Alumna Delivers Opening Remarks at Ellis MLK Day Celebration

Ellis alumna and board member Tomar Pierson-BROWN ’97 joined the Ellis community on January 21, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to deliver the opening remarks at Ellis’ first-ever Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and Celebration. Following her remarks, students, families, faculty, and alumnae went to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty to support and participate in the “12th Annual East Liberty Celebrates MLK Day” event.
Tomar is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh and Director of the School’s Health Law Clinic. At the Health Law Clinic, Tomar supervises certified legal interns handling case matters stemming from the social determinants of health impacting Children’s low-income patient families. She also teaches an inter-professional seminar, in which nursing and law students have the opportunity to engage in collaborative problem-solving on matters of public health policy. Prior to her return to Pittsburgh, Ms. Pierson-Brown was a clinical instructor at UDC David A. Clarke School of Law and an attorney with the Children’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. She is a graduate of Denison University and Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

Below is a copy of Tomar’s remarks.

I am honored to be speaking with you as part of The Ellis School’s first-ever Day of Service, honoring the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As said in the introduction, I am a professor at Pitt Law and director of the Health Law Clinic, a medical-legal partnership with UPMC-Children’s Hospital. Medical-legal partnerships involve doctors and lawyers working together to address the social and environmental factors that impact health.
A lot of people think that health is just the opposite of being sick. But when you consider that environmental resources like having lead-free water to drink and clean air to breathe are part of what keep us healthy; and that social factors like access to education, affordable housing and financial stability are tied to a person’s health outcomes, it becomes easier to understand why medical and legal professionals would decide to work together. Medical-legal partnerships operate to ensure that those in need have access to comprehensive care—care that includes addressing unmet legal needs.
I went into law because I wanted to serve others. I wanted to be able to make a living doing community service. I am blessed to be the kind of lawyer who doesn’t charge her clients anything. I’ve only ever worked in legal services, so all of the families I have served lived at or near the poverty line. My job has been to provide important legal advocacy to those who could not otherwise afford an attorney.
The roots of my commitment to serve were nurtured during my time as a student at Ellis. I have fond memories of Ms. George, Ms. Gray, and Dr. Greco’s service learning mini-course. They taught me and my classmates that it is a privilege to serve others. That having a hand to give or a song to share is a reminder to be thankful for the gifts that each of us have been given.
It’s funny the things you remember and the things that you forget. I realized that I had forgotten how to play cat’s cradle! Are you familiar with this game? I started thinking about this string game as I was preparing my remarks for today. Now, you may be asking yourself, what does a piece of string have to do with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy?
As you probably already know, Dr. King was a prolific speaker and writer. My favorite quote by Dr. King can be found in his letter from a Birmingham Jail, and involves a theme that was woven into several of his speeches. In 1963, King wrote:
“In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…”
This quote reminds me that what others are going through has an impact on my life—even when it doesn’t seem like it; even when it doesn’t feel like it—because we are all connected. A common thread runs through us all.
Each of us in this room are connected to one another through our ties to this educational community, to the city of Pittsburgh, to our nation, and to this earth. A garment of mutuality covers us all. What affects one member of our school, our home town, or one corner of our planet, affects all of us indirectly.

Dr. King’s words create an imperative that each of us as connected citizens must take the time to look away from our personal concerns and to reach out; to discover how other people live who are not from our neighborhood. To spend time with them to find out what challenges they face. To trade dreams and aspirations, and to find out what stands in the way of making those dreams come true. And, if we do this, we come to learn that no matter where the people you meet are from or where they went to school, so many of our dreams are the same. To get a good education, to develop our talents, to be respected and seen as having value, to inhabit a world where our children have more choices and better choices than we had. We can then begin to reflect and think about why it is that I had access to the people and opportunities that I needed to be successful—why doesn’t the wonderful person I just met have the same access as I enjoy?
Dr. King did much to lead the call for equality and the call to serve others. His message encourages us to seek out and meet the unmet needs of others, but also to think deeply about why it is that our world leaves so many with unmet needs. Dr. King said we are called upon to encourage those who are discouraged, and at the same time, we must work to create a world that does not bring people down in the first place. We are called upon to share food with those who are homeless and hungry, and we must work to create a world that does not allow anyone to go without housing. We are called upon to visit the sick, and we must work together despite our differences to build a world in which everyone has access to health care. Part of our service to others is the action we take to meet immediate needs, but more than that, our service can come in the form of the questions we ask about why our world leaves so many in need. Our service can come from our willingness to sit down with those with whom the common thread of humanity may be the only thing we share—and talk about how we can work together to create systemic change.
Finally, in answering the call to serve, we must acknowledge the other. When we enter a room, we can take a moment to notice who else is in the room with us. We can take notice, not only of who is there, but also who is not there. If you walk into a room and you are the only woman, find a way to bring another woman into the room with you. If you are the only person of color, the only person on the LGBTQ spectrum, the only Muslim or Jewish person, bring someone with you. The game, after all, is played with a multicolored thread. And so too is our world.
I offer to you that you serve by doing. You can serve by asking questions about why society operates to create people in need. You can serve by engaging in dialogue even when we seem to disagree. And you can serve by bringing in unheard voices, making an opportunity for someone else who otherwise would not have had a chance to get involved. If your service involves all four of these things, you will have done more than have lived out a practice of service. You will have created a legacy. Together, on this first day of service, Ellis community, students, parents, alumnae and friends, we are establishing a new legacy.
Cat’s cradle is a two-player game and I am so pleased to have my friend, Ruthie, to help me out with this. It’s a game that like service is better when it’s multi-generational. Service is more effective when it’s shared. So as I pass on this game and this message of the common thread that ties us together and calls us to serve, I encourage you to let today not just be a one-off event, to not let MLK day be the only day that you serve, but that you develop a legacy of service through your actions the questions you ask, the conversations you start, and the people you bring to the table.
Thank you, Ellis family!

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