Pomona announces historian and human rights lawyer as commencement speakers

An African American man with glasses in front of a red backdrop
Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, will speak at Pomona’s 2020 Commencement. (Courtesy: Wikimedia user Stemoc)

Historian and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. and human rights lawyer Martina Vandenberg PO ’90 will deliver commencement speeches to Pomona College’s class of 2020, the school announced Wednesday.

Gates, a Harvard professor and director of the university’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, is best known for his PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” which explores U.S. history by uncovering celebrities’ genealogies and ancestral lineages.

“I am trying to deconstruct notions of racial purity,” he said of “Finding Your Roots” in a Feb. 3 interview with The New York Times Magazine. “There is no racial purity. We are all diverse. Showing diversity is important to me politically, and insofar as we can achieve that, our series has an educational value for the larger country.”

Gates has produced numerous books and documentaries on African American history, including the six-part documentary series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” which won an Emmy Award in 2013 for Outstanding Historical Program — Long Form

He has worked to bring African American studies into the mainstream in a career that took him to Yale University, Cornell University and Duke University before he arrived at Harvard, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Pomona will add to Gates’ list of 55 honorary degrees, according to his PBS biography. He’s also a 1981 MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, a 1998 recipient of the National Humanities Medal and has a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, unveiled in 2011, the biography said.

A woman wearing a blazer and large earrings smiles at someone not pictured to the left of the image.
Founder and president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center Martina Vandenberg PO ’90 will return to Pomona to address the class of 2020. (Courtesy: Flickr user T’ruah)

Vandenberg is the founder and president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, which supports trafficking victims with pro bono legal representation, according to its website.

Her two decades of human rights advocacy have led her to testify before U.S. House and Senate subcommittees numerous times. Her tenure as a Human Rights Watch researcher took her to Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Uzbekistan, Kosovo, Israel and Ukraine, according to her HT Legal biography

“Synthesizing and analyzing the stories told by women and girls, Vandenburg sought to take victims’ voices directly into the policy arena,” Theresa Loar and Laura Ardito wrote of Vandenburg’s time at Human Rights Watch in the book “Gender and Women’s Leadership: A Reference Handbook.”

Vandenberg received an award from the Freedom Network USA in 2012, the year she founded HT Legal, for her “outstanding leadership and dedication in working to combat human trafficking and slavery in the United States,” according to the biography. 

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Vandenberg told TSL she was “overjoyed, and a bit overwhelmed,” when Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr sent her an invitation to speak.

“In fact, I cried,” she said via email. “This is a tremendous — and completely unexpected — honor.”

After earning a Truman Scholarship in 1988, the international relations major became in 1989 the 11th graduate in Pomona’s history to earn a Rhodes Scholarship, according to Pomona’s Flickr page.

“Pomona taught me the power of rigor; the power of research; the power of empathy; and the power of the written word,” she said. “When I investigated rape as a war crime in Kosovo for Human Rights Watch, I drew on my Pomona education to document, write and advocate. That reporting led, in part, to the indictment of [former Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic for rape as a war crime.”

Oliver Dubon PO ’20 expressed excitement about the prospect of hearing from Gates and Vandenberg.

“[I] was impressed that Pomona chose people doing such amazing work to be the speakers,” he said via message. “Having these speakers is a pretty sick flex.”

Although Vandenberg said she is “still noodling” her message to the class of 2020, one theme seemed immediately clear.

“Pomona taught me an important lesson,” she said. “Never give up.”

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