it was humiliating enough to be uneducated and unable to speak English. I could not add to that burden by translating a social worker’s disdain and anger. I learned how to strip emotion from the facts.

Those experiences taught me empathy, and the value of advocacy—particularly for those who are defenseless. The most important lesson I took away is the value of education and knowing how to use that power for good.

How many of you take your voice for granted? I remember sitting in a classroom early in my freshman year and being in awe of a Hobart student who stood up and challenged a professor. Where I grew up in the New York City public schools, that debate would have been recognized as an act of aggression resulting in suspension or worse.

You didn’t raise your voice. You didn’t express your voice. Your voice was not supposed to rise to the head of the class.

But here, at these Colleges, I saw that students were encouraged to use their voices. I was inspired. I realized, people do want to hear your point of view—and maybe my point of view too.

How does one prepare to live a life of consequence? When I think back of where I was 37 years ago as a freshman, I didn’t have a clue about what the next four years had in store for me, and I couldn’t even fathom that I would attend law school and become a lawyer.

What I understood was that I was fortunate to attend a school that was governed by a framework known as the coordinate system. The coordinate system still exists today, however, most of you probably don’t know what it is. So, what does it mean? I would describe the coordinate system as the model or framework—the engine that allows these two schools to operate together and separately. The coordinate system was designed to ensure that each school would have separate governance structures, identities and traditions.  What this meant to me as a young woman is that I didn’t have to compete with men for a seat on the William Smith Congress or to become a resident advisor. As a young woman who was struggling to find her voice, this was an important advantage that fueled my growth and leadership on campus.

The coordinate system meant I had a dean named Rebecca Fox who advocated for me and all William Smith students. Rebecca was a strong advocate and believed in women supporting women. There are a number William Smith alumnae who grew up in this coordinate culture and are using our voices today to express its importance—to keep it alive. Living a life of consequence doesn’t just happen. It requires surrounding yourself with like-minded people; challenging yourself to understand those who think differently than you; and stepping outside of your comfort zone every once in a while. This is the value of the coordinate system. It gave me the freedom to explore who I was, to take appropriate risks, and to test my voice. Here, I was empowered to interact— to challenge and become my best self.

I was still searching for my voice when I arrived on campus, but I dove into campus life. I took advantage of everything these Colleges had to offer: I danced with Koshare; I was president of the Latin American Organization; and I was a member of Hai Timiai, the William Smith senior honor society. I took women’s studies classes and read books written by famous women authors such as Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde.  I attended talks from poets, political figures and world leaders who challenged me to expand my thinking about culture, race, feminism, ethnicity, gender and leadership. 

I hung out with members of the farm club too. In fact, one day, a member of the farm house asked if I’d be interested in farming the land while bare-breasted. Without skipping a beat I replied, “That’s not gonna happen.” 

How did I find William Smith in the first place? I visited the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges for the first time around the age of 12. I was a Fresh Air child. For those who may not be familiar, the Fresh Air Fund is a non-profit based in New York City, and since 1877, they have been sending poor children to camp in 14 states, from Virginia to Maine. Their camping model was non-traditional. Instead of living in cabins with other children and camp counselors, I spent summers living with a family in Waterloo, N.Y., about 2.5 miles away from where I stand today. 

My first visit to Waterloo happened when I was five years old. That was a very different time in this country, and Waterloo was a tiny slice of white Americana—a world very far from the inner-city neighborhood in New York City I called home. I have fond memories of tasting vegetables that didn’t come from a supermarket; running across blades of wet grass in the early morning; learning how to swim; riding and crashing in homemade go-carts, and otherwise living my young life like a child. 

On occasion when I and members of the Debolt family stepped outside of our small-town bubble and into the real world, people would sometimes stare. I certainly looked out of place. I had no real notion of race or differences, but I understood why some people were curious about my relationship to this white family. On the surface, I was nothing like them.

During those summers, I rarely saw anyone who looked like me, but it didn’t matter because it was the first time in my young life that I felt safe.

When I share Fresh Air Fund stories with friends, I’m often asked whether I was treated differently. People expect me to share terrible stories of racism or ill treatment. But I have no stories like that.

When I was treated differently it was because of Janet Debolt’s humanity—a spirit that informed her that I was a child who needed more-more time, love, attention. I got those things and more from her. And, I also got an introduction to this campus.

