How do conscious activist professionals handle the struggle of expectations, responsibilities, and fear?
Over the last couple of days, I have been overwhelmed to see and receive responses to my last piece Ferguson, Garner, and the Paradox of the Black Attorney.
I received tweets, emails, and LinkedIn requests from young attorneys of color and law students who felt like my piece spoke a universal truth that we all have felt during our ascent into the ranks of the professional class.
I was happy and I suspect others were too, to learn that it is not just me who is struggling with the expectations, responsibilities, and tight walk that is required of conscious activist professionals.
One such response was:
“Ouch! I was expressing this the other day… about how I recently chose to attend a rally turned march in order to put my fear in check. Fear I realized was paralyzing me, keeping me from meaningful action. I was now more than just cautious, I was someone I once frowned upon; the person so wrapped in comforts that I now think more than twice about doing anything that will jeopardize them. I had a fear now…in my inner most part…one that I am ashamed of, but that comes from a very real place… from having a good job, nice car, and plush apartment. Fear that comes from being afraid to loose these new found, hard-earned things! But to what end…”
Another response I received was from Professor Karla McKanders of the University of Tennessee College of Law titled “The Gravity of Injustice on Our Souls,” published below.
I need to reflect more on some of the points she raises and the wisdom/words of encouragement she delivers to those of us wading through the trenches, unguided, before I formulate a response. Sufficed to say, I am glad that there is someone much more experienced than I who has wrestled with these issues, and found a comfortable equilibrium.
I hope that this will be the beginning of a dialogue that is helpful to all young and experienced attorneys of color.
My feelings about being an activist limited by the conservative nature of my profession were enhanced recently when I flew home for the ribbon cutting ceremony and opening of F Street, which was a street I worked hard to get open as part of a community group in my native West Las Vegas.
That activism is the sole reason I went to law school and the energy I felt from the community and from our victory over the state is the kind of energy that I know will sustain me in the long run.
More on that later…
The Gravity of Injustice on Our Souls
McKanders Opinion Editorial
As a human rights lawyer and a law professor, I regularly examine systems of injustice and their impact on individuals. I often do this in the context of defending against the deportation of individuals seeking to remain in the United States for fear of being persecuted in their home countries. My clients are people who have been tortured for expressing their political opinions, displaced from their neighborhoods for peacefully attempting to practice their religion and traumatized by war. Many have fled from systems subjecting women to brutal forms of violence.
This past week, while defending one of my Syrian asylum-seeking clients, we paused to witness the injustices of the US legal system in its treatment of African American males, which was painfully exposed across the world in the media with the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
In viewing these injustices, my Syrian refugee client and I contemplated humanity and what causes people to degrade individuals to the point where they no longer connect with the other person’s humanity.
We both reflected on the gravity of his flight from Syria and at the same time wondered what caused the breakdown in placing value on African American males’ lives. We sat in silence as we deliberated over this existential question that may not be resolved in our lifetimes.
It is in this silence where our vulnerabilities are exposed, surface meanings are stripped away and we can choose between two actions in the face of our inability to reconcile injustice. We can become paralyzed or we can contemplate how from our own individual perspective and lives we can act.
Becoming paralyzed may be the easier route given the enormity and gravity of institutionalized racism, human rights violations and injustices that we witness. Brandon Greene, an African American recent law school graduate, contemplated this conundrum of action versus remaining silent in a Huffington Post blog. In his article, Ferguson Garner and the Paradox of a Black Attorney, he “… looked at the landscape that lies before [him] with despair and a deep lack of faith in the power of the people to truly move our country forward to a place where people of color in general, and black men and women in particular, finally achieve some measure of equity, not just equality, under the law.” He states that he and his young African American lawyer colleagues “…are not yet young, black and powerful.” “We are young, black, and playing it safe in uncharted territory, as the firsts in our families to have achieved this level of education, in professional sectors where we are anomalies.”
As a child of parents who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and grandparents two generations removed from slavery, I can relate to Mr. Greene’s sentiments. I often contemplate that I could never begin to duplicate the progress and activism which lawyers and activists engaged in spearheading the Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War, Women’s and Student movements. But in this space, the space of enormity and gravity, is where I begin to contemplate how small everyday acts can cause lasting systematic change. While lawyers were responsible for the implementation of many Civil Rights reforms, significant challenges remained in attempting to change the hearts and minds of individuals who held biases that perpetuated stereotypes and segregation.
Mr. Greene and other young African American attorneys should contemplate how their presence in law firms in which African Americans did not have access to years ago, impacts diversity and representation of their clients. How their presence and the ways in which they interact within various systems impacts people’s opinions of young African American males. For young African American attorneys pursuing a field of law outside of human and civil rights law, your voice as a young attorney is not eviscerated simply because you are not choosing to be on the frontlines of a protest.
Real reform comes from the daily, seemingly benign acts of service, we undertake in our unique capacity during our lives.
It is hard to not become overwhelmed in the face of witnessing a world plagued with international and national conflicts and human rights violations. In this context, we should remain affixed in the present moment wherein we individually hold the power to implement small, simple ideas that have the potential to positively impact individuals and promote lasting systematic and generational change.
Letter reprinted with permission
Photo courtesy of the author
Also by Brandon Greene: