Mary Yu ’79 spent her childhood trying to be invisible and credits Rosary College with helping her discover her identity and find her voice. And today, as a Supreme Court justice for the State of Washington, she is far from invisible. “All that I am, and all that I will ever be is because of my experience at Dominican,” she told her classmates and others in a talk delivered during Alumnae/i Weekend in early June. 

Mary grew up in Bridgeport on Chicago’s south side. Her father was Chinese and her mother was Mexican, and both came to this country without legal documentation. They hoped that Mary would someday find a job as a secretary in an office so she could avoid having to work as hard as they did or have dirty or calloused hands. Her mother had worked as a farmworker, and her father had worked all his life in a factory. There were no professional role models in her neighborhood and youth didn’t grow up with dreams beyond living day-to-day. 

Throughout school, she sat at the back of the classroom because, she explained, in those days children sat alphabetically or by size and she was always one of the smallest students in class. At St. Mary of Perpetual Help—a high school selected by her parents because of its safety, not necessarily its academic reputation—she wasn’t a stellar student. Like many kids, she was testing the rules and questioning the ability of others to enforce them. 

But she had a teacher who saw something in her. Joan Finnegan, a Rosary College alumna, asked her what she wanted to be in life and encouraged her to consider college. She brought Mary to campus and convinced her parents that it was okay for a girl to go to college. Ms. Finnegan saved her life when so many of her peers were lost to bad choices.

Initially, she struggled at Rosary, which, although it was only 30 miles from Bridgeport, seemed more like 500 miles away. But she joined a Latin American student group, which helped support her identity and provided a safe place for questioning who she was. And the Dominican Sisters created a culture that helped bridge the divides between race and economics. 

Mary became a religious studies major because of a desire to do good, which she associated with religion. The Sisters were role models and helped her realize the importance of being a values-based person, which helped foster her commitment to social justice. 

“The Sisters were revolutionary women way before their time in educating and empowering women. Sisters Candida Lund and Kay Ashe and so many others sacrificed so much to advance the role of women,” she said.

After graduation, she applied for a job with the Archdiocese of Chicago—at a time when the Catholic Church was at its peak in the work for social justice. Liberation theology was exploding throughout Latin America and the Church was promoting the inherent dignity of the human person and the right to participation. The Archdiocese launched an Office of Peace and Justice and the priest setting up the office hired her as his secretary—a position that, at the time, was the pinnacle of her career aspirations. 

Representing the archdiocese, she visited workers’ houses, food lines, and religious communities at the edge of radical change. She raised money from parishes for the Campaign for Human Development. And, after five years, she was promoted to a “legitimate” staff person, encouraged by the priest to get up, go to the podium and talk publicly about what it meant to be a person of faith. This wasn’t easy for someone who once wanted to be invisible but she excelled enough that Cardinal Bernardin eventually appointed her director of the office. 

After 10 years of community organizing on the south side, trying to convince people to do the right thing, Mary decided to attend law school. “I wanted additional tools for advancing the work of social justice—to force people to do the right thing, even if their hearts weren’t in it,” she said. 

After law school, she decided to become a prosecutor which, to many people, seemed like a disconnect with her background in social justice. But she fell in love with trial practice and the courtroom. “There is no better trial lawyer than a preacher. I wanted the opportunity to get up, address a jury and persuade them of my position.” 

Mary was appointed eventually as a trial judge by Governor Gary Locke, the first Chinese American governor in the country, because he wanted to diversify the bench in the State of Washington so that it would better reflect the communities served by the court. She served as a trial judge for 14 years and was encouraged to seek appointment for a position on the Washington Supreme Court by a colleague who reminded her that she could serve as a role model for others like her. She was reticent, knowing that a subsequent statewide election would be tough, given that Washington is primarily rural and not particularly diverse. 

“I wondered if people would vote for someone like me—an Asian, Latina, openly gay woman. But I realized that if I didn’t say yes, how was I going to encourage young people of color to step forward every time an opportunity presents itself? I knew that if I turned down the opportunity, I would be my worst enemy,” she said. 

As a member of the State Supreme Court, she now has a unique platform for inspiring young people like her. She has volunteered as a judge for the Seattle Girls’ School Mock Trials for 15 years. She has happily joined the State Law Library’s Read Campaign, an effort focused on enhancing child literacy. She even has a bookmark with her photo.

“Who would have ever thought that a kid like me would someday be a Supreme Court Justice, let alone have a bookmark with her image!” she laughs.