Growing up in a housing project in the Bronx, “the odds were against us,” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said on Friday night at the DVF Awards, describing her hardscrabble early years in New York. “My mom instilled in me the value of education.” She took that advice to heart, later graduating from Princeton University and Yale Law School and becoming one of just four women to ever serve on the nation’s highest court.
Sotomayor told a deeply personal tale to the crowd of stylish attendees at the annual awards event, during which Diane von Furstenberg transforms a room at the United Nations into a fabulous lounge and honors women who change the world. Following a soulful performance by Leona Lewis, Justice Sotomayor accepted the Lifetime Leadership Award, saying, “As I imagine is true for many of you in this room, my mind immediately turns to the women in my life who personally shaped who I am.”
Flanked by sprigs of cherry blossoms, as guests lounged on white sofas and sipped blueberry-mint margaritas, Justice Sotomayor described how her mother and grandmother “set the example for how I lead my life and instilled in me a deep value of always striving to give to and uplift others. Their stories—the stories of your grandmothers, your mothers, the other women in your lives who have uplifted you—don’t forget their stories.”
She described her grandmother’s “deep passion for living life fully,” recalling festive parties she would throw on Saturday nights. “To my abuelita, no one was a stranger. Everyone who visited was fed and cared for. That kitchen pot was endless. It didn’t matter how many people showed up, there was always food.”
Her mom shared that passion. “My mother, who I call Mommy, faced extreme poverty while growing up in Puerto Rico. The one place she could escape the hardships of her life was in the library.” It’s a love that Justice Sotomayor inherited, she said, adding with a laugh, “Now you know why I’m a nerd.”
When her mother was in her late forties, she went college and “fulfilled her dreams of becoming a registered nurse,” Justice Sotomayor said. “It’s never too late. For every woman you meet who says, ‘I had a dream but it didn’t come true,’ tell them my mother’s story.”
Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to serve as principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, received the Inspiration Award. Accepting the award in tears from actress Storm Reid, the star of A Wrinkle in Time, she credited the Boys and Girls Clubs for helping her to get to where she is, noting, “the classical ballet world very elite and very white.” She urged the audience, “Let’s keep building each other up!”
Jaha Dukureh, the CEO and founder of the nonprofit Safe Hands for Girls, accepted an International Award from actress Keri Russell for her work fighting against female genital mutilation, a procedure she endured herself—once as a baby in Gambia, and again when she was forced into marriage at age 15 to a man in New York.
“Young women like me don’t ever make it this far,” she said. “Rarely do we get to be part of the change in our communities. When I started this work, I had lot a lot of friends, but then I became the embarrassment in my family.” Now she is a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and a Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women.
Ariela Suster, the founder of Sequence, a collection of jewelry and accessories handcrafted by at-risk youth in her native El Salvador, accepted an International Award from her brother, who had been kidnapped and held hostage as a teenager during the Salvadoran Civil War. “This is for my whole Latin family. Thanks to the support of my family, I was able to succeed. I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for the people who believe in me,” she said, citing Alyse Nelson, president of the nonprofit Vital Voices, which trains women leaders around the world, and von Furstenberg, calling the latter “the coolest, most badass mentor.”
Luma Mufleh, the CEO and founding director of the nonprofit Fugees Family Inc., accepted the People’s Voice Award from CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin for her work using soccer and community to help refugee kids from war-torn countries adjust to their new world in America. “I want to send a call to action,” she said, urging people to keep supporting grassroots organizations and “stepping up.”