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Gabrielle "Gaby" Battle is the 2023 Sanford Student Commencement Speaker.

Just a few minutes with Gabrielle “Gaby” Battle will give you enough hope to solve any problem, and that is precisely what Sanford students can look forward to on Friday at commencement: a few minutes of hope to inspire them for the challenges to come.

Gaby is immediately engaging, and that ability to connect with an audience will serve her well as the 2023 Sanford student commencement speaker.

Originally from Oakland, CA, she is set to graduate this week from Sanford in Public Policy Studies. Her journey across the country to Durham, NC, is just the beginning of a globally focused future.

Her commencement speech will pack a lot into a short time, which is a perfect summation of her career here at Duke.

Gaby has excelled academically, receiving recognition on the Dean's list twice while also gaining real-world knowledge through several internships and campus organizations.

Most recently, she gained experience as a Summer Policy Intern at Dream Corps in Oakland, CA, where she produced research briefs on criminal justice reform legislation and developed strategic plans for advancing bi-partisan criminal justice reform in the California legislature.

She has also worked as a Research Assistant at the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke School of Law, where she performed extensive legal research and helped create a survey instrument to collect data from prosecutors regarding their plea-bargaining process.

Additionally, Gabrielle has served as a Youth Advisor at Reimagining Children's Rights at UCLA, where she was chosen as the lead youth expert on juvenile justice, and as a fellow at The Gathering for Justice in Stockton, CA, where she single-handedly crafted a plan for the effective county-level implementation of California Senate Bill 823. Here in the southeast U.S., she served as a Policy Fellow with the Abrams for Governor Campaign (July 2022-November 2022).

Her leadership and campus involvement has been extensive, including her roles as a member and Director of Programming for the Black Women's Union and a member and executive board member of the Black Advocacy and Caucus Committee at Duke. She has also served as an Undergraduate Representative on the Presidential Council on Black Affairs and as a member of the Young Women's Leadership Board at Alliance for Girls in Oakland, CA.

Gaby has presented her research on various national platforms, including as a panelist at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the American Society for Law, Medicine & Ethics 44th Annual Health Law Professors Conference. She has also presented her work on young Black women's perceptions of justice, inequality, and liberation at the Scholarship and Social Justice Undergraduate Research Conference at Harvard University.

She is also skilled in Spanish and has a basic understanding of Portuguese. In her free time, Gabrielle enjoys public speaking, policy memo writing, tutoring student-athletes, and finding the best pastel de nata.

Her story is just beginning. Gaby will attend Harvard Law School to pursue her JD after graduation from Duke.

As Gaby tells it, however, all of these achievements are not the product of a singular woman navigating her career path but rather the culmination of a generational support system that gave her the curiosity and courage to forge a path of public service. She shared some thoughts regarding this momentous occasion at Sanford’s commencement.

I come from a family that is really rooted in thinking about justice and advocating for marginalized communities.

Gaby Battle

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Woman sitting on couch with her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.
Gaby (center left) with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

How did your family influence your life and inform your aspirations?

I come from a family that is really rooted in thinking about justice and advocating for marginalized communities. I was raised by my mother and grandmother, with constant visits to my great-grandmothers. The intergenerational teachings really laid the foundation for me to understand the plight of Black people in America, in addition to helping me think about solutions to the struggles that we face. I learned so much from my family that not only made me feel empowered to be Black but also motivated to continue to advocate for our people. 

You founded the Black Pre-Law Society at Duke?

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Friends stand in front of doorway as they pose for picture.
Gaby credits the Black student community at Duke for her inspiration to create the Black Pre-Law Society.

Only 5% of lawyers in the United States are Black. While there are many reasons for this statistic, one key reason is the law school application process. Unfortunately, due to the daunting nature of law school admissions, Black students find themselves discouraged from applying. I experienced this firsthand. When applying, I often found myself with many questions and few resources to turn to answer them. I was discouraged by top law schools' high median LSAT scores, despite possessing all of the other necessary qualifications. This drastically differed from my college application process. As a senior in high school, I was privileged enough to have access to mentors and older students who could answer any question I had about applying to college. 

I created the Black Pre-Law Society at Duke to build a stronger pipeline to encourage more Black students to seriously consider law school. This society was also created to ensure that students did not feel as though they were alone in their law school application journey.

Toward the beginning of the year, the organization asked students to determine their biggest unanswered questions regarding law school and the legal profession.

Over the course of a year, we have created programming to help address these needs. For example, we have hosted panel events with different Black Law Student Associations across the country, we have hosted LSAT Boot Camps with premier LSAT tutoring companies, and we have had law school application Q&A sessions with admitted students. This society has helped de-mystify the law school application process and increase the number of Black students choosing to apply to law school.

Can you recount some of your formative experiences of growing up with diverse perspectives around you?

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Gabby standing and looking at camera as child.
A picture of Gaby from her childhood. 

