By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
The most fundamental leadership role is simply to be an example, a model: one whose life has credibility with others, has integrity, diligence, humility, the spirit of servant-leadership, of contribution.
-Stephen R. Covey
It is impossible to understand the precariousness of the current state of American democracy without noting the failure of leadership at the federal, state and local levels. Yet, few are speaking to the larger question of ethical leadership and the voters’ crucial role in electing those leaders with conscious-forming experiences that will protect our rights.
These are the genuine leaders whose “being and doing” of ethics stands out most prominently in their exercise of leadership. They are positive examples of grossly misrepresented and underrepresented persons of color in the media and not the “walking stereotypes of mediocrity,” so often hyped by those desperate to hold onto power by any means necessary.
Ethical leaders are a testament of authentic care, compassion, and personal integrity rather than depictions of cruelty and meanness. These leaders are those who, having vetoed their own challenging circumstances, provide a voice for the voiceless.
These are the leaders who merit the confidence of voters and deserve our political support.
Such an example is Judge Marilyn Zayas, candidate, Ohio Supreme Court. Currently a judge of the Ohio First District Court of Appeals, Zayas is the first and only Latina elected to any Ohio appellate court.
I spoke with Judge Zayas about her life’s journey, judicial reputation, and candidacy for Ohio’s highest court. Here is the first installment of our two-part conversation:
Perryman: Please share your personal and professional journey with The Truth’s readers.
Zayas: I was supposed to be a statistic, really. I still pinch myself that I’m here. I was born in Spanish Harlem, grew up in Washington Heights, and moved there in the late 60s. Washington Heights was a lovely, working-class neighborhood when we moved in, devastated by the drugs and the crime of the 70s because it became the pickup point for heroin to the suburbs.
Perryman: Please describe your family life.
Zayas: My family life was also quite interesting. But, again, there are things that you just don’t talk about. But, still, my brothers and I went through some things that kids should never go through. So, when people say the word dysfunctional, I say, well, that would be great if my family were only dysfunctional, that’d be an elevation. So it was that kind of environment.
Perryman: What prompted your interest in law?
Zayas: My introduction to the law was when my mom finally had the ability and courage to get divorced. She was fighting for custody of my youngest brother to protect him, and I was going with her. My mom only has an eighth-grade education, and at that time, she had limited command of English. So, I was helping her as sort of her informal interpreter. I realized how important it was for her to have a voice and for people to understand why she was there, what she was trying to communicate, and why it was important for her to protect my brother.
So, I wasn’t just being an interpreter; I was kind of, in a way, being an advocate for her, which had a profound effect on me. I realized, ‘Wow, the stuff that happens in these courts, these court buildings, profoundly impact people. So I knew I wanted to be an attorney. I didn’t know when and I didn’t know how.
Perryman: So, talk a little about your legal journey.
Zayas: I got a degree in computer science, came to work for Proctor and Gamble 34 years ago as an IT manager, loved it, and had a great experience, but ultimately decided to follow my passion of wanting to be an attorney. I took a position with the public defender’s office.
That was when I started to live out why I went to law school. I worked mainly in juvenile. I loved working with the kids. I loved working with their families. I can see how impactful it is when you can work with a family and a juvenile and allow them to change the trajectory of their future when they’re still young. So then, I decided to be an entrepreneur, build my own law practice, work with many foreign-born people, and did many asylum cases for people from Mauritania.
It was a very impactful experience because almost all the clients I represented were targeted because of their race. It’s like my worst day is better than a lot of their best days. People go through so much when they’re targeted that way and when their families and everything are taken away from them.
I currently serve in the court of appeals in Hamilton County. This is my sixth year. I’m actually the most senior judge in that court right now, and I’m the first and only Latina elected to any court of appeals in Ohio and I just feel really blessed.
People from my background don’t have these opportunities, and I know I have to represent. I have to ensure that I do everything not only with integrity and ethics but with excellence. I’m also the first person of color to be elected to my court of appeals. I want to ensure that the door stays open for anybody from a diverse background or different circumstances and that they also have an opportunity. I don’t wear it as a badge of honor that I’m the first person of color to be elected to my court. So, after all, I do realize that we need to have many more and that it can’t end with me.
