In a post at the beginning of this academic year, I wrote about hyper-empowerment and the law. In my pre-law life, the mythology of being a lawyer was that, for those folks, the world is their oyster (if for no other reason because they have earning power, but more substantively because they have access to decision-making circles and professional credibility to drive those decisions). If the panelists at our recent “What Is Public Interest, Anyway?” event are any indication, lawyers affirmatively have agency over their own lives and on behalf of those they represent. But they only have it inasmuch as lawyers trust themselves to, well, go for it.
BU Law Public Interest Scholars, with PILJ, CRS Forum and the CDO, asked Prof. Akram, Prof. Fisher, Prof. Tung, Nicole Price of Student Affairs, Maura Kelly of the CDO and 3L Franco Torres to give a personal anecdote about what it has looked like for each to understand and pursue public interest law. For example, is the public interest protected by the system we have already such that our responsibility is to learn our roles within it? Is the public interest simply doing our small part to serve others within a system that imposes larger-than-all-of-us constraints? How unconstrained are we to define what helping others looks like?
We heard about open sewers in a Taiwan neighborhood from Prof. Tung’s youth and the power of being able to direct investment to developing areas. Prof. Akram once helped a child Guatemalan refugee and immediately fell in love with that line of work, undaunted by the emotional rollercoaster of so many individual tragedies and triumphs, and not indifferent to her own childhood in a refugee family in Pakistan. Prof. Fisher found that a client throwing his handcuffed arms over his neck for a hug was its own reward—the high of being really, really needed and having competence to come through on that need. Nicole once saw police refuse to search for a mother’s lost daughter because she was a prostitute and decided that she would defend people from being treated as things.
In a show of hyper-empowerment that hits home for law students soon to graduate, 3L Franco created his own job description in immigration and civil liberties for the next two years, and got Equal Justice Works to pay for it! His approach to law school has been to define a mission, to organize his activities and internships around that mission, and to keep telling people about what he’s about (as he said, “it’s not just who you know, but who knows you,” since people will think of you when they come across opportunities for which you’re a perfect match). Maura registered her father’s objection to tracking in schools, which dropped some kids into sham classrooms just to have a place to put them while others were actually being invested in, believed in and educated. She saw those disparities when she explored teaching. Education reform through the law became a natural integration of her life experiences.
Franco and Maura were very intentional about their professional moves, while other panelists commonly said they “fell into” their careers almost by accident. But Maura noted that our formative experiences influence even what we “fall into.” I’m wondering if perhaps Profs. Tung and Akram, for example, are actually providing services that they would have appreciated themselves when, as children, their communities might have lacked adequate support. (Prof. Minow at Harvard Law, now Dean Minow, once told me “biography is the greatest motivator,” and that rings true in my life, having been uprooted often enough to now hope to innovate tenure stability in urban rental housing.) For those who we help, legal competence is a needed resource. Whether or not we have command of money to direct at a problem, we can offer ourselves, what we know, who we know and who knows us—we are the resource!
There are so many voices of partners in public interest work who we will have a hard time hearing in the same way as the voices at “What Is Public Interest, Anyway?” Many of these voices do not (yet) have the same authority because they do not (yet) have the same demonstrated success. Franco got the Equal Justice Works fellowship. That measure of value gives authority to his mission. But what about those who do not get the official nod of a fellowship, or a professorship or whatever else? Here is where I’m seeing a nuance to my first take on hyper-empowerment. When we make ourselves available to serve people and causes that grab our heart, we are directing resources and hoping to see results. Maybe these are properly understood as two separate steps. Even the best of us, in our individual efforts, will have less control over the second than the first.
As Katie Redford of EarthRights International said the day after this panel in another of the many events that comprised our first BU Law Public Interest Week: crazy people do crazy things, until it works, and suddenly it becomes cool. In that light, empowerment has something to do with having guts to define helping others (and ourselves), then acting on that self-defined trajectory (with humility, yes, but also with determination). We can live stubbornly as though the world were as we want it to be.
One example is Black folk sitting at a White-owned diner countertop in the pre-Civil Rights Era southern US. In one world, the act is just an unnoticed matter of having lunch. In another world, the act triggers getting dragged out to the street or arrested for having an attitude. In yet another world, the act helps to discredit segregation laws. In the second world of segregation as the norm, even sympathizers to those Black folk are likely to write them off as crazy. They may be—or rather, they may have been—but they were empowered as well.
That means that for all my wide-eyed reception to legal training, I have to be careful not to look to the law for things it cannot give me. Some level of empowerment is everyday guts and heart and values, and supportive relationships to stay encouraged. Law, though, can take that raw material and increase the likeliness of seeing results, to the end of us all having authoritative stories of success to share.