JUDITH C. SAVAGE was recently awarded the Honorary Chairs’ Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. Savage is a former Rhode Island Superior Court judge and distinguished jurist in residence at Roger Williams University School of Law. She will be honored at RICH’s Celebration of the Humanities on Oct. 5.
How did your undergraduate foundation in the humanities carry and influence you during your career? Through immense sacrifice on the part of my parents, I was able to journey from my native Michigan to Wellesley College to study with women from all over the world – women with many different life stories and distinct life experiences. I soon immersed myself in the humanities, studying literature, art history, philosophy, history, French, economics, music and political science with the brightest of minds. My world, as a result, got so much bigger. And I was challenged to think big and to dream big. Our college motto was “Non Ministrari sed Ministrare,” which means “not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” We took our motto to heart, believing that our study of the humanities should be used in service of the greater public good. I have tried to be faithful to that mission as a lifelong learner, letting it fuel my vision and my work in the community as a lawyer, public servant, judge, educator, mentor and friend.
Why do you share the R.I. Council for the Humanities’ mission to promote the humanities in public life? I saw the power of this mission up close this year when the Rhode Island Center for the Book at the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities invited me to co-chair Reading Across Rhode Island with my former colleague and friend, Judge Edward Clifton. We traveled across the state, engaging students and community groups in a discussion of Bryan Stevenson’s landmark book, “Just Mercy.” Together, we all took a hard look at issues of injustice in criminal justice – mass incarceration, racial injustice, wrongful conviction, the death penalty, mental illness in prison, solitary confinement and the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole. But we did not simply look at the issues from afar; we read the stories of the convicted and the condemned that tugged at our hearts and made us recognize our common humanity. Never have I seen students so engaged. Not only did they read the book, but they wrestled with it, were profoundly affected by it, asked probing questions, researched and wrote about it and challenged each other in searing debate. Students who knew too much about racial injustice and life behind the walls felt gratified that we cared about the issues; students who had been insulated from that world had their eyes opened to the inequality and injustice that can lurk in a system designed to be fair and just.
What is the main lesson you hope to impart on your students? I want my students to pursue a rigorous study of the law and learn how to think analytically and creatively so they can be skilled problem-solvers, advocates and agents of change. But I also want them to remember the human side of the equation. To take pages out of “Just Mercy” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it is important to get proximate – to learn to walk in each other’s shoes. Getting closer to people and to the issues of the day will make students better lawyers, better public servants and better people. We may be different from one another or have different opinions, but we are really all the same. My students often feel overwhelmed by the array of social problems awaiting them as lawyers and ask where to start. I tell them to think about what pains them the most and run right toward it. Running toward pain is hard, but it can fuel our passion.