This April, we’re celebrating the rich history, culture, and contributions of Arab Americans nationwide. In honor of Arab American Heritage Month, we hear from Los Angeles partner Rudy Salo about his career, his Arab American heritage, and his efforts to increase representation in the law.
Where did you grow up? If you live and work somewhere different now, what drew you there?
I was born in downtown Los Angeles in May 1977, but a month later my family moved to north Orange County, on the border of LA County. My childhood was spent straddled in between Buena Park, La Mirada, and Fullerton, with time spent playing at Huntington Beach.
How long have you been at NP? What has most surprised you about the path of your career?
I have been at NP for 16 years this June. What has surprised me the most is that I’ve been able to combine so many of my passions into the career I am lucky enough to have today. My passion for transportation and rethinking of our dependence on the car comes from my grandmother, who came here in the 1970s. She didn't speak English. She learned English from watching The Price Is Right and The Young and the Restless. Where my grandmother came from, most women didn't drive a car just because they actually lived in a town where you didn't actually need a car. There was a church. There was your little village. There was your town. All your family lived in the same apartment building. It's pretty easy to live your life. In the U.S., she learned how to travel by bus. So, I grew up on the bus. My grandmother basically took us around everywhere, on her own two feet and on a bus, and that stayed with me for my entire life. I write often for Forbes about how we need to think beyond the personal vehicle, and that perspective comes from my grandmother.
Tell us a bit about your heritage. Where is your family from originally? What does your Arab American heritage mean to you?
My parents came here from Jordan in the 1960s and ‘70s, but I have roots in other countries too.
I grew up during the 1980s. Growing up as an Arab American in the 1980s was tough. There is no need to repeat the specifics of the difficulties. Trust me, it was often terrible. And then the First Gulf War happened in the very early 1990s, which made the 1990s tough too. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to terms with the overly negative connotations of where my family is from, and how what happens there impacts what I experience here. I can also say I’ve become proud of my Arab American heritage. No matter how bad the news is, I focus on the positives—not just the delicious/now-trendy food and historical contributions to math, science and music, but Arab culture’s emphasis on family, respect for elders, and fierce generosity.
Something else that helped me embrace my heritage was my deep dive into the complex history and politics of the Middle East Understanding history gives me hope, as I know numerous other regions of the world experienced tumultuous and near-apocalyptic brinks before finally achieving lasting peace and stability.
In the end, I know that I have no control over what happens “over there” or “over here.” I know who I am, how I was raised, and how I will raise my children (which is true of 99.9999999999% of all Arab Americans), and that is to be proud and kind Americans with Middle Eastern roots who will always support acceptance, diversity, and love for all of mankind. When California passed a Resolution in 2018 honoring April as Arab American History Month, it meant a lot to me and to other Arab Americans and our children. Having this recognized month to show pride instead of fear and dread will help my kids know that they are accepted and should be proud of their Arab American heritage — and equally proud to be Californians.
How has your Arab American background impacted your life in the United States and as a lawyer?
I cannot put into words how tough it was, but I’m not focusing on the negative. I want to be a positive member of the Arab American community, and it is why I’m a board member and VP/President-elect of the Arab American Lawyers of Southern California. I want to work with other diverse organizations and be an ambassador of dialogue to make people of all backgrounds heard and accepted. I will also continue to work on the refugee and asylum cases through International Refugee Assistance Project to help Arabs and other Middle Easterners that helped American soldiers and were promised a new life in the United States to enjoy that life.
What is your proudest achievement to date?
In the legal realm, it was a great honor to be recognized in the Bond Buyer inaugural class of Rising Stars in the Public Finance industry in 2016. In my writing, it’s been an honor to have the opportunity to share my thoughts and perspectives as a transportation contributor to Forbes.com. But, having the firm support me all of these 16 years and electing me as a diverse equity partner in 2019 makes me proud, because I know that means a lot to our diverse attorneys. I believe it says you CAN do anything you put your mind to and that this firm will support you. That is a powerful message for diverse attorneys.
What is something (other than the law) you are great at doing?
Podcasting. I love it. I am a frequent co-host on the Good Is In The Details podcast, and a guest on many others. I also like to act, write science fiction, and master the art of public speaking.
What is one piece of advice you would give to more junior Arab American attorneys and law students?
Keep going. Don’t get discouraged. You can do anything you put your mind to. So keep setting the goals and keep moving forward, no matter what happens “over here” or “over there.”
What is one thing people in our industry can do to be supportive of efforts to increase representation of Arab Americans in the law?
Nothing special. Just keep giving us a chance. Give us a seat at the table and keep your minds open.