Top 5 Tips I’d Give My First-Year Self

Sasha Young, LSRJ Summer Intern (’16 Northwestern University School of Law)

This time last year I was reading a million “Top 10 Tips for 1Ls” lists and feeling like most of them were generic and aimed at the masses. So instead of speaking to all 1Ls, I’m going to speak to myself as a 1L. After making it through that experience, here are my top 5 tips for myself this time last year. Here are the honest things I would tell myself, a racial minority from a lower socioeconomic background at a T14 school, who was interested in social justice and not the pipeline to big law.

  1. Don’t talk to the white people about racial stuff. I didn’t come in to school very fixated on race, and I had no idea how much racial tension I’d encounter. I’m not saying that white people won’t understand or be sympathetic. But racism in law school can be very smartly hidden and excused by “logic” and especially competition. You never know who thinks that you’re just there because of affirmative action and not because you “earned” it. Save yourself the distress, and go talk to the diversity counselor or a professor that teaches something like “race and the criminal justice system.” 

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  1. It’s not your responsibility to educate anyone else. For every person who tells you that they “wouldn’t want to be embarrassed to not have earned their spot,” there will be a very well-intentioned White Savior randomly telling you, “It’s so great that you [people] are here.” You’re not there to provide the “minority perspective,” or to teach the rest of the student body about racism. You’re not there to “create a diverse educational experience” for the kids who only have only ever been around people like them. You’re there to learn contracts.brb-saving-africa
  1. Get your tools ready, ya trailblazer. The machine is not-so-gently pushing you through the big law pipeline. So if that’s not part or all of your plan, you’re going to have to figure it out yourself. Surely there are schools out there that support public-interest folks better than others, but you should still talk to everyone. Find as many options as you can. Google. PSJD. Look up attorneys who do what you want to do, and see what steps they took.
  1. Don’t knock it. I know you’re suuuuure that you’re not interested in big law. But trust me; you don’t want to close any doors just yet. A happy work life isn’t just about your substantive work; your work environment is equally (if not more) important. Plus, big law opens some doors in the public interest world, just like it closes others. I had many attorneys tell me that their organizations looked skeptically at candidates who came from big law. Other attorneys told me their organizations like candidates with some big law background because they are well-trained. You’re just going to have to figure out your own path.
  1. If you want to leave, that’s ok. It’s too much time, energy, and money to spend on something you hate. If you want to take a year off, go between 1L and 2L (but ask about 2L OCI eligibility first). If you decide you don’t want to be a lawyer, you’ll find a way to pay off that year of loans. You are not stuck, and if you think you are, you’ll only hate it more. This is still your life; it doesn’t start later.2qklzz4

Good luck, 1L self. Remember, you’re the shit and don’t let anyone tell you different.

Beyond Choice, Beyond Our Community

Grace Ramsay, LSRJ Summer Reproductive Rights Activist Service Corps (RRASC) Intern (’16, Smith College)

In the RJ community, word travels fast.  Scary fast.  So after the New York Times posted a well meaning yet misguided article regarding Planned Parenthood’s shift from its pro-choice framework, all of my feeds blew up with conversation, from Twitter, to Facebook, to my LSRJ intern email.  The article seems to credit Planned Parenthood’s recent (actually, three-year old) move away from the phrase “pro-choice” as being innovative and in-touch with today’s women.  The problem is, women of color adopted this stance over two decades ago with the term reproductive justice.  LSRJ took part in a Twitter storm using the hashtags #KnowYourHistory and #StopErasing as a chance to re-educate — or perhaps introduce — folks on the beginnings of beyond-choice reproductive justice activism.  I understand being sick of educating again and again people who are supposed to be our allies, but I also sense the hope of strength in numbers of more people “tuned in” to reproductive justice tenets.   I was surprised when I sat down with some older family members later in the day, family who considers themselves feminists, very involved with current issues regarding reproductive health, etcetera.  They asked me “Why would we want to move away from the word ‘choice’ ?”  I launched into my well-rehearsed explanation of the history of reproductive justice.  They seemed unmoved and I wondered if our differences in approaching the issue were too big to cross.  My family members are white, upper-class, educated folks who can separate out abortion from other RJ issues because of their privilege.  They spent their adult lives advocating for abortion access and birth control — “of course we believe in choice!” For me, it’s about more than abortion and birth control.  For me, it’s about access to high quality preventative healthcare, and childcare to those need it.  It’s about validating queer relationships.  It’s ensuring everyone can live free from sexual abuse and coercion.  It’s about so much more than Pro-Choice vs. Anti-Choice.

Loretta Ross was a guest lecturer at Smith College this past year and I will never forget how moved I was listening to her during my Introduction to Study of Women and Gender class. She explained how choice alone did not make sense of the reproductive oppression that women of color faced.  It was Loretta Ross and that class that made me realize RJ spoke to me more than anything I’d ever studied. We can’t erase barriers to reproductive injustice by only focusing on abortion when large populations of women have been forcibly sterilized, exposed to toxic chemicals in the workplace, or been shackled to a hospital bed in labor.  Why is this difficult to communicate to people who have long taken a pro-choice stance?  I have no answers, but it always seems to come down to power and privilege.  While I’m glad that Planned Parenthood is acknowledging that abortion is but a facet in women’s reproductive freedom, I hope that we will continue to honor the true foremothers of the RJ movement.

