March is Women’s History Month; February was Black History Month. During both of these months, America has had a rare front-row seat to watch history unfold, with the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black female Supreme Court nominee. More locally, Kimberly Mutcherson, another Black woman, serves as co-dean of Rutgers Law School in Camden. Mutcherson blazed a trail when she was appointed in 2019, becoming the first woman, first Black person, and first member of the LGBT community to be a dean at a Rutgers Law School.
Mutcherson believes there is much to think about in the context of the firsts. Many feel that the first Black female Supreme Court Justice was too long in coming. “Regardless of when it happens, there’s something incredibly valuable in young people seeing someone who looks like them, maybe talks with their accent, or who has had life experiences similar to theirs,” Mutcherson said. “First-generation students at our law school often say they’ve never met a lawyer who looks like them. Representation really matters. We all need to see ourselves in someone with a really prestigious role.”
Mutcherson wants people to recognize how meaningful these moments are to so many people. “It’s not simply another person on the Supreme Court. It’s another step towards becoming the America we like to say we are but haven’t actually become. Every time we have a first like this, it moves us in the right direction to keep improving on the promises made in the documents that created our country.”
When Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, visited the Camden campus, Mutcherson met with her to discuss gender, race, power, and the need for change in this country. “Her fearlessness in using her voice, demanding justice, and inspiring other women to do the same reflects the kind of courage we need when we’re trying to make the U.S. live up to its promises of liberty and equality,” Mutcherson said.
Mutcherson feels the weight of being a “first.” “All eyes are on you and what you do,” she said. “I think a great deal about the implications of not being successful at my job. My performance reflects not just on me but on Black women. If I fail, the space between me and the next first will be longer than it should be.”
As part of her course on South African Constitutional Law, Mutcherson has traveled to South Africa with students on multiple occasions. “There is so much to be inspired by in South Africa, including Nelson Mandela’s legacy as the first Black president of South Africa after the fall of apartheid and the incredibly inclusive post-apartheid constitution that governs the country now,” Mutcherson said. “It is a place where people understand that we cannot get past racism if we’re not prepared to have hard conversations about race, and that’s a lesson we could stand to take to heart in the United States”
Becoming dean of a law school was not one of Mutcherson’s life goals. “Over 10 years ago, Dean Camille Nelson, a friend and mentor who was serving as a law school dean and who is also a Black woman, was talking to me and others about why we should become deans. To those of us listening to her, the role seemed so undesirable – too much work, politics and drudgery. But she told me that we don’t get to complain about the lack of diversity among the ranks of law school deans if we’re not willing to take on those roles. What she said resonated with me, and now I’ve been a dean for three years. It’s important for people to take on roles as firsts even though it’s difficult. Do it and set the bar. Otherwise, who knows how long it will be before the first happens?”
“I’m not an incredibly unique snowflake, the first Black woman capable of doing this job,” she continued. “But I am the first who got this particular opportunity. We have so much more work to do to continue to be a society that provides opportunity and resources to every kid who wants to dream big. For centuries, only white men wore the black robes of judges – but soon, Judge Jackson will be what a Supreme Court Justice looks like. And I am what a law school dean looks like. We need to get to a space where when someone hears I’m a law school dean, they’re not shocked. It’s a privilege to have this job, and I know Judge Jackson feels the privilege and weight of being nominated to be a Supreme Court justice. Everything I know about her indicates that she’ll be a responsible steward of the power that comes with that most important role.
“My role has hypervisibility – that goes along with being first in your identity category, in a leadership role,” Mutcherson continued. “People are watching closely and trying to figure how you’re going to fit into what they perceive as the model. Different people in leadership force us to think of how the model has been too limiting. Judge Jackson brings a unique set of life and professional experiences to the Supreme Court. Not only is she the first Black woman, but she’s also the first former federal public defender on the Supreme Court. It’s delightful to imagine someone who brings something different to the role.”
Mutcherson has a quote on her office wall, spoken by Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley: “I’m not here just to occupy space. I'm here to create it.” That’s how she thinks of what she’s doing in her job.
“I want to expand the universe of people who get to do this job and make it clear that it’s possible to be successful as a Black woman in this role,” Mutcherson said. “The beauty of being the first is doing the hard work to make sure that you’re not going to be the last.”
Photos courtesy of Kimberly Mutcherson
Creative Design by Doug Shelton
Edited by Toni Mooney Smith