Perryman: What will it mean to voters to have you sit on the bench for the Ohio Supreme Court?
Zayas: It means that because of my lived experiences, it’s not just a word. It’s a lived thing to say that I will apply the law equally to everyone, and according to the constitution independent of politics.
I came at this with no background in politics. In 2016 I came out of nowhere, just knowing I wanted to be an excellent judge. I was fighting for that opportunity to serve people and be an excellent judge where folks could come to my court and have confidence that they had an equal opportunity. That’s the reputation I’ve built.
So basically, in a year, I built a judicial reputation in a county where most people don’t look like me, don’t sound like me, or don’t have my background. I was the only Democrat on my court of appeals. Do you know that I was the first Democrat in two decades to be elected in a contested race to my court of appeals? I came out of nowhere and built a reputation. To this day, no Democrat has won in Hamilton County, running as a judge in the county by 60 percent as I did in 2018. So, keep in mind, I did that in less than two years of building a judicial reputation.
Perryman: What about your unique life experiences, specifically, make you a fitting candidate for this position?
Zayas: Specifically because I was Puerto Rican, growing up in a time when there was a lot of discrimination in New York City. I was treated as if I would grow up to be a statistic. I had a teacher in eighth grade who told my entire class that none of us would grow up to be white-collar workers. I always would think, why not?
And even though my home life was very difficult, my mother always said, ‘the only inheritance I have for you is an education.’ That’s because she didn’t have the opportunity to have an education. She got to seventh grade because her mother died when she was very young. So different family members raised her. So she had all these responsibilities in the home.
When you have that kind of experience, for me, it had a profound effect where I don’t want other people to go through the difficulties that I went through.
I also experienced what happens when a neighborhood is devastated by drugs and crime and the impact it has on the people living there. I understand the impact on the children’s psyche residing in that neighborhood because I was one of those children. My family was one of those families. My neighbors were part of that community.
Perryman: How about the impact of mentors?
Zayas: Do you know how you sometimes meet people who never mentor but inspire you? They make you realize, wow, if they achieved that, then I can achieve something because they achieved something in a challenging time.
So when I was a kid, it was two-fold. Then, as an adult, I had more direct mentors: Judge Nadine Allen and Judge Cheryl Grant. They’re African-American females, and I love them as if they’re sisters. That’s all I can say; they’ve been great mentors for me.
As a kid in high school, we had an alum come to speak. He was the highest-level African American in the Air Force then, rising through the military at a very difficult time to reach the caliber he had achieved. I absorbed that as that 15-16-year-old meeting this guy speaking to us in a general assembly. I reached back to that man so many times as a source of inspiration, recognizing that he grew up in a much more difficult time. His professional career was a much more difficult time than whatever I will be facing. I just always felt like if he reached that level of achievement, then I could do something. If you only knew his profound impact on my life, he was like my source of strength.
Keep in mind that I grew up when there were no Latinos to look up to and say, ‘Oh, look at this, whatever, this person who’s the CEO of this company.’ I didn’t even know any physicians that were Latinos. I didn’t know any teachers that were Latinos. I didn’t know any social workers that were Latinos at that time. I didn’t know any police officers that were Latinos or attorneys that were Latinos when I was growing up. So this man had a very, very profound impact on my life.
Perryman: Are there others God placed in your path just when you needed them most?
Zayas: The other person was when I was in college, and my mom was going through custody. It became challenging for me at one point; somehow, he knew this. He was originally from Peru, and he was the janitor for the physics department. He would do all the cleanup, and I worked in the physics department while I was going to undergraduate. He would come to sit next to me or stand next to me and say, ‘Marilyn, you can do it, you just keep going, you can do it, you can do it. This is a man that I don’t even know what his education was, and English was his second language. He would say, ‘you can do it,’ like he somehow saw something, and he just kept saying you can do it, and I would say, ‘Well, he thinks I can do it, so I guess I can.’
Perryman: Let’s talk about your work as a judge and what we might expect if we see you on the Ohio Supreme Court.
(to be continued)
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD at firstname.lastname@example.org