Nouns and Adjectives and Why Neither Addresses the Issue

Sasha Young, LSRJ Summer Intern (’16, Northwestern School of Law)race-391x260

Last weekend at LSRJ’s annual Leadership Convention I co-moderated the Women of Color Issue Caucus. The name struck me. I hadn’t realized that we were called “people of color” now.  Minority? Non-white? Person of color? The landscape of terms to describe race in America is full of landmines, and it looks like “people of color” is the new standard of political correctness. I find this to be problematic in some significant ways. First of all, I don’t think it’s any better or worse than most other terms. Secondly, I think it still fits into the same structure of white being the default or standard. Lastly, it prevents some people from doing the legwork of thinking about race and its complexities.

Whenever someone uses the term “person of color,” they are referring to a group of people who don’t benefit from white privilege. Many people feel like the existing terms describing a group of oppressed-and/or-marginalized-in-one-way-or-another people have been insufficient: “minority” could be technically incorrect in certain places or situations, and “non-white” defines a group by what it’s not. “Minority” might not technically be correct, but neither is “person of color” if you’re referring to a fair-skinned Asian woman who might be the same color as a white person. Race is not just about pigment.

Non-white is probably the most technically precise word to use, but it defines a group as a negative, but in another way so does “person of color.” The default “person” is not “of color” unless you specify so. The frame certainly isn’t that we have “people of color,” and then “people lacking color.” “Person of color” feels like it’s expressing the same concept—that the default is white unless expressed otherwise. Also, it doesn’t go without saying that everyone who isn’t white doesn’t have the same experience. Clumping us all together just supports the structure of supremacy.

Loretta Ross says the term “woman of color” emerged from a racially diverse group of women as a political term denoting solidarity against white supremacy. I can appreciate the political nature, but I think the phrase is often used as a safe word for white people nervous about discussing race. Race is difficult to discuss for everyone, and it’s not clear how to avoid offending anyone. But that difficulty isn’t fixed by using “color” as the object of a prepositional phrase instead of an adjective. I think that finding one word or phrase which we—persons with very different experiences not marked by white privilege—can sign off on is simplistic. There is no simple way around the question, “Who exactly am I referring to?” White people can’t hide behind “people of color” if they are actually referring to black people and Latinos defending their place in law school as more than waiters or gardeners, or Arabs and Muslims constantly being targets of suspicion, or non-white people who are allowed into a “closed” space without white people. The answer to the question “what term is ok to describe people marginalized by white privilege?” is predictable: it depends.

Race is problematic; language describing it is problematic. “People of color” belongs on the same list as “racial minorities,” “racially marginalized people,” and “non-white people.” They are all phrases that can be appropriate, inappropriate, offensive, or fine depending on how and by whom they are used.

 

See this and this for more.

Roe v. Wade: A Reminder That We Deserve More

Candace Gibson, Resident Blogger (’12, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law)

I first learned about Roe v. Wade as an eager, nerdy, middle school student. No, it was definitely not covered in my history classes and it was barely discussed in my constitutional law class. I learned about it because my Latina mother introduced me to the world of feminism and feminist heroes at a young age. When I first learned about Roe, I was amazed and thought it was the best thing that ever happened to the women’s movement.  As each anniversary passes, I’m less amazed and more circumspect about the meaning of Roe. I know now that we have a long way to go before we achieve full equality and justice for all women, including transgender men. Roe is not the pinnacle of our movement, but it is a starting point.

Since Roe, it’s relevance to women’s lives has become somewhat diminished due to relentless political assaults.  In 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which is an almost total ban on abortion coverage for women who qualify and are enrolled in Medicaid, making abortion inaccessible in practice for low income women of color.  It has continuously been reauthorized in each federal budget.  Lack of insurance coverage for abortion care isn’t the only barrier for many women.  Several states have passed laws to “regulate” abortion care, again effectively making it inaccessible – take for instance TRAP regulations and laws pertaining to misoprostol.  Then, we have issues of accessing care – many women live in areas of the country where there are no abortion providers and they do not have the means to travel to the closest abortion provider,sometimes hours away. And’s let not forget about Casey and the “undue burden” standard.

Finally, transgender men who may need abortion care may not receive the care they need because of the lack of culturally competent providers in general for this community, let alone providers who are trained and licensed in providing abortion care.  Not to mention the fact that transgender and gender non-conforming persons also face high rates of discrimination and violence, even in healthcare settings.   

So yes, let’s celebrate Roe v. Wade, but the next day we need to get back to work.   

I’m in the 78%. Taking Back the Narrative: Asian American and Pacific Islanders DO Support Abortion.

