From Firm Founder Sheryl Axelrod:
I grew up the second to youngest of eight children. Two of my older brothers, Kenny and Howard, are slow-learners. My mother spent years lobbying the local school board, first to provide Special Education classes so my brothers could each get a high school education. At the time, there were no local high school classes for slow-learning children. After junior high school, the kids were turned away from area schools without any further education or vocational training. They were taught no skills to make them productive. They were relegated to being dependent on others — on governmental assistance programs or their families — for the rest of their lives.
In my house, where Kenny and Howard had 3 older siblings, each a year and a half older than the next, if they hadn’t gone to school, they would’ve watched their older siblings … get ready for school, take the bus, make friends in school, bring their friends over, go out with them, participate in sports teams, etc., etc., etc. It would have been unbelievably cruel.
My mom fought the school board to create Special Education classes, and won. The classes were then established, but my brother Kenny (the first of the two boys to go to high school) and his fellow Special Education classmates were put on segregated, handicapped busses and in segregated gym classes. Imagine what that was like. This was the first Special Education class. They were already going to face snide remarks from other kids. To this day, the word “retard” is used as if it’s not offensive, discriminatory speech. Now they had to face waiting for a separate bus, and coming to school in the bus that was designed for children with physical handicaps, whereas they had none.
My mom returned to the school board to lobby for integrated busses and gym classes. She won those fights, too, but her work was not done. As graduation approached for Kenny and the first class of Special Education students, the school board advised that they would not walk in caps and gowns with the rest of their class at graduation. They would not receive diplomas.
They had passed all their classes. Their older siblings had walked in caps and gowns at graduation, and received diplomas. All the other kids in school would, too, but them.
My mom fought that decision, too. I can still remember her rehearsing her speech. “What colleges and universities do you imagine my boys will get into,” she asked, “that they will deny spots to your children? How would you feel if all the other kids your age could walk down the aisle at graduation, and you couldn’t? How would you feel if your siblings could? Think of the message you are sending these kids. Why should they work hard, study, take their training seriously, and pass their classes, if you are going to deny them this? You are telling them their studies are worthless.” The school board relented. The Special Education students participated in the graduation ceremony along with the other children, and received diplomas.
The district is now one of the preeminent providers in the region of not only Special Education classes, but of various other types of classes for special needs kids.
Kenny and Howard both graduated from high school. During high school, my father spent months working with Kenny to make sure he learned the Driver’s Manual so he could become independent. My dad would go over a short paragraph of the manual with Kenny every night at the dinner table, reviewing each previous paragraph with him that they had studied before, until Kenny learned the whole manual.
Kenny is now a terrific driver. He uses the skill in his job as a professional courier. My dad later worked with Howard to make sure he could drive, too, and he does. Both boys grew up to be hard working, tax paying adults who contribute to society, but their story does not end there. My siblings and I have had to constantly fight to ensure their fair treatment against those who would discriminate against them, or take advantage of them. Having slow-learning siblings is a constant reminder of the importance of the struggle for diversity and inclusion.
From Firm Founder Sheryl Axelrod:
In college, I co-coordinated the school’s volunteer tutoring program, and tutored a local minority high school student, Malik, through all 3 of my years spent on campus. (I spent my junior year studying in Spain where I became fluent in Spanish.) Malik was one of the few minorities in his school.
I have always enjoyed working with kids, and boosting their confidence. As a practicing lawyer, I spent 4 years coaching high school mock trial teams. I co-coached the inner-city, all-minority 2000 and 2001 Overbrook High School Teams in a national mock trial competition with my friend and colleague from Blank Rome (the prestigious large law firm where we both worked at the time), Lisa Washington. The photograph on the left is of the 2000 Overbrook High School Mock Trial Team. I appear on the far left. Lisa is on the far right. The students’ teacher, Phillip Beauchemin, is standing behind Lisa.
Coaching was quite an effort. It meant spending late nights at the office to get my work done, but it was worth it. It was an incredibly rewarding experience. Shy students who feared expressing their opinions came out of their shells. They gained confidence and composure. After putting on mock trials, voicing their opinions became easy.
The students did amazingly well in the competition. They kept winning and with each win, the competition got tougher and the practices longer and more sophisticated, as we delved into issues at increasingly higher levels. The students’ hard work paid off. In stunning fashion, the 2001 Overbrook team beat St. Joseph’s Prep to advance to the state semifinals. The 2000 team before it had done well, too, beating over 65 public and parochial schools to make it to the Regional Championships.
Everything about the mock trial practices required teamwork. Each student lawyer had to work with a student witness, as the strength of their presentations were interdependent. Everyone had to pull together to make the team succeed. In the process, the students bonded. Many keep in touch to this day. One of the students graduated from Temple Law School and coached an Overbrook High School mock trial team to victory in the Regional Championships. My fondest memory from the Law School was watching that happen there.
While I was at Blank Rome, I also worked with younger children. In 2001, I spearheaded bringing Philadelphia Reads to the office. The program provides educational support for poor, inner-city school kids. The goal of the program, which at the time was run under the auspices of Mayor Street, remains the same today: to ensure children read well and independently by the end of the third grade. Teaching youngsters to read was a joy, and the program had an added benefit. It brought lawyers and staff together. We taught in groups of three so there would always be someone there for each child.
One of the students I coached on the Overbrook High School Mock Trial Team majored in Communications in college and became a nurse. In December, 2011, we spoke to students at Edison High School, an inner city school with a high concentration of at-risk students. In the interactive discussion, we spoke about the Mock Trial program and the importance of completing high school and going on to college.
In February, 2012, I spoke at the Black Law Students Association Alumni Student Diversity Outreach Reception about the Temple Law Alumni Association’s diversity initiatives. It had been announced earlier in the meeting that there were not enough attorneys for all the BLSA students who wanted mentors. After discussing TLAA’s diversity initiatives, I offered to be a mentor. I mentor to this day a wonderful young woman who took me up on my offer. I told all the students I hope they will consider joining TLAA upon graduation, and getting from it the fantastic networking opportunities it presents. TLAA, I am proud to report, was a major event sponsor of the BLSA Diversity Outreach Reception.
In June of 2012, I spoke on a panel addressing the subject of leadership with Springdale middle school girls. My fellow panelists were La-Toya Hackney (Assistant General Counsel of Sunoco), Maisha Leek (Chief of Staff of Congressman Chaka Fattah), and Nina Ahmad, PhD (Chairperson of the Mayor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs and Executive Vice President/Government Affairs at JNA Capital, Inc.). Fran Fattah (Deputy General Counsel for the Chester Upland School District) moderated the discussion.
From Firm Founder Sheryl Axelrod:
My passion for greater diversity and inclusion, and my belief that more diverse and inclusive organizations function better, drove my work with the Temple Law Alumni Association. I am a former President of TLAA, the 4th woman to hold the presidency in the organization’s nearly 100 year history. During my term as President, I founded both the TLAA Women’s Initiative and the TLAA Diversity Committee.
I launched TLAA’s Women’s Initiative to help women succeed. “Backwards in Heels: a Panel of Women Lawyers Share Experiences and Strategies for Success,” was born of that goal. Temple Law Dean JoAnne Epps moderated the panel of female graduates from diverse fields. We gave the audience specific, concrete tips they can use to get ahead.
Pictured in the middle photograph from the TLAA Women’s Initiative event, “Backwards in Heels” are, from left to right: event Co-Chair Vanessa McGrath, event Co-Chair and Large Law Firm Panelist Mairi Luce (a partner at Duane Morris LLP), Pro Bono and Criminal Law Attorney Panelist Marissa Boyers Bluestine (Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project), moderator Temple Law Dean JoAnne Epps, myself as an event Co-Chair and Small Law Firm Panelist (in my roles as Founder of The Axelrod Firm and President of TLAA), and In-House Counsel Panelist Sophia Lee (then Chief Counsel of Litigation at Sunoco).
In 2013, I founded the TLAA Women’s Champion Award which recognizes an outstanding Temple Law graduate who has demonstrated a commitment to the progress and equality of women in the legal profession, has been influential in leading other women lawyers on the path to success, and uses her position and influence to inspire, mentor, advance, promote, and encourage women to achieve excellence in the profession. In 2016, after my term as President of TLAA and a co-chair of the TLAA Women’s Initiative ended, I am honored to report that I was chosen to receive this wonderful award. Pictured in the top photograph is Ken Spivack, who was President of TLAA at the time, bestowing the award upon me.
When I formed TLAA’s Diversity Committee, it was to help minorities succeed. We launched TLAA’s first ever Diversity Committee Panel, and the TLAA Diversity Leadership Award. The award recognizes an outstanding Temple Law graduate who furthers diversity and inclusion in the profession with distinction. The first award winner was Charisse Lillie, the Vice President of Community Investment of Comcast Corporation and the President of Comcast Foundation, pictured in the bottom photograph receiving the award in 2012.
These two committees have grown over the years. They and their awards, which continue to be bestowed on an annual basis by the TLAA Women’s Initiative (now known as the TLAA Women’s Leadership Initiative) and the TLAA Diversity Committee), are a legacy of which I am very proud.
Growing up in a family of eight children, two of whom are slow-learners, Firm President Sheryl Axelrod became acquainted with prejudice at an early age. As a child, Sheryl heard her slow-learning brothers being called “retards,” and saw her mother fight the local public school board so each of them could get a high school education. There was no Special Education program in the public school district at the time.
Inspired by her mother’s efforts, Sheryl has become a tireless advocate for women and minorities in the legal profession. Constantly studying the latest literature and writing articles in the space, she has become a diversity expert, and is invited to speak across the country on a range of topics including:
• the disenfranchisement of women and minorities;
• our socialization to bias;
• the profitability of diversity;
• how inclusion enhances societies and indeed, entire countries; and
• tools everyone can use to become diversity champions.
We invite you to download our diversity miniguide, which includes free, practical tools you can use to become a diversity champion.