From Social Work major from the Bronx to an attorney for New York State.
Coming from the South Bronx, where she exasperated the teachers at her Catholic high school with her incessant questioning, Norma Melendez was clear about what she wanted out of Adelphi University. “I wanted to learn,” she says. “I was like a sponge.”
While she was at Adelphi to expand her horizons, La Union Latina and friends like Carmen Ortiz, Lynda Perdomo-Ayala and Miriam Gonzalez ’76 made college a more comfortable place to be. “It wasn’t as if we only hung out with each other, but the fact that we all were stepping out of our familiar surroundings contributed to a bond,” she says.
Melendez also found a way to bring a little home with her. She started a choir at Adelphi called El Coro Caribe that performed traditional Puerto Rican songs. Her father, a musician, would drive from the Bronx to Garden City with his guitar to teach them the music. Her Latina friends responded to her call for choir members, and El Coro Caribe had non-Latino/a participants, too.
At Adelphi, Melendez majored in social work but decided to go to law school. “I wanted to help disenfranchised people who didn’t have the wherewithal to help themselves,” she says. “I knew that social work could help people individually, but I wanted to have more of a macro impact.” Her time as a social work student wasn’t wasted, however. “Much of what you do in the legal field is listening, and listening for what is not being said, which is what you get trained in as a social worker,” she notes.
Melendez graduated from Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, New Jersey, in 1982 and became an assistant district attorney for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Based in its consumer protection bureau, she prosecuted people who preyed on the poor, such as goons hired by landlords to terrorize tenants out of their apartments. Robert Johnson, the first African American district attorney in the state of New York, then hired her to develop the community affairs initiative at the Bronx D.A.’s office. After some years in private practice, Ms. Melendez became a program director and staff attorney for Legal Services of Northwest Jersey, which represents low-income people who can’t afford attorneys in housing, bankruptcy and consumer cases. “There is so much pain, and we were just scratching the surface,” Ms. Melendez says. “I had to learn how to balance empathy and compassion with a certain distance so I could be effective. But the assistance we gave people turned their lives around.”
These days, she’s a principal court attorney for New York State, working for its Appellate Division First Department Departmental Disciplinary Committee, which investigates and prosecutes charges of unethical conduct committed by attorneys in the Bronx and Manhattan.
Ms. Melendez still keeps in touch with her college friends. Her explanation for why they continue to be in each others’ lives, even though they’ve pursued different paths and live in different cities, is: “We’ve gone through so many years since we graduated from Adelphi, yet when we talk to one another, that core person is still there, and we can still connect,” she says.
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