“Sister, your standing up was a big deal — a big, big deal — becoming a lawyer to represent the poor and the left-behind.”
What President Biden did not say, when presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to Sister Simone Campbell, was where she earned her law degree: King Hall, UC Davis. A member of the Class of 1977, she was editor of the UC Davis Law Review and did legal aid work in the community.
She has belonged to the International Roman Catholic community Sisters of Social Service since before law school and gained national prominence as an advocate for economic justice, immigration reform and health care policy.
Sister Simone was among 16 people to be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a July 7 ceremony in the East Room of the White House. The award is given for exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values or security of the United States, world peace or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.
President Biden said of Sister Simone: “A decade ago, as the nation was debating the Affordable Care Act and the values of our budgets, there she was leading a group of nuns in a nationwide bus campaign to make the case — the moral case — that health care is a right in this country, not a privilege, and the obligation to help other people most in need.
“That’s Sister Simone. That’s what she does. The Nuns on the Bus were simply, simply remarkable.”
It was the kind of action Campbell may have been referring to when she visited UC Davis in 2019 to accept the law school’s Distinguished Alumna Award, saying in her acceptance remarks. “The pleasure of our education and training was always to think a little outside the box.”
‘Be open to heartbreak’
Two years earlier she gave the commencement address at the School of Law on the 40th anniversary of her graduation.
She exhorted the Class of 2017 assembled in Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts to be open to having their hearts broken, to seeing injustice — and acting. “That’s the joy of being a lawyer; we don’t get stymied.”
She described having had her heart broken by a family of six siblings, two of them “DACA kids,” allowed to stay in the United States at least temporarily under the government’s Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals policy, but whose parents had been deported, having been in violation of immigration law. One of the children, age 12, attempted suicide, not wanting to be a burden to Catherine, 16, the eldest of the children, who had been left to care for the family.
“This is wrong in the richest nation on Earth that we cannot care for our families. It is wrong that Catherine would be left with this burden. It is wrong that we the lawyers have not been able to change or fix this horrible law.”
‘Horror of racism’
Sister Simone described Amy of St. Louis, a professor, a Black mother of two boys having to give them the talk – common in the Black community — about how to behave when (“not if,” Sister Simone emphasized) they were stopped by the police.
“And her sixth-grader said to her, ‘Mom, how long is this gonna go on?’ And she said to him, ‘If things keep up the way they are, the rest of your life.’
“That broke my heart,” Sister Simon said. “And it fueled my passion for making a difference, for changing the original sin of our nation from this horror of racism that we still have the residue, and change it for the common good, so all are included.”
Sister Simone expressed optimism in the law school graduates of 2017, noting how some of them, in one instance of having their hearts broken, “went quickly to airports to respond to the needs of our people,” referring to action by the law school community in the wake of then-President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration in January 2017 .
“The broken-hearted reality fuels my passion for change, and I have a hunch it fuels yours, too,” she told the graduates. “That is the purpose of a broken heart.”
She continued: “We need King Hall’s graduates to do the courageous work of engaging a society in chaos, a society that is challenged by individualism, fear, division. But we know better than that, right?
“And when your heart is broken open, the thing I’ve discovered, then there’s room for everyone.”
‘A gift from God’
In 1978, a year after her graduation from law school, Sister Simone founded the Community Law Center in Oakland and took on the role of lead attorney, serving until 1995. She went on to become the executive director of Jericho, an interfaith organization advocating on behalf of the poor, and then Network, a Roman Catholic group promoting social justice in public policy, serving in the latter position from 2004 until her retirement in 2021.
“For so many people and for the nation, Sister Simone Campbell is a gift from God,” President Biden said during the medal presentation. Then, referring to his and Campbell’s shared Roman Catholic faith, he said: “For the past 50 years, she has embodied the belief in our church that faith without works is dead.”
In concluding his remarks on Sister Simone, the president said: “Compassionate and brave, humble and strong, today Sister Simone remains a beacon of light. She’s the embodiment of a covenant of trust, hope and progress of our nation.”