Skip to Content

Joseph F. Rice School of Law

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with Sonia Butler Canzater ’15

Where are you from?

I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. I am currently in Washington, DC.

What is your heritage?

My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Panama.

Do you feel it’s important to celebrate your heritage?

It is very important to me to celebrate my heritage. I come from a rich and diverse heritage of people who worked hard to literally change the shape of a nation. Most of my family were Afro-Antillano: African-descended immigrants from the Caribbean who moved to Panama to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. They faced racism and economic hardships but endured and thrived. I owe it to them to create a proud legacy for their sacrifices.

Are there any Latine lawyers you look up to?

My godsister, The Hon. Jacqueline D. Williams is a role model to me. She is also Afro-Antillano Panamanian, our fathers were best friends, we grew up in the same neighborhood, and I watched her graduate from the Ivy League and become a judge in the New York City Civil Court.

Another Afro-Antillano Panamanian lawyer I admire is my friend Yasmin Blackburn, an immigration attorney and Senior Associate at Kidambi & Associates in Trumbull, CT. We have known each other since high school, and she was integral in providing support, advice, and for maintaining my sanity throughout my law school application and academic journeys. She continues to be an inspiration to me as she works as a champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession as a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's National D.E.I. Committee.

When did you first realize you wanted to attend law school?

Prior to attending law school, I worked for several years at the SC Dept. of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC) providing health care and social services information to expectant and new parents. I grew increasingly frustrated watching the effects of continued systemic neglect and under-resourcing of the state's public health needs. It seemed that every year I had to tell more and more people that they'd be losing health or social services for themselves or their children due to a lack of political will to advance and support public health priorities, despite SC having some of the worst health outcomes data in the nation.

The 2010 passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was such an important moment for me, as I finally saw the country taking significant steps in addressing the stark health access disparities I faced every day at work. I knew that I wanted to learn the law and be part of this continued movement to make meaningful policy changes to promote health equity in the U.S.

How would you describe your experience at South Carolina Law?

I cherish my experience at South Carolina Law. I had the honor of working with brilliant, motivating professors, and made many friends for life amongst my classmates. In the beginning I was discouraged by the lack of diversity, especially Latine diversity at the school, but those of us who were there banded together to support one another.

What do you consider your greatest professional accomplishments since graduating law school?

I am grateful to be working in the space I aspired to in law school; in Washington, DC drafting health policy recommendations to promote equity and eliminate disparities. But perhaps my proudest accomplishment to date is that I introduced, developed the curriculum for, and am currently teaching the Health Equity and Social Justice course at Georgetown University Law Center. It is one of few such courses dedicated to teaching future lawyers about the social, legal, and economic systems in the United States that have precipitated health inequities for different populations throughout history currently being offered at any law school. I am encouraged by the passion and commitment to be change agents that arises from my students. I look forward to seeing the work they will do to advance health equity, both nationally and globally.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.