Carolyn Golden Hebsgaard ’65 leads two consortiums that work to recruit and retain lawyers of color.
Carolyn Golden Hebsgaard spent a good part of her childhood being among the first children to integrate into the white public schools of New Castle County in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.
These days, the 1965 graduate of then-Delaware State College is a driving force in the efforts to bring more diversity to the legal communities in Boston, Mass., and the state of Connecticut.
Hebsgaard has been the 22-year executive director of the Boston Lawyers Group (BLG), a consortium of more than 40 law firms and legal agencies that work to recruit and retain lawyers of color in that legal community.
Her success in leading the BLG has resulted in a similar consortium she now leads in Connecticut with the same goals — the Lawyers’ Collaboration for Diversity (LCD).
And many people assume she is an attorney.
She is not.
“That is because I am around attorneys all the time, I know the language and I function like one,” she said. “People see me at a lot of legal events.”
Although Boston is remembered for violent racial strife over busing in the 1970s, that outdated picture is rendered even more obsolete by the diversity efforts of the city’s legal community over the last two decades — led largely by Hebsgaard.
“There is a better understanding in the legal communities in Boston and Connecticut that diversity is no longer just a part of the social agenda, but that it is a business imperative,” Hebsgaard said.
Education and career path
As a youth, Carolyn Golden (her maiden name) became a part of the education imperative to respond to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. It resulted in a change of schools for her; she enrolled in previously all-white elementary and junior high schools, as well as the formerly segregated P.S. DuPont High School.
“It seemed like I desegregated everything, including the YWCA and the Girl Scouts,” she said.
However, when she tried out for the P.S. DuPont cheerleading team and seemingly made the squad, the school’s dean raised safety concerns and would not permit her on the team. “I went berserk. I walked out and slammed her door hard so that all of the glass fell out,” Hebsgaard said.
Nevertheless, she did well academically at P.S. DuPont, resulting in a full scholarship to the University of Rhode Island. But she told her mother that she no longer wanted to be a minority student in a predominantly white school.
Instead, Hebsgaard enrolled at Delaware State College, where she majored in sociology, joined the cheerleading team, sang in the college choir and pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
She said her most memorable professors were Dr. Maurice Thomasson and his wife Laverne Thomasson, who both taught sociology.
“You never saw one without the other. If her class ended, he would be outside waiting on her,” she said. “Every time you saw them walking together they were holding hands. He was the ultimate gentlemen.”
Hebsgaard said that Dr. Thomasson taught her a lot about being a professional.
“He didn’t accept mediocrity; you needed to be prepared,” she said. “I carry that to this day.”
After what she called one of the “best four years of her life,” Hebsgaard graduated from DSC with a Bachelor of Science in Sociology. From that point on, she traveled a career path in which she not so much sought jobs, but was sought and recruited for a variety of important positions.
Among her career stops: director of programs for the New Jersey Commissioner of Institutions and Agencies; deputy director of the New Brunswick (N.J.) Urban League; director of organizational development for Opportunities in Industrialization Center of America; as well as human resources director for Marriott. Along the way, she earned a Master of Social Work from Temple University.
In the 1980s, she relocated to the Boston area and worked under Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as the director of his Executive Search Program and later as the internal organization director for his presidential campaign.
Afterward, she was the executive director of Opportunities in Boston, an organization designed to attract young professionals of color to that city. She said the collaborative consortium model she used would become very important with her later work with the legal community.
She was then recruited by Cellular One to become its vice president of customer service, and then within a couple of years, she established her own consulting firm — Vision 21 Inc.
“A lot of people I had worked with and had great relationships with offered me work,” she said.
In 1993, while she served as the founding president of the Boston Chapter of the Coalition of 100 Black Women, she was recruited for the Boston Lawyer Group executive director post.
“I said that I would do it for one year,” Hebsgaard said. “And now I am still here.”
Now in her 22nd year with BLG, she says the ability to be her own boss has kept her in that position.
“It satisfies my ability to run my own organization and do it like I want,” Hebsgaard said. “I don’t have 19 layers of people I have to report to. The law firms are happy with my work.”
BLG runs programs that introduce law students of color to the Boston legal community such as summer law firm internships and mock trial programs, as well as resources to promote the retention of attorneys of color once they are hired. The BLG is also constantly in the education mode to ensure the entire legal community — including the bar, the bench and government agencies — understand the importance of diversity.
Her success with the BLG prompted attorneys in neighboring Connecticut to persuade her to establish a similar consortium there. Since 2003, she has split herself among two executive director pursuits — three days a week with the BLG and two days a week with the LCD.
Joe Rose Jr., a longtime African-American attorney who broke the law practice color line in Connecticut, said that Hebsgaard’s work has shown results.
“There have been hundreds of lawyers of color who have joined the Connecticut Bar Association and the number of black partners has grown many fold,” Rose said. “Whereas she works with law firms in Boston, the LCD in Connecticut is statewide.”
Her niche in increasing the diversity in legal communities of Boston and Connecticut is such a fulfilling fit for her, it is unknown when she will retire.
“The thing that keeps me engaged is that feeling that I can make a difference… and that people trust my judgment,” Hebsgaard said. “Also I see young people regularly that benefit from our work.”
With Class of 1965 classmates, a commitment to give back
With all of the career moves, successes and awards, along with the numerous boards on which she has provided valuable service, Carolyn Golden Hebsgaard has never forgotten her alma mater in Delaware. She is part of a group of members of the Class of 1965 who have committed as a group to raise $100,000 within five years.
Her classmates who are involved in this initiative — including Jimmy and Tina Strong, Maurice Pritchett, as well as the late Don Wright and Wilbert “Big D” Johnson, who helped to launch the fundraiser before their deaths — continue to hold a warm spot in her heart.
“We had to depend on each other. We all struggled together and we all committed to not forgetting where we came from, and we also committed to not being poor again,” she said. “That particular core group, it was a real rare breed.”
She said she continues to support DSU because it was instrumental in making her the successful professional she became.
“(Without DSC) I really don’t think I would have had the same sense of self, the same commitment to developing others and sharing whatever gifts I have with others, because that happened for me at Del State,” she said. “And then you see others that were there and received the same benefits that we did, and they don’t give a thing. And I don’t understand that.”
-- Story and photos by Carlos Holmes