“This is where I’m going to college.” That’s what I thought while staring at Smith Hall from a distance. “This. Is. Where. I’m. Going. To. College.” It was a summer afternoon, and the Debolts and I piled into the family car for a drive a few miles away to drop off their son, David, at lacrosse camp at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. 

About six years later, I met Mara O’Laughlin ’66, L.H.D. ’13 and Sally Webster ‘74 at the Barbizon hotel in New York City for my interview to attend William Smith College. I remember that meeting with Mara and Sally as if it happened yesterday. I understood that William Smith was a women’s college and while I couldn’t articulate why that mattered at the time, it didn’t take long for me to find out. 

I found my voice. My childhood experiences, and the opportunities that unfolded for me on this campus shaped my desire to become an employment attorney.

In 1991, I joined a small employment law firm in New York City. That same year, President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a one-year federal Circuit Judge, to succeed retiring Associate Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In spite of his limited judicial background, there was little opposition to Thomas’ nomination.

Then, someone leaked an FBI interview of Anita Hill, a little-known lawyer-turned professor. She had worked for Clarence Thomas. Hill’s comments to the FBI about her experiences working for Thomas ten years prior forced the Senate Judiciary Committee to subpoena Hill to testify. In October 1991, Hill testified that Thomas repeatedly sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor at the Department of Education, and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

The details of Anita Hill’s testimony, and how she was treated by the all-white male Judiciary Committee, lead by Senator Joseph Biden, captivated, angered and motivated many women. Clarence Thomas denied Anita Hill’s allegations. He complained that her testimony was a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks by white liberals who were seeking to block a black conservative from taking a seat on the Supreme Court.” Anita was using her voice. The country was listening. 

In 1991, I was a very young lawyer and I was completely captivated by the hearings. As an employment lawyer, I understood that Anita Hill’s testimony was historic and I knew that her testimony would alter the course of my career. 

A year after her testimony and Clarence Thomas being confirmed to the Supreme Court, sexual harassment complaints at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rose by 50 percent. Corporations also began demanding policies, training and investigations to address bad actors. 

Twenty-seven years have passed since those hearings and a lot has changed for women in the workplace. However, and as we all know from #MeToo, the plethora of State pay equity laws, and studies performed by organizations like Catalyst and Lean In— women, and women of color in particular, continue to be paid well below men.

I recently saw a headline of an article on LinkedIn that read: “If white women experience a glass ceiling, the ceiling for women of color is made of concrete.”

I am an eternal optimist, and my optimism fuels my desire to keep driving for change. It fuels my voice. The world continues to evolve; we have evolved as a society since the treatment of Anita Hill by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and recently the #MeToo movement. Voice drives evolution.

Today, I’m using my voice to do work that matters. I chose a career that gave me the freedom to leverage my background as a lawyer to teach business and HR leaders how to lead while being mindful of their obligation to uphold the law. Over the course of my career, I’ve investigated hundreds of complaints of discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability and gender identity. I have sat in meetings with senior leaders and briefed them on my investigative findings and recommendations on how to address misconduct and violations of the law. 

My career is a culmination of hard work, support and mentoring from leaders and colleagues who often saw qualities in me that I couldn’t see. It is no mistake that my “otherness” in corporate America—like my otherness in acting as a translator for my mother—paved paths for me to quietly enter rooms, uncover and remediate misconduct.

Beyond my knowledge of the law, the value of what I do for a living lies in acting with integrity, empathy, and discretion. My voice matters in my profession—having a persuasive voice, and importantly, knowing when to use it. 

I’m an introvert by nature. And I have a strong voice. Those two things can go hand-in-hand. I enjoy being in the background; I don’t have to be front-and-center. Being an introvert doesn’t mean being silent or ducking down. I have learned that this aspect of my personality is a strength; you’re engaging, learning, helping, guiding inside organizations, where so much good work can be done. My point of view drives change.

You have a voice. Your voice matters. To the students I want to say, many of you are just beginning your college journey. Some of you are beginning to think about what life has in store outside of these Colleges. I, too, am beginning to consider what my next act in life will look like—so, here are a few words of wisdom, from my perspective so far….

To the first-generation students, I see you. You earned the right to be here. Dream big. You got this.

Learn to say no. It will free you up to say yes.

Learn how to draw boundaries. It will keep you sane.

Find your voice, but always consider when and how to use it.

My final words come from professor and lawyer Anita Hill: “I did what my conscience told me to do, and you can’t fail if you do that.”

Good luck. Be well.

Watch Margarita Ramos' Convocation Address