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Smith Medalist Cheryl Brown Wattley: ‘The Conviction of Possibility’

Alumnae News

Criminal justice advocate Cheryl Brown Wattley ’75 will receive the Smith Medal on Rally Day, Feb. 22.


Published February 20, 2024

For more than 50 years, Cheryl Brown Wattley ’75 has been a leader in the fight for civil rights, and criminal justice and equity in legal education.

Wattley is a founding faculty member of the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law, where she teaches criminal law and serves as director of experiential education. She is one of four remarkable alums who will be awarded the 2024 Smith College Medal at Rally Day on Thursday, Feb. 22, in John M. Greene Hall beginning at 1:30 p.m. EST. The event will be livestreamed on Smith College’s Facebook page. Members of the Smith community are also encouraged to participate in this year’s financial aid fundraising challenge. Specifically, throughout the month of February the board of trustees is matching dollar for dollar all gifts up to $500,000.

Wattley began her legal career as an assistant United States attorney in the District of Connecticut, where she participated in litigation that led to a sweeping overhaul of the system for serving people with mental disabilities in the state. Transferring to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas, she served as chief of the economic crime unit, prosecuting white-collar crimes. Later, in addition to starting her own private practice, Wattley worked to secure the exoneration of four wrongfully convicted and incarcerated individuals. She joined the inaugural faculty at the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law and created the college’s first Community Engagement Program, which connects UNT Dallas law students with volunteer opportunities in the community. A prolific writer, she is the prize-winning author of A Step Toward Brown v. Board of Education: Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher and Her Fight to End Segregation, published in 2014. Throughout her long career, Wattley has received numerous awards, including the 2021 Outstanding Trial Lawyer Award from the Dallas Bar Association, the 1994 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award, the President’s Award from the Dallas chapter of the NAACP, as well as numerous commendations from the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Here, Wattley shares her thoughts on lessons she learned at Smith, important issues she hopes the college community will take up, and her reactions to receiving the Smith Medal.

What is your proudest accomplishment?
“I am most proud of my children. It is amazing to see the growth, development, and evolution of children into their own identities and personalities. Professionally, I have been very blessed to have worked for the freedom of four individuals who were wrongfully incarcerated. But it is my role as a founding faculty member of UNT Dallas College of Law, a public law school committed to expanding the opportunity to study law to traditionally underrepresented populations and provide services to under-resourced communities, that has been most rewarding. In August, we will celebrate our 10th anniversary, graduating hundreds of students who would not have otherwise had the opportunity to realize their dream of becoming a lawyer.”

What Smith lesson continues to impact your life today? 
“Although I’m not certain that I fully appreciated it at the time, it is the conviction of possibility, the awareness that we have within us the ability to determine the best avenue for the use of our talents, skills, and training to make an impact on this world. Those avenues may well change over the course of our lives or there may be multiple avenues, but those avenues are possible, if we choose to explore them.” 

What advice do you have for seniors graduating this year? 
“Be kind to yourself. Life is a journey. We learn new things every day. Take time to discover and confirm your passion. We make mistakes; not every decision may be our best. Be as understanding and patient with yourself as you would be with your best friend. Be reflective about what you do—not to achieve an impossible goal of perfection—but to allow yourself to gain insight that you can build upon. The world needs your passion and energy. On a practical level, stay connected with Smith. Find your local Smith club. The fellowship of women who attended this college will always be a source of encouragement, support, and inspiration. Allow it to be a part of your life.” 

What does being honored with the Smith Medal mean to you?  
“It is extremely humbling. I am a lawyer. I try to help people the best that I can. That this work would be deemed worthy of recognition by my undergraduate institution, which provided the foundation for my career and life, still amazes me.”

Rally Day is a celebration of the many ways Smithies have changed the world. What do you see as major issues today that you would like to see Smithies tackle? 
“First, we cannot escape the seriousness of climate change. There is space for everyone to support efforts to address climate change; it need not be your professional focus. But we do not have the luxury of sitting on the sideline and saying ‘someone else’ will do it. Change is required of all of us. Second, there is such anger and division in this nation and the world. In this country, we need to restore the mechanisms of governance and the commitment to work together in compromise and agreement. The rhetoric, the escalating volatility, the sanctioning of violence all threaten our democratic republic. We cannot be effective in trying to address global conflict if we cannot reduce the divide in our country.”

In conjunction with Rally Day, the Smith board of trustees is planning to collectively donate $500,000 in support of student scholarships. Why is it critical to support Smith philanthropically? 
“There are so many wonderful things going on at Smith. Every dollar that is contributed is another dollar that can be spent on existing activities or developing new ones. We know the benefits of the Smith experience. We learned and grew during our time at Smith. It is the foundation upon which lives, families, and careers are built. Supporting Smith to provide those same opportunities to young women is a privilege.”