Christine Poquiz, Resident Blogger (’12, University of California, Davis School of Law)

Working as a reproductive justice fellow at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), we’re often combating myths (model minority anyone?) and misconceptions around the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.  AAPI women, activists, and organizers are speaking up, fighting back, and recreating the narrative around our community. A few months ago the hashtag #notyourasiansidekick took off on twitter to talk about the struggles that Asian American women face and AAPI feminism. The response to this hashtag was overwhelming and showed how many young AAPI women wanted a forum to talk about these issues. [click here to see the follow-up Google Hangout with NAPAWF’s executive director, Miriam Yeung]

On this 41st anniversary of the landmark decision Roe v. Wade, there are misconceptions that AAPI women aren’t affected by attacks on abortion rights. However, bans against public insurance coverage of abortion, like the Hyde Amendment, cause great harm for subpopulations of the AAPI community who depend on public insurance like Medicaid. Furthermore there is evidence that AAPI women use birth control at lower rates than the general public, have high rates of unintended pregnancies and utilize abortion services at higher rates. On top of all that, some legislators are using stereotypes about Asian American women to pass sex selective abortion bans that encourage racial stereotyping of AAPI women in the doctor’s office and could possibly even cause doctors to deny care to women in our community. AAPI women are significantly affected by attacks on abortion access.

The AAPI community needs to shape the conversation about us, or other people will do it instead. One traditional perception about the AAPI community is that we’re conservative in our values. However, from the National Asian American Survey (NAAS), which conducted opinion polling on over 6,000 AAPIs, showed that the AAPI community is progressive in our values. During this celebration of Roe, it’s crucial to highlight that 78% of AAPIs support some form of legal abortion. Furthermore, 69% of AAPIs believe that the government should stay out women’s personal decision-making.

Here at NAPAWF, we’re big proponents for data disaggregation, and the 78% is not reflective of each AAPI subpopulation. For example, the traditionally Catholic Filipino community is less supportive of legal abortion than the rest of the AAPI community. But even among the Filipino community, over 50% support some form of legal abortion. Moreover, there are higher rates of “I don’t know” within the Vietnamese and Hmong community, which shows advocates like us that there needs to be more culturally competent education around this issue for these communities.

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Most importantly, these top line numbers break the notion that AAPIs don’t support abortion. This year, NAPAWF is uplifting these numbers to show that AAPIs are supportive of abortion and a woman’s personal decision making. Our members, community leaders, and elected officials are taking part in a photo campaign saying that they’re part of the 78% and that they support Roe.

We’re working on changing the narrative. Send in your photo saying you’re part of the 78% today.

Brown Beauty

Mangala Kanayson, Resident Blogger (’15, Emory University School of Law)

By now you’ve probably seen the outcry in social media – first aghast and angry that a non-white woman somehow managed to win the Miss America beauty pageant and then indignant that our very own compatriots could be ignorant and hateful enough to express their displeasure at this by crying ‘terrorist’ at her.

Social media was replete with defenders of Nina Davuluri. Thanks to these fearless internet warriors we now know that Nina Davuluri – despite her skin color – is American. We’ve also learned that there exist clear and highly relevant distinctions between the terms ‘Indian,’ ‘Arab,’ and ‘terrorist.’ Thank you, Internet.

In this flood of criticism we’ve managed to avoid reflecting on what it means for a brown American of South Asian descent to have won Miss America. I mention her skin color because it matters to a generation of American-born Desis who encountered a deeply entrenched bias toward light skin perpetuated by the Indian media and often in our own families by well-meaning relatives who kept us from the sun (whom among us managed to escape an encounter with Fair & Lovely?).

Faced with this and the overwhelming whiteness of American beauty ideals, it is a small relief that Miss America 2014 has brown skin. Sure the Miss America pageant will continue to teach girls that how they look ultimately defines their success and self-worth, but Nina Davuluri’s sentiment was not completely lost when she said “I am thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America.”

Coerced Sterilization – Asserting Power over Female Bodies

Mangala Kanayson, LSRJ Summer Intern (’15, Emory University School of Law)

Forced sterilization has a sordid history in California. Before a state ban was enacted in 1979, single characteristics (such as poverty, mental illness, or being in prison) meant people were systematically deemed unfit to procreate and punished for existing by having their choice to exercise autonomy over their health and bodies removed.

The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) recently released a report on the illegal sterilization of incarcerated women that lifted the curtain and exposed to us the dark reality; that despite moralizing about equality, people still do not perceive incarcerated women as deserving to mother children and that even those charged with protecting the health and well-being of women can forcibly assert authority over female bodies and feel that they have done nothing wrong.

CIR’s recent report on the illegal sterilization of female prisoners is too heavy of a weight to dismiss as the poor judgment of a few or as the unfortunate quest of a misguided doctor.

Pressuring a woman into being sterilized during childbirth is more than an assertion of power over her body. It is a value judgment that strips away her right to be and her right to choose when and how to parent her children. In the context of our sexist, classist, racist society, it is also an action steeped in a history of oppression and injustice.

Kahlil Gibran in his 1923 poem The Prophet, wrote that “the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.”  Perhaps he was right. Could doctors have so violated the rights, dignity, and personhood of these women outside the context of a sexist culture that regulates/legislates women’s bodies and reproductive autonomy as a matