Express Week

“It Takes a Village to Raise a Child”

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CHICAGO (JGL) -- Nearly 20 years ago, First Lady of the United States Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote a best seller believed to be about an African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”


Last Thursday, June 4, Cook County, Illinois Circuit Court Judge Jessica “Jinky” Arong O’Brien told a packed Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel ballroom in Chicago, Illinois during her installation as the first Filipino and first Asian American president of the 101-year-old Women’s Bar Association of Illinois (WBAI) for 2015-2016 by U.S. Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit how seven middle-income families in far-off Cebu in the Philippines showed the village people’s random of act of kindness and caring (bayanihan in Filipino) when they took turns in taking care of her from third grade up to high school until her mother was ready to take her to America.

Judge O’Brien said those eight years in Cebu that she considered very critical were the turning points of her life as she found inspiration and motivations from her life’s struggles and lessons.

“I was really raised by a village. These families -- seven moms and seven dads -- growing up everyday, I recognized that all I have accomplished professionally are due to my amazing village,” Judge O’Brien said as she held back her tears. And she wanted to return the favor by empowering “others to succeed.”

To give substance to her pledge to help other struggling members of the 1,000-member bar association, Judge O’Brien came up with a theme during her one-year term: “Leave No Woman Behind: Empowering through Leadership.”

Ms. O’Brien, who can still speak Cebuana, said, “When I was in third grade, my mother wanted to pursue her medical residency. Her plans were not consistent with my father’s business agenda. She left for New York with $50 in her pocket with a plane ticket from borrowed money and with my sister.

“I was left behind. And my father in the Philippines was busy with his business. I was left with my grandmother, who could not read nor write.

“My grandmother loved me. But education was not a big thing for her. With my cousins, I was a shy kid, scared kid, and I really did not want to go to school. And my grandmother, who did not care about school, told me, ‘you can stay home,’” drawing gasps from a stunned audience.

“Held back on my third grade” 

“I missed one half of the year, and as result, I was held back (on my third grade). It was really horrible. I became a more depressed child, and shy. But I was fortunate in a village when seven families, average-income family, heard about my being held back. One family picked me up and took me to school. Another family took care of my activities outside of the school and made sure I played sports. I played volleyball, which helped me with my self-confidence issue.

“The family even entered me in a beauty pageant. I did not win (but in the process), I learned how to play guitar and sing. Not really. But it helped me with my self-esteem.

“That family took me to vacation. Another helped me do my homework and checked on me. The family picked me up Sundays so I can go to church.”

Another experience that prompted her to focus on empowerment that she calls the “second turning point of my life” was when “I was selected as sixth grade captain of volleyball team. I know volleyball is not big in America like hockey. But in the Philippines, volleyball was huge. I was empowered to be selected as captain and it helped me with my self-esteem. Up until that point, I was a scared child, insecure child. Having someone recognized my talent and I was capable of being a leader, it empowered me. I now have a sense of purpose, and sense of value and in turn, it compelled me to keep reaching for the stars.

 “I dreamed big.  I often (failed that kept me) disappointed but I kept dreaming. But it’s ok. That experience also instilled in me an obligation to empower others who are scared and insecure or otherwise unable to find their own leadership potential.

“Eight years later when my Mom was able to bring me to the U.S. after I finished my high school, I graduated at 16. And she (her Mom) put me in a remedial class (a community college). And on the first day of school, and if you saw, “Breakfast Club” that was the scene I was walking into. My English was bad, broken, my accent was thick. And all I did was study. I became nerdy student in my class and my classmates hated me because my teachers were always calling me.

Reached out to my failing classmates 

“Toward the end of the first semester, I reached out to my failing classmates. I told them, ‘if you need help, I can help. But do me favor.  Take me out in New Jersey. I want to learn to speak English.’ They took me out, taking me to neighborhoods, telling me that I put earrings on, to New York, South Philly. I also put a streak (on my hair).”

Her classmates told her you have to put “earrings, you have to bid Adios (good bye) to “your-fresh-out-of-the-boat” mannerisms. That was derogatory slang (if) you are very literal. But in reaching out to my classmates, I learned to assimilate to the American way of life. I was very grateful for that. I look forward to the WBAI village, to make sure no woman is left behind.”

She also paid tribute to many villagers, including her children, Samantha Theresa, 18, who is attending a law program in University of San Diego but had spent many hours serving homeless women that earned her an award, Judy Rose, “who is 11 turning 50,” and Vanessa Kate. They are socially aware and conscious in giving back to the community. Her supportive husband, Brandon O’Brien, a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson, LLP, who is running for Circuit Court of Cook County Judge; her grade and high school classmates in Cebu’s St. Theresa’s College, who were in the audience, namely, Christine Cadlaon, (who works at Cook County Stroger’s Hospital) and Mydi Manguiat (a Med Tech at Kindred Hospital Chicago) and Gay Ituriaga-Lebourg, founder of Calaiso, Inc., who came all the way from Cebu and who brought in mats from Cebu, whose sales would be plowed back to the underprivileged villages in Cebu.

Judge O’Brien thanked many other friends and mentors in her many villages. 

For remaining down to earth 

In a message in the souvenir program, Gayle Ituriaga-Lebourg said, “I, along with our classmates at St. Theresa’s College 1984 (Grade School and High School) in Cebu City, Philippines, celebrate her accomplishment. Jinky – we are all so proud of you. Thank you for being an inspiration to our classmates and for remaining down to earth in spite of your successes to date. Mabuhay (long life)!”

Judge O’Brien was introduced by Cook County Circuit Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, who re-defined the “O” in her “O’Brien” name as “Oprah, she is marvelous.” Judge Evans said he was impressed by Jessica’s “star” quality and missions of “giving members of WBAI, a chance to build their leadership qualities, get in the business door, to learn to represent business, and to end up with clients, who are paying clients.” He urged the crowd to applaud “so hard that the applause should be heard all the way back to the Philippines.”

President Obama’s WHIAAPI Executive Director Kiran Ahuja lauded Judge O’Brien installation as “the first Filipino and Asian American woman in WBAI’s over one hundred year long history to serve as the new president. I applaud WBAI’s commitment to advancing the interests and welfare of women lawyers and promoting the administration of justice.” The message was read by George Chunkau Mui, Market Access Team Lead of the Office of Business Development of the Minority Business Development Agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Filipino American Billy Dec, also a lawyer, White House Liaison to the Asian American Community and After-Party host at his own “Underground,” remarked, “My Mom, like your Mom, came alone here in the U.S. to work from the Philippines. I owe everything to that. Your sacrifice and her sacrifice led to so much goodness. I am overwhelmed. I congratulate you and I am excited for you. And I am also so amazed and excited for the three and half years of traveling around the country with leaders in health, education, economic development, immigration, Department of Justice convention Task Force for kids across the country. You have done a lot with the influential. Go get there. Be role model that we look up to. For all that you have done, we’ll follow you and support you. Congrats!”

From a mentor 

In a souvenir program message, Filipino American lawyer Loida Nicolas Lewis gushed, “Congratulations to my mentee, the Hon. Jessica A. O’Brien. The entire Filipino American community celebrates this milestone in our history of leadership.”

In brief remarks, Illinois Lieutenant Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, a fellow alumna of Judge O’Brien at Chicago’s The John Marshall Law School, said, “I’m the first Latina lieutenant governor of the country. I am challenging you, Jessica, run for President! It’s good to be here. My Mom is from Cuba. My Dad is from Ecuador. They came here for the American Dream. I went to John Marshall and saw lots of promise and lots of diversity and love.”

The book, “It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us,” written by former First Lady and Democrat front-running candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, was on the New York Times Best Seller List in 1996.

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