I was like every other little Black boy in the ‘60s; I wanted to grow up to be Thurgood Marshall. Everything good that was happening for people of color was because this courageous, bodacious lawyer who sued institutions to give Black folks the rights that the Constitution had promised us. Therefore, my motivation became to be a lawyer. I was absolutely devoted to carrying on that crusade for a more equal America through the court system.
Throughout my life, my father has told me and my siblings that we were “the first to do” a lot. He would always say, “I really don’t care that you're the first, but I do care if you are the last.” We willingly accepted the responsibility to conduct ourselves in a way that reflected our knowing that we were the first to walk through many doors, to have a lot of experiences. Because of that, we had to leave doors open for others. That was the beginning of my sense of social consciousness.
As the first African-American mayor of Dallas from 1995-2001, I added $3 billion to the city’s treasury, created tens of thousands of jobs, reduced the crime rate, lowered taxes, gave the police more money and brought more investment to the southern sector at that time that Dallas had never had before.
I’ve come to appreciate that whether you take the time to serve on the school board or city council, it is a service to the public. It’s humbling to be asked to serve. It’s a privilege to serve. Giving back through public service makes you evaluate what’s important in life. My becoming the US Trade Representative in 2009 was about the opportunity to help President Obama pull our country back from the brink of an economic disaster and to restore our prominence as the leading voice in the world for fairness, for justice, economic empowerment of all people.
Many Americans now believe trade is a losing proposition because we swapped jobs for cheaper iPads. The reality is when you have trade policy that reflects our respect for the rights of workers and the environment, trade can be a magnificent tool to lift people in the world out of poverty and it can be a tool to expand America's commercial reach around the world.
One of my mentors was Barbara Jordan. One of her core sayings was, “Whatever you do in life, it's important to do your best but it's a hell of a lot better to know what you're doing.” My advice to young people is excellence and competency can overcome everything. Public service is a wonderful calling, but take the time to invest in yourself, invest in your education, find a skill you love and know it to such a degree that you don’t believe anyone can do it as well as you and that will make you unstoppable.
Ron Kirk is a senior attorney in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher law firm with a focus on providing strategic advice to companies with global interests. Prior to joining the firm in April 2013, Ambassador Kirk was the first African-American to serve as United States Trade Representative as the president’s principal trade advisor, negotiator and spokesperson on trade issues.
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(Photo: Earl Gibson III)