This Year Marks Tenth Anniversary of Patsy Mink Legislative Fellowship at William S. Richardson School of Law

April 18, 2012

Native Hawaiian law student Sharde K. Mersberg has been named the 2012 Patsy T. Mink Legislative Fellow at the William S. Richardson School of Law. The on-going Mink Fellowship program celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, as it continues to honor the legacy of the Hawai‘i Congresswoman who was the first Asian American woman elected to Congress and who became a path breaking advocate for gender equality.

Mersberg receives a $5,000 stipend to spend the summer as an intern in the Washington, D.C. office of Hawai‘i Senator Daniel K. Inouye. At a reception to honor Mink’s legacy and the fellowship launched a decade ago by four Richardson law students, Inouye congratulated the Law School for “carrying on the legacy of Patsy Mink.”

In a letter from Inouye, read by Law School Dean Avi Soifer, the senior Senator called Mink “a passionate advocate for civil rights…who fought against race and gender discrimination throughout her career.”

Inouye said he was proud to have had the first Patsy Mink fellow – Van Luong – serve in his Washington office back in 2003 when the fellowship was first launched.

The fellowships have rotated among Hawai‘i’s four Congressional offices.

Mink, who served for 24 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, also was the first woman of color to serve in the United States Congress. Passionate and determined, she was an outspoken advocate of equal rights for women – as well as all minorities – and she often sacrificed her own best interests in pursuit of larger goals. Mink died in 2002.

Mersberg, who is finishing her first year at Richardson Law School, is scheduled to graduate in 2014. She told the assemblage she was “honored, ecstatic and so gratified” to be chosen. Mersberg recited her Native Hawaiian ancestry in Hawaiian, and she told the assemblage she wants to honor her ancestors by working toward improving the social determinants of health, with particular attention to health outcomes in the Native Hawaiian community.

“Access to health care is not enough,” she said.

Some of the subsequent placements for Mink Fellows include:

  • Van Luong from 2003, worked in Senator Inouye’s Washington office for six years before joining the University of San Francisco School of Law as recruiting coordinator.
  •  Catherine Betts from 2004, is now Executive Director of the Hawai‘i State Commission on the Status of Women;
  • Sandra Kim from 2005, serves as in-house counsel for Nan, Inc.;
  • Greg Schlais from 2006, is now an associate at Carlsmith Ball LLP;
  • Tiffany Kaeo from 2007, is now a deputy Prosecuting Attorney with the City and County of Honolulu;
  • Chasid Sapolu from 2008, serving with the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney in Honolulu; and
  • Sherilyn Tavares from 2009, is now clerking for Circuit Court Judge Glenn S. Hara.

The two most recent recipients, Melanie Legdesog and Tiara Maumau, will be completing their law degrees this year and next.

Along with being the 10th anniversary of the Patsy Mink Fellowship, the gathering at College Hill also celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX, a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 led by Mink that grants women equal access to opportunities in education.

Mink, who faced discrimination and many closed doors as a young woman trying to begin her professional career in Hawaii, often said: “I can’t change the past, but I can certainly help somebody else in the future so they don’t have to go through what I did.”

In continuing to honor Mink’s legacy through these fellowship grants, Soifer also had words of high praise for the late Congresswoman:

“She stood up to those in power,” he said. “She was a force and she was not afraid to use her powerful advocacy.”

Soifer also praised the four students who launched the Mink Fellowship, and mentioned the high quality of students attracted to study law at the University of Hawai‘i: “They come to us empowered.”

In the four decades since Title IX was enacted, generations of young women have gained seats at the tables of power, earning degrees in science, jurisprudence, medicine, engineering, and many other realms to take their places in positions of leadership.

The Hawai‘i State Legislature recently honored five outstanding women who credit their careers to the fact that Title IX gave them equal access to college educations. Four of those women are Richardson graduates.

Sabrina Shizue McKenna, who began her college career as a star on the original Wahine Basketball team, now serves as an Associate Justice on the Hawai‘i State Supreme Court. She graduated from Richardson Law School in 1982. She spoke movingly about how Patsy Mink’s efforts made her own career possible, and how an athletic scholarship at UH paid her way through college.

Marilyn Moniz-Kaho‘ohanohano, assistant athletic director at UH Mānoa, graduated from Richardson Law School in 1979.

Jill Leilani Nunokawa is the civil rights specialist at UH Mānoa and graduated from Richardson Law School in 1988.

Betts, of the Hawai‘i State Commission on the Status of Women, graduated from Richardson Law School in 2006.

Jennifer Solidum Rose, the gender equity specialist at UH Mānoa, is also a lecturer at the Law School.

Dean Soifer points to solid support from Hawai‘i’s legal and legislative community to help make this possible. And he notes how it all has built upon the dream created by Mink 40 years ago.

“This evening celebrates the fact that sisterhood is powerful,” he said.