Sia Manta Sanneh ’97
Through her work with the Equal Justice Initiative, Sia Sanneh ’97 has provided legal representation, and a fighting chance, to individuals in need.
Sia Sanneh ’97 has spent the last 15 years defending individuals who have been on death row. Who have been wrongly incarcerated. Who were sent to jail as minors and grew up there. It’s a career that she feels has been a gift, to be able to provide direct service to people. A gift she says was passed to her.
“I had incredible parents. My dad was from a really small town in The Gambia, West Africa, and my mother grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, during apartheid. They both had a rich appreciation for how much our lives are shaped by the context of the world you are born into,” says Sanneh, a 2023 recipient of the St. Paul’s School Alumni Association Award. “They had a sense of fairness and justice and an awareness of how life could have been different. And the more I learned about history, the more I understood that my educational opportunities were fought for by generations of Black civil rights leaders who came before and fought to open doors that would otherwise have been closed to me.”
Both of her parents taught at Yale. Sanneh grew up knowing they believed in the power of education, and had a sense of what she was going to do with hers — a bachelor’s degree in history from Columbia University, a master’s in teaching from Columbia University Teachers College, and a J.D. from Yale Law School — but didn’t know it would lead her to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, where she is a senior attorney. She joined the EJI in 2008, the year after graduating from law school.
“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do when I started law school. But looking back, it seems like a really clear through line to where I ended up,” Sanneh says. “I was interested in the bigger structures of life. I hoped to have clients I could help through direct service. I thought I would do international rights work.”
Then, during her second year of law school, she met Steve Bright, an attorney who taught courses on capital punishment and issues of race and poverty at Yale. She saw him as someone who was focused on public service, who believed you go where you are needed.
“His class helped us understand that the kind of lawyer someone gets makes a difference,” she says. “If they’ve never tried a criminal case and you’re on trial for something that can get you a life sentence, that’s a problem. It made me realize how much I could do as a lawyer to make sure people get fair treatment.
She cites the case of a man who, during the first week of April, celebrated eight years of freedom after being in prison for 30 years for crimes he did not commit.
“The reason the EJI exists is because we know there are so many people across the country who have never had a good lawyer and are in prison,” Sanneh says. ‘There’s just no chance for them without the right lawyer.”
The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit, works to educate the public about America’s history of racial injustice, and how race has shaped the criminal system. All clients are represented free of charge. Sanneh says that allows their attorneys to serve people who have the greatest need.
But having the right lawyer doesn’t always mean they are successful. There are losses, and Sanneh says they have shaped her life.
“It’s really devastating because I care very deeply about every one of my clients. I’ve worked with so many people in really challenging hopeless situations. Clients who have faced execution with dignity and courage. That stays with you forever,” Sanneh says.
There was a time when she would have said she wanted to be the best and win to show herself that she was doing a good job. But Sanneh says she has learned invaluable lessons from her mentor, colleague and friend, EJI’s executive director Bryan Stevenson, and now finds value and true meaning in standing with people, with being there for them and their families.
“That value exists whether you’re successful or not,” she says.
While not winning has affected her, she says it’s in the best way. To be with an organization that wants to be of service matters to her and, she hopes, that is reflected in all aspects of her life.
“It makes me want to be better — a better person, a better parent, a better family member. I’m really grateful to be in a community that believes in service and how much it enriches our lives if we can just be open to it.”