First Black male president of Fordham University’s Student Bar Association wants to help improve working conditions
Roosevelt Ettienne says his mother was the inspiration for a career in employment and labor law
The first Black male president of the Student Bar Association at Fordham University’s School of Law learned an important lesson from his mother early in life.
“Do what it takes to succeed,” Roosevelt Ettienne tells theGrio. “I’ve grown up with a single mother. She worked. And at a young age, I understood that sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to make ends meet. And I always have that instilled in me.”
After Ettienne’s mother immigrated from Haiti, he was the first member of his family born in the United States. He became interested in law after observing how employers sometimes treated workers, including his mother.
He grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and remembers hearing stories of workers lamenting unfair treatment at the hands of their bosses, “especially at the local supermarket or corner store, where people were working 80-hour shifts and not getting paid overtime.”
As a youngster, Ettienne recalls going to a neighborhood store to get candy. When a vending machine didn’t work, he told the clerk, who lashed out at him. When he asked her why she got so angry, he remembers her saying, “I’ve been on my feet for 10 hours straight with no break, and they don’t pay me enough for this.”
He also remembers an employer who was disrespectful to his mother, making rude remarks about her English (Haitian Creole is her first language) and becoming upset when she was a few minutes late to work.
Ettienne’s mother’s strong work ethic ultimately led her to become a nurse. He followed her lead, working full-time as a supervisor at a Starbucks near midtown Manhattan to pay his way through undergraduate school at John Jay College.
Open and personable, Ettienne has a big smile and an even bigger personality. Those traits helped him strike up conversations with lawyers who came in for coffee. During one of those conversations, he learned about the specialty of employment law and decided that would be his career choice.
“That’s where I fell in love with the idea of going to law school to advocate for minorities who got taken advantage of, cause their employers know they need this job to take care of their family, many of them being single parents,” Ettienne says.
He enrolled in Fordham and became involved with the Student Bar Association. The group serves as the university’s governance system advocating for all student groups. In his first year, Ettienne served as a liaison between students and the president. The following year, his colleagues elected him secretary. In 2021, he became president.
Ettienne is the first SBA president since students returned to campus following a COVID-mandated hiatus. He’s especially proud of bringing the Fordham community back together and also proud of his open-door policy which encourages students to bring concerns directly to him.
Kimathi Gordon-Somers, the assistant dean of Student Affairs & Diversity at Fordham worked closely with Ettienne on several issues. “Roosevelt is the type of leader the students needed in that he heard their concerns and knew their needs, and through his diplomatic approach, he was able to ensure that our community succeeded,” he said in a statement to theGrio.
On May 23, Ettienne graduated and accepted a job in the New York City Law Department’s Labor and Employment Division. He’ll work on the defense side, representing agencies like the Department of Education, the New York Police Department, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
It isn’t the start he envisioned, but he sees it as an opportunity to effect change by working with those departments to improve their labor practices.
Whatever Ettienne’s future holds, he’ll never forget the lessons he learned as a youngster.
“By any means necessary. Stay up late. Go to sleep late. Wake up early. Doesn’t matter. Get it done. And I think I have that drive.”
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