LaDoris Hazzard Cordell has spent much of her life creating change: She was the first lawyer to open a private law practice in East Palo Alto and in 1982, she became the first African American female judge in northern California. She was later elected to the Superior Court of Santa Clara County. After serving 19 years, Cordell retired from the bench and joined Stanford University as vice provost and special counselor to the president for campus relations. The university ranked last place in the enrollment of Black and Hispanic students among major law schools before Cordell arrived. With her help, Stanford climbed all the way to first. She also has served as a council member for the city of Palo Alto, the independent police auditor for the city of San Jose and an on-camera legal analyst for CBS-5 news on KPIX-TV.
The Almanac's sister publication, the Palo Alto Weekly, spoke to Cordell about her work and the impact it's had on her life and the community in which she lives. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:
PAW: What brought you to Palo Alto?
Cordell: My admission to Stanford Law School in 1971 brought me to Palo Alto. I chose to remain here because of the city's stellar school system in which both of my daughters were educated. As well, I remained here because of the city's intellectual environment created by both the presence of Stanford University, because of the technological savvy fostered by the city's cutting-edge businesses and because so many of the city's residents are concerned and actively involved in city government.
PAW: What would be your advice to your 22-year-old self, or to any 22-year-old now?
Cordell: When I was 22 years of age, I was a first-year student at Stanford Law School. I was the only African American woman in my class and learned from a faculty devoid of any women and with only one person of color. As the first person in my family to enter the legal field, I found myself under tremendous pressure to succeed in an extremely competitive environment. Yet, I persevered and graduated in 1974. My advice to 22-year-olds today is to never forget that you stand on the shoulders of others who have come before you and who opened doors so that you have unlimited opportunities. Keep your eyes on the prize and failure will be an impossibility.
PAW: What's your proudest achievement?
Cordell: One of my most fulfilling achievements was leading the effort to lift the entry restriction to Foothills Nature Preserve (which, from 1965-2020, banned nonresidents from visiting the public park). Represented by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), I was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city (of Palo Alto) after negotiations stalled. Courageously, the majority of the Palo Alto City Council did the right thing and voted to make this beautiful public space available to all, regardless of their place of residency. Taking down barriers to equality is a good thing.
PAW: What are the most pressing issues facing the younger generation?
Cordell: Sadly, the country that our younger generation will inherit is rife with problems, among them climate change, voter suppression, racism, sexism and homophobia. That being said, I have great faith in and hope for our young people, who are ... smart, informed and compassionate.
PAW: What's the most rewarding part about your community work?
Cordell: "Activism is my rent for living on this planet." Those are the words of author, poet and social activist Alice Walker that are my mantra.
My activism has, in part, been to focus on city government by serving on the Palo Alto City Council for four years and to serve on government committees, such as those established to assist in the selection of the city's police chiefs. My reward for community service is simply believing that in some way, I have improved the quality of life for others while striving for equality and justice for us all.
PAW: What advice do you have for others looking to volunteer?
Cordell: My advice to anyone contemplating volunteerism in our community is simply this: Pay your rent!
Read more stories on this year's Lifetimes of Achievement honorees: