Recently elected congresswoman Sharice Davids, J.D. ’10, received the Steven W. Siegel ’68 Award from Cornell’s LGBT Alumni Association (CUGALA). Davids (D-Kansas) – one of five alumni serving in the 116th Congress – was presented the award at a ceremony March 30 in New York City.
The annual award recognizes an individual who has made a significant impact in the LGBTQ+ community.
In November, Davids made history when she became one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress and the first openly gay representative from Kansas. A member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Davids defeated four-term incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder in Kansas’ 3rd District, which includes the Kansas City area.
“It’s truly inspiring to see not only what she has accomplished, but to know she is set to achieve so much more,” said Kim Gillece, vice president of CUGALA.
According to Gillece, CUGALA approached Davids about being the Siegel Award honoree before Election Day.
“In part, because we were confident she would win,” said Gillece, “but also because she represents such an incredible story of strength and growth and has moved so far on the path that her Cornell J.D. has helped create for her.”
In her acceptance speech, Davids discussed the transformative role that law school played in her life. When the director of a program to help Native American students make it through law school encouraged her to apply to Cornell Law School, she recalled saying, “Cornell’s not going to take me.” To which, she said, the program director replied: “I’m not saying they will definitely take you, but if you don’t apply, then they definitely won’t.”
Looking back, Davids realized this was a pivotal juncture.
“I spent years thinking the trajectory of my life changed the moment I got accepted into Cornell Law School,” said Davids, “Running for office requires a lot of reflection, and I realized it wasn’t getting into Cornell that changed my life, it was the moment I decided to apply. When I imagined what was possible, everything changed.”
Davids said she had this same feeling in February 2018: “I was imagining what was possible for the Kansas 3rd District. And look what we have accomplished.
“Last year, we reset expectations nationally around politics,” she said. “In the 116th Congress, there are more women and more people of color than ever before. Our members come from different religious backgrounds and different socio-economic situations. Some of us are first-generation college students, single moms or members of the LGBTQ community.
“A lot of us have student loan debt and credit card bills to pay,” she said. “We are people who understand the everyday lives and struggles of our constituents, because we are living them ourselves.”
For CUGALA President Olivia Tai, it was the line in Davids’ speech about her time at Cornell that resonated most.
“My eyes actually welled up because she was able to articulate something that I’ve felt for many years,” Tai said. “When life gets you down, you start wondering if Cornell was just a fluke. But Sharice is right – it wasn’t Cornell that validated my self-worth, it was me all along.”
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, CUGALA is one of the oldest and largest LGBTQ+ university alumni organizations in the country, with more than 3,000 members. Its mission is to engage alumni to foster an inclusive Cornell by leading, programming for, communicating to and supporting the LGBTQ+ community.
Georgina Selenica is communications coordinator for Cornell Law School.