Baldwin inspires McKeesport Area students during lunch at alma mater
Cynthia Baldwin knows just how far it is from McKeesport, where she grew up in the 1960s, to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where she served as a justice from 2006-2008.
During a presentation Thursday at McKeesport Area High School, Baldwin, 69, impressed upon students that anything is possible with work, determination and a little bit of fearlessness.
“We all have to come from somewhere,” she said. “But what really matters is where you're going.”
Librarian Barbara Holtz asked Baldwin to speak at her alma mater to a group of about 30 students as part of the high school's “Lunch and Learn” program, a time for accomplished speakers with McKeesport connections to share their stories.
“Our kids really like to hear stories and they need to hear what these people have to say,” Holtz said. “I wanted (Baldwin) to come talk because she is a McKeesport graduate and she's achieved so much.”
When she graduated in 1962, Baldwin said, her options were limited.
“I never thought about being a lawyer or a judge,” she said. “There were three choices for women around the time I graduated: you could be a nurse, a teacher or a social worker. I decided I was going to be an English teacher.”
She earned a bachelor's and master's degrees at Penn State University, then became a college professor, but she said she yearned for something more.
“I grew up at a time when it was very difficult for African-Americans — not that it's excellent now,” she said. “When I was in college, that's when all the sit-ins were taking place in the South. I was always interested in how it was important to change within the system and how anyone could make a difference.”
Baldwin said instead of becoming radicalized, she embraced the law.
“I became convinced that you can't change people's minds, but you can change their behavior,” she said. “If a person decides they don't like you because you're too tall, too short, too thin, too fat, too black or too white, they're not going to change their mind about that. But why I like the law is because it says nobody can discriminate against you because of it.”
Baldwin returned to school to earn her law degree and began rising through the court system, becoming the first black woman elected to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in 1989, where she served for 16 years. She was appointed to the state Supreme Court by Gov. Ed Rendell in 2006 and, after two years, she retired and later became Penn State's general counsel. She gained national notoriety in 2012 during the Jerry Sandusky scandal, which she did not mention.
Instead, she focused on inspiring students to dream big, work hard and never give up.
“I think it's so important, within this community especially, that we give the time to our young people, tell them what the world is like and tell them what they need to do to prepare for it,” she said. “If we don't do that, we're not doing our duty.”
As a world traveler who has taught judges in China, Guyana, Uganda, Zimbabwe and other exotic locales, Baldwin stressed the need for more American students to learn foreign languages.
“Students in other countries speak two or three languages,” she said. “This is a world society. You're going to find that needing to communicate across cultures will become a way of life. If we don't start now, we're only going to fall farther behind.”
Baldwin said it's important to realize that everyone has the ability to change the direction of their life at any time.
“Wherever you are in your life, you can achieve anything,” she said. “You don't retire from life. You just keep going.”
Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1970, or firstname.lastname@example.org.