August 2010: Kam S. Wong '87
Posted August 1, 2010
Kam S. Wong ’87 is a senior trial attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in New York who has successfully litigated several high-profile cases. Since 2001 she has been representing the public in cases of employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, and disability.
The youngest of 11 children, Wong grew up in Chinatown when her family immigrated to New York City. She learned the importance of language at five years old while on a train with her mother, who was exhausted from working long hours. She was to wake her mother at their stop, but she, too, fell asleep. When they finally exited the train, their language barrier prevented them from being able to ask for directions. It was in this pivotal moment that Wong knew she must learn English. She later recognized the connection between language and law: “I have always been aware that this country is very law-driven. Law is language, and it is key to change and empowerment.”
In eighth grade, Wong applied to the A Better Chance program, was matched with Hotchkiss, and was accepted on a full scholarship. She boarded a Bonanza Bus and arrived the day before classes started in 1983. She had never been away from home before and found Hotchkiss to be a difficult adjustment culturally. As a small day-to-day example, she says, “I rarely ever used the knife and fork before Hotchkiss, having always used chop sticks at home.”
Despite the adjustments, Wong recognized the opportunities available to her at Hotchkiss and embraced them. She pursued her interest in community service by serving as president of the St. Luke’s Society. Upon graduation, she received the Treadway Prize, awarded to that member of the senior class whose industry, courage, leadership, and honorable conduct have done the most for the School. With an increased sense of confidence, Wong entered Harvard-Radcliffe College.
During her Harvard years, Wong continued to excel, was the recipient of the Harvard College Scholarship and Agassiz Award for academic excellence, and was an alternate for the national Harry S. Truman Scholarship for Public Service. Having always been sensitive to issues of the most vulnerable and particularly concerned about the elderly population, she co-founded the Chinatown Elderly Visitation Program. Wong notes, “We wanted to match the vast resources of our student population to the needs in the community.” She was also active in the Women’s Leadership Project, made up of charismatic, visionary women with an eye toward cultivating leadership potential and encouraging contributions to society.
Wong applied to the University of Pennsylvania Law School and was accepted on a full scholarship as one of four Arlin Adams Public Interest Scholars. She was drawn to UPenn because of its uncommon community service requirement. There, she co-founded the Custody and Support Assistance Clinic, which continues to this day and has provided legal assistance to thousands of indigent people in the areas of child custody and support. For this, she received the Alice Paul Award for contribution to the University and community, and the Graduate/Professional Student Award for extraordinary service and commitment.
Prior to her work with EEOC, Wong spent five years as a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society in the Juvenile Rights Division, representing children in the New York Family Court in cases of child neglect/abuse and in proceedings involving parental delinquency or termination of rights. She carried an average of ninety cases, organized by court dates rather than by names to manage the hectic pace of litigation. While emotionally exhausted at times, Wong says, “I was inspired by the children’s resilience and hope even in face of trauma and abuse. As the child’s lawyer, you have to decide when to advocate for the child’s wishes and when to substitute your judgment in pursuit of their best interests; there is a lot of gray in between. There is rarely a simple answer without long-term and rippling consequences.” She cited a case of a child raised for most of his life in a loving foster home, where he considered his foster mother “mom.” He and his “mom” looked forward to the day when they were no longer involved in the legal system, and she was simply his mom in every sense of the word. When that time finally came for his biological parents’ rights to be terminated, his biological father resurfaced from prison and wanted finally to be a responsible father to his son. The choice was no longer clear; the child did not want to lose the father he had finally found. Fortunately, a meaningful compromise was reached: the father relinquished his rights so that the child could be adopted; and the foster mother agreed to regular visits from the father.
While at Legal Aid, Wong saw an increase in Asian families entering the court system due to cultural differences and unfamiliarity with the laws. Accepted practices for some cultures, such as leaving children unattended, can lead unwittingly to trouble with the law. A ten-year-old left home alone because the parents have to work and cannot afford childcare does not necessarily mean that the parents have poor parenting skills or that the child is in danger of being neglected. To enhance awareness in the court concerning such cultural differences, Wong provided training for attorneys, judges, and court staff. She also founded the Parental Rights Project with the Asian American Bar Association of New York as a resource for Asian families.
Wong has been honored several times by the EEOC: as recipient of the Chair’s Opportunity to Reward Excellence Award, for outreach to ethnic communities, for litigation in EEOC v. Morgan Stanley, and for litigation in EEOC v. Plaza Hotel. She was named one of the “Best Lawyers Under 40” by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (2003), and was recognized by the Asian American Bar Association of New York for “Achievement and Distinction as a Litigator” (2006).
Reflecting on her Hotchkiss experience, Wong fondly remembers and is deeply appreciative of the support she received from members of the Hotchkiss community including Tom Trethaway, Ellen Torrey, Charlie Bell, and Charlie and Karin Noyes.