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Gwynne Wilcox ’74 Recalls Her SU Experience, Start of CBT (Q&A)
Since its inception in 1983, the triennial Coming Back Together (CBT) reunion has far exceeded the expectations of Gwynne A. Wilcox ’74. She was one of a small group of alumni who helped plan the first reunion.
“When we started, the thought was we wanted to still connect with the University and the students—and that’s still the heart of what CBT is,” says Wilcox, a partner in the New York law firm Levy Ratner. “We have this expanding community of alums who all share this special bond. There are stories we can share and learn from each other.”
It’s also an opportunity to be mindful of those who have gone before them and those in the next generations to come.
“We definitely stand on the shoulders of people who fought for the opportunities so that we could be on college campuses,” says Wilcox, who will be awarded one of five Chancellor’s Citations during the CBT dinner gala Sept. 16. “We have the responsibility to continue to create opportunities for others because we are the beneficiaries.”
01How did your Syracuse University experience help you build a foundation for your professional endeavors?
I came to SU as a member of a group of the largest number of Black and Latino students to arrive on campus at that time. We were welcomed to campus by Black and Latino upperclass students, and our class of Black and Latino students was small enough that we got to know each other well and many of our friendships continue to this date.
There was a lot of political and student unrest on college campuses and SU was no different. The Black football players had boycotted the team and that was what we confronted when we arrived on campus, and there were other initiatives among the students to support the needs of Black and Latino students. That provided an opening dialogue for Black and Latino upperclass students and us, new freshmen, which continued throughout my four years at SU. It was evident that the efforts of the upperclass students and those who had previously graduated had made it possible for our class of then a substantial number of Black and Latino students to enroll.
While I met and got to know other students, the Black and Latino students formed the basis of the community that we shared and nurtured. There was a lot of learning that took place away from the classroom through friendships, campus and organizational activities.
My social work studies and internships provided me with the spectrum of social work, sociology and psychology that taught me about people as individuals and as part of communities and society. I took a political science class at the Maxwell School that opened my eyes to the legal system, and I had a chance to participate in a brief writing project with other political science majors. Those experiences directed me to applying to law school. However, my SU social work studies and internships formed the background to my professional endeavors because they prepared me to follow my motivation to make differences in the lives of people.
I also think back to my fall semester of my junior year abroad in the Netherlands and how that helped to shape my professional endeavors.
02What do you find fascinating and challenging about your work as associate general counsel for 1199SEIU and with other unions?
As counsel for 1199SEIU and other unions, I work to problem solve with a variety of union officers and staff and workers, who are diverse by industry, job classifications, gender, race and ethnicity. If problems cannot be solved informally, then I work to determine the best strategy for moving forward with the legal process. Both are challenging aspects of my work.
During the course of the day, I could be strategizing with a union president concerned about a major issue confronting her/his membership; advising an officer or organizer at a union workplace that has an immediate crisis; assisting a worker with an urgent workplace problem; conducting contract negotiations; preparing and filing legal papers; preparing witnesses for a hearing; and communicating with management adversaries, arbitrators and government agencies.
The labor movement made significant gains over time, but those gains are being significantly challenged now, not that the past was ever a ‘piece of cake.’ The labor movement and its lawyers have to be even more resilient and strategic to maintain the gains of the past and move forward, despite the challenges presented by management.
03Why is it important to you to participate on such boards as the Peggy Browning Fund and the Workers Defense League, which involve justice in the workplace?
As a board member with the Peggy Browning Fund, I have the opportunity to ensure that there will be next generations of law students to become advocates for working people and unions. It goes without saying that the field of advocating for unions and workers is challenging, but so important to make sure that working people can provide for themselves and their families. The challenges presented by big business, government and some anti-worker/union private organizations make it increasingly necessary for there to be a continuous influx of advocates for workplace justice.
The Workers Defense League is a longtime advocacy organization for workers. Its focus now is to provide free representation for unemployed workers who are seeking unemployment benefits. This is a safety net organization that can make an immediate difference for workers of any income who suddenly find themselves out of work due to layoffs and unjust terminations.
04How did you become involved with CBT at its inception?
I became involved with CBT as an outgrowth of my work and my role as a former president of the Friends of Syracuse University in New York City. When I graduated from SU, some prior alumni had started the Friends of Syracuse with the goal of keeping in touch with the current students, sharing information with them, providing informal mentoring opportunities and providing programming for SU alums. I was motivated to get involved because of the concept of giving back to the current students and to continue the SU experience with other Black and Latino alums.
Then, when Robert Hill was hired by the University to work with us, he met with me, Walt Braswell ’71, the late Wayne Brown’78 and Alfreda Mayer ’78 to develop CBT, which began in 1983, the fifth anniversary of the class of ’78. I don’t think any of us knew how CBT would grow to be an ever-expanding positive and energizing community of SU alum. I continue to stay involved because it is important to mentor and give back to students. The economic, political, educational and social challenges facing young people and their families have increased tenfold and Black and Latino students need our personal time and guidance—as well as our financial support through Our Time Has Come Scholarship Fund.
CBT also provides a fabulous opportunity to network with and connect with other fellow alum. The CBT community is a unique experience that other universities and colleges do not have.
05When you meet students what are your hopes for them?
In retrospect I think there were probably a lot more experiences I could have taken advantage of at the University. Today’s students are much more worldly; they think more broadly. They think about multiple majors and minors, being involved in different organizations and opportunities they can create for themselves. I hope students will be energized by the fact that CBT can enrich their SU experience, in addition to the many campus organizations, programs and activities. Of course, I hope they will become active members of CBT after graduation to ensure that the connections with SU and the next generation continue to thrive.