Jocelyn Burton (’80) has spent her life as an advocate, first for her classmates at Wake Forest and, more recently, for children and victims of discrimination.
She still remembers a formative experience when she was a student. During a protest over the flying of the Confederate flag outside the Kappa Alpha lounge, Burton, a member of the Afro-American Society, set fire to a flag. As tensions rose, Chaplain Ed Christman (’50, JD ’53) offered a suggestion: go talk to the fraternity members. It wasn’t what she wanted to do, but she took his advice.
“That was my very first mediation,” said Burton, who has had a distinguished legal career in private practice and public service for 27 years, mostly in California. “That was my first experience talking to people that I didn’t think I had anything in common with. You have to find a way to find the humanity in the other person, and they have to see the humanity in you.”
Burton, 57, grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and Richmond, Virginia, and was one of only about two-dozen African-American female students at Wake Forest in the late 1970s. It was challenging, she said, but she made friends across campus and was an RA in Efird dormitory and a member of the Strings society. “Because of the size of Wake Forest, you forged a community. My closest friends from Wake Forest are still my closest friends, 40 years later,” she said.
After graduating with a degree in history, she earned a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from the University of Chicago. Early in her career, she defended the United States in a number of cases as an assistant U.S. attorney in San Francisco, including a stint as chief of the civil division. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice recognized her work on behalf of victims of discrimination. After serving as chief attorney for the Superior Court of California, Santa Clara County, she opened the Burton Employment Law Firm in Oakland in 2011.
Burton serves on the Board of Trustees and is a past member of the Alumni Council. She also serves on the board of Saint Vincent’s Day Home, a nonprofit child development center in Oakland, and is a past board member of several other community and education programs.
“One thing that I got out of Wake is, it’s easy to complain, but you need to figure out is there some way that I can make something better?”