At a ceremony on March 30 in New York City, newly elected congresswoman and Cornell Law School alumna Sharice Davids ’10 received the Steven W. Siegel ’68 Award from CUGALA: Cornell’s LGBT Alumni Association. 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 Democrat and 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 before an audience of nearly 100 at Pera Mediterranean Brasserie in Manhattan, 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 realizes 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 went on to explain how she had this same feeling in February 2018. “I was imagining what was possible for the Kansas Third District. And look what we have accomplished.”
“Last year, we reset expectations nationally around politics,” she continued. “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. We are people who understand the everyday lives and struggles of our constituents. Because we are living them ourselves.”
For, Olivia Tai, president of CUGALA, it was the line in Davids’s speech about her time at Cornell that resonated the most.
“My eyes actually welled up because she was able to articulate something that I’ve felt for many years,” said Tai, “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 over 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.