Judge Shauna Graves-Robertson on sisterhood, service, and Alpha Kappa Alpha 

Story and infographics by STEPHANIE ROSILES 

“I serve my fellow men and women throughout my life,” Shauna Graves-Robertson said. She is the president of the Upsilon Beta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha at the University of Utah, which focuses on sisterly relations and has an established and respected presence in the Salt Lake community. AKA, the sorority that Graves-Robertson pledged at Arizona State University, is the first intercollegiate historically African American Greek-lettered organization. “Regardless of race, creed, color, I am committed to serve as long as I can. As long as I am able. That is my primary commitment as being a part of this organization.” 

The Salt Lake chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha consults with organizations such as the NAACP, local churches, the U, Salt Lake Community College, Utah State University, YWCA Utah, Utah Black Chamber of Commerce, Zions Bank, Fidelity Investments, KWANZAA committee, and public and private schools. 

Graves-Robertson is a graduate of West High School in Salt Lake City. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice from Arizona State University as well as a Master’s in Public Administration and a Juris Doctor from the University of Utah. She was appointed to the Salt Lake County Justice Court in 1999. She is a life member of Alpha Kappa Alpha and the NAACP. Additionally, she chairs the Utah Supreme Court’s community relations subcommittee and is a member of the National Bar Association, National Association of Women Judges, Women Lawyers of Utah, and the Utah Minority Bar Association. 

According to the Alpha Kappa Alpha website, the organization was created in response to the desire to break barriers for African American women in areas where they had little power or authority due to a lack of opportunities as women in the early 20th century. It was founded on Jan. 15, 1908, at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Today, the organization has a membership of more than 300,000 women in 1,204 chapters across the world, as it has gone global. 

In a phone interview, Graves-Robertson said, “Alpha Kappa Alpha was founded by African American women. To be the first, there is always a draw there. That group of women were just one generation out of slavery. To have the fortitude to want to come together, to serve the communities that they had come from was what it was all about.” 

Alpha Kappa Alpha, she said, made a significant difference in her life and career. “I chose Alpha Kappa Alpha because of the quality of women,” she said. “This sorority gave me a sisterhood. In the raising of my children, I had other women to lean on. They supported my children. I knew educators in schools. We have women in different fields, and we have mentorships. All of those areas have supported me throughout my career in Utah and throughout the United States.” 

According to the Alpha Kappa Alpha website, the sisterhood is based on five basic tenets: to cultivate and encourage high scholastic and ethical standards, to promote unity and friendship among college women, to study and help alleviate problems concerning girls and women in order to improve their social stature, to maintain a progressive interest in college life, and to be of “Service to All Mankind.” 

According to the website, the sorority participates in service that has been instrumental in establishing programs beneficial to the African American community. Most notably, the sorority participated in the 1913 Women’s Suffrage March, assisted the Travelers Aid Society during the Great Migration, has joined the American Council of Human Rights, and started the Alpha Kappa Alpha Educational Advancement Foundation that promotes lifelong learning. 

During her time in college and now as the president of the Salt Lake City chapter, Graves-Robertson reflected on the service initiatives that she has been a part of. She said, “During college, we had a member of the graduate chapter who was a vice principal at an elementary school, and so we’d go to the school and read with the students. I really liked that.” 

Alpha Kappa Alpha also rises to its tenet of lifelong friendships. Graves-Robertson said, “The difference is in a majority of sororities and fraternities, you join in college and after college, that’s it. A Divine Nine is a lifetime commitment.” Divine Nine, or the National Pan-Hellenic Council, refers to the organization composed of nine historically African American Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities.

Graves-Robertson attributed the current success of the sorority to the current international president, who has chosen to move the focus to five particular target areas: HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) for Life, women’s health, economic well being, the arts, and global awareness. Projects include collecting items for women and children experiencing homelessness, offering seminars on finances and participating in musical programs. The group also holds seminars for high school students on applying for college, including teaching them how to get letters of recommendation and even how to fill out the FAFSA form. 

During 2019 and 2020, she was the chairwoman of the judicial council of the National Bar Association. The group had planned the mid-winter meeting for January 2020 in South Africa. Her daughter —also an Alpha Kappa Alpha— had made contact with the chapter in South Africa. The members came to the reception and presented Graves-Robertson and her daughter with special pins that represented their chapter and region. Additionally, they also had a briefing by the State Department and the young woman that presented the briefing was also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha. 

The Salt Lake City chapter is currently for students at the graduate level, but interest in pursuing an undergraduate chapter is up in the air. “We have tried to start an undergraduate chapter,” Graves-Robertson said. “We need a certain number of girls. We’ve been working on campus and looking to see how they (the university) can help establish the chapter. The university has been willing to be a partner.” 

Sophia Gener, one member of a sorority at the University of Utah, said in a phone interview, “I think the university would very much benefit from more chapters that are focused on diverse identities. I also think we need to do better for the chapters we do have that are centered around diversity. We need to make sure they’re known about.”

Another sorority woman — Samantha Motta — said in an email interview, “At the moment, I feel that it might be more challenging for more Greek chapters that focus on diversity to be recognized. I’ve noticed that the recruitment numbers and inclusion of other chapters are hardly remembered and oftentimes forgotten. Since Utah is a predominately white campus, it’s hard to work on trying to appeal to both white and BIPOC communities when it comes to more than just Greek life; and although I feel as if it is an excellent idea to incorporate new chapters surrounding diversity, I fear that it will be an uphill battle for them to gain recognition. I have observed that Greek spaces [on campus] are putting in the work to retain and recruit people of different backgrounds and I think it is a great start.” 

Graves-Robertson said of the impact that Alpha Kappa Alpha has had on her life, “Wherever you are, you can locate someone that can help you navigate where you are or what you are trying to do.”