Duality and diversity were integral to my childhood. I never saw life, law, history, or culture from a singular lens because of the heterogeneity in the experiences of those I most frequently interacted with. I was forced to understand that laws were not created equitably, and due to luck and privilege, some would reap the benefits of the very same laws that would hurt others.

I watched as my two best friends from high school charted their path toward citizenship at the exact same time. One was a German citizen who was repeatedly told by her immigration lawyers that she would not be granted citizenship her first time applying due to the many years she had spent living and studying in other countries. The other, an Eritrean refugee applying for citizenship for the third time, and denied once again without justification. 

Different life outcomes for those that I was close to in my life was nothing new. As a child in elementary school, I created long-lasting bonds with friends who were first-generation Americans from Greece, Russia, and Egypt. I would cling to the words of their parents, who detailed their lives in another country or their time serving as professors at the University of California Berkeley. I would listen to my close friend’s father discuss his pioneering research in Black thought in France. After, I would spend time in community-based programs and attending church services in West Oakland, to spend time with my cousins who lived there. Throughout the course of my life, I have consistently attempted to find a rationale for explaining how the people I love dearly could have such varying life outcomes.

I see the world the way that I do because I have not been given the luxury to turn a blind eye to those negatively impacted by our intuitions in the United States. For many in Oakland, it would be easy to turn a blind eye to the struggle of others. While it is a socially conscious city, class segregation, gentrification, and the division between public and private schools make it easy to not truly understand the struggles of those within the same community.

However, as someone who has been exposed to individuals from such different walks of life, whether it is my family, my classmates, or my friends, their life experiences illustrated that justice and freedom look starkly different to different people and what they need to achieve freedom and justice in this world is starkly different.

For me, a middle-class Black girl from Oakland, to feel free, I need opportunity, access, and financial freedom to be able to equip myself with the tools necessary to fight for my own freedom. For my friends attempting to receive citizenship, the status of a United States citizen alone is freedom to them. 

After interviewing over 50 Black girls across the United States, I knew that research alone aimed at elevating the experiences of Black girls would not be enough. My research had to be accompanied by action.

Gaby Battle

Can you tell us more about that experience in the Summer of 2020? 

The Just-Us Initiative was born from my independent research conducted in the summer of 2020. Situated in the backdrop of the murder of Breonna Taylor, I authored, Just-Us: Young Black Women’s Perspectives on Justice, Inequality, and Liberation. 

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Gabby in middle posing in front of Duke Chapel with other graduates.
Gaby poses with friends in front of Duke Chapel. 

This project was an attempt to understand the ways that Black girls navigate their complex lives within the United States. In a world where the voices of Black women are continually silenced and ignored, this work sought to amplify the voices and experiences of Black girls. For many, the events of the summer of 2020 revealed the racist and sexist divisions present in our society. However, for Black girls, the injustice surrounding the death of Breonna Taylor and many others illustrated a reality that they were all too familiar with. 

After interviewing over 50 Black girls across the United States, I knew that research alone aimed at elevating the experiences of Black girls would not be enough. My research had to be accompanied by action. It was through Black girls’ articulation of their experiences that I started to understand the common experiences that bind us all together, and I knew that there had to be more spaces available to create community.

I decided to create an online platform with three key prongs to help address the needs that Black girls discussed. The Just-Us Initiative works to help foster community, generate knowledge and resources, and amplify the Black girl experience. The Initiative is a space for all Black girls (cis and trans) to feel seen, heard, celebrated, and understood. Here, we work to create space to showcase the reality of our lived experience but also provide girls with resources that are instrumental for their ability to succeed and thrive. 

I hope that Sanford students continue never to accept the status quo. I hope they continue to push against the things that do not align with their beliefs and fight to create a better future for society as a whole.

Gaby Battle

What sanford professors/advisors impacted you most?

Professor Antepli — He really helped me define my moral compass. I learned how to think through tough moral and ethical questions that are important to tackle when thinking about how to advocate for others. 

Professor Rose — Her class was really transformational in helping me think about how to tangibly create change. Her class gave me the tools to work on major political campaigns like the Abrams for Governor Campaign and Dream.org, where I created a national policy campaign strategy for reforming drug conspiracy laws. She was also my honors thesis advisor and really helped me grow as a thinker and researcher.

Professor Admay — her class and mentorship allowed me to really explore my passion for international human rights (law and policy). She also provided me with phenomenal opportunities (such as allowing me to serve as a research assistant for the deputy chief Justice of South Africa when he was a visiting professor at Duke).

I will also greatly miss Suzanne and Elise in the career center.

All these people really invested in me and helped me grow as a scholar, advocate, and leader.

As you look to address the graduating class this week, what is your biggest hope for this generation of Sanford graduates?

  1. I hope that the Sanford graduates truly find joy in their lives. With the hustle and bustle of life, I hope that students find the joy that motivates and fulfills them.  
  2. I hope that Sanford students continue never to accept the status quo. I hope they continue to push against the things that do not align with their beliefs and fight to create a better future for society as a whole.