Dorothy Roberts: Bringing Different Perspectives into Class
When Dorothy Roberts was 3 months old, she moved with her parents from Chicago to Liberia, where her mother, Iris, had worked as a young woman after leaving Jamaica.
It was the first of Dorothy’s many trips abroad, and one during which her father, Robert, took a bunch of photographs and filmed home movies with his 16-millimeter camera. The Roberts family moved back to Chicago when Dorothy was 2, and she can recall weekly screenings of the 16-milimeter reels from Liberia in the living room.
“I had a very strong interest in learning about other parts of the world from when I was very little,” says Roberts, the 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor. “My whole childhood revolved around learning about other parts of the world and engaging with people from around the world.”
Robert was an anthropologist and Iris was working on her Ph.D. in anthropology when Dorothy was born. They raised their daughters as citizens of the world in a home filled with a wealth of books and ethnographies about different cultures, places, and people. The Roberts home stayed connected with the international community, hosting foreign-exchange students and living overseas.
Five-year-old Dorothy had already decided she was going to be an anthropologist—as her parents expected—and would sneak into her father’s office and spend hours reading his books. The family spent two years in Egypt when she was a teenager, reinforcing her status as a global citizen.
Twenty-one-year-old Dorothy, after finishing her undergraduate studies at Yale, including a year in South America, decided she wanted to be a lawyer, and enrolled at Harvard Law School.
“I got a law degree and went into legal practice because I thought that was the best tool for doing social justice work,” says Roberts, who has joint appointments in the Departments of Africana Studies and Sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences and Penn Law School. Her work focuses on gender, bioethics, health, and social justice issues, specifically those that affect the lives of children, women, and African Americans.
Roberts began her legal career with one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, Judge Constance Baker Motley, for whom she clerked in the early 1980s. After practicing law in the private sector, she started her teaching career in 1988 at Rutgers University School of Law-Newark, an institution known for its history of social justice advocacy. She was a professor at Northwestern School of Law before joining Penn in 2012.