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Remembering IJ Board Member Abby Thernstrom

Abigail Thernstrom served with distinction as an IJ board member from 1995 until her death in April 2020. We could not have asked for a better board member all those years. Abby brought her keen intellect and thoughtful insights to every discussion while always being gracious and devoted to the IJ mission.

Abby joined the IJ board because she shared our steadfast commitment to principle and to achieving a rule of law that would empower all in our nation to live freely and responsibly. When she became a board member, IJ was a much smaller organization than it is today. In order to achieve our potential, we had to take risks and pioneer new approaches to public interest law. The board of directors had to confidently commit to long-term strategies that were, at that point, untested and that often had scant margin for error. Like the rest of IJ’s board, Abby enthusiastically embraced this challenge, never wavering, always ready to offer advice and questions that helped us navigate uncharted waters. IJ is a stronger organization today because of her long-running contributions.

Abby was a scholar who devoted herself to racial equality, even when that meant challenging prevailing orthodoxy. She came out of the political left but eventually could not ignore the shortcomings of traditional civil rights policies. She began to ask hard questions and marshal massive amounts of data. Then she fearlessly put forth her conclusions. Abby and her husband, scholar Stephan Thernstrom, published the provocative and important America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible in 1997. Their book’s data demonstrated both the progress made by African Americans and the need to build on that progress. But they rejected the notion of business as usual. Still passionately committed to racial equality, the Thernstroms concluded that affirmative action was ultimately failing its intended beneficiaries. They argued for colorblind policies and quality education for black youth. They saw educational choice as a vital means of closing the education gap. Among other distinctions, Abby also served on the Massachusetts state board of education and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

We treasured Abby as a board member, and I deeply valued her friendship. She will be missed.

Chip Mellor is IJ’s founding president and general counsel and chairman of IJ’s board of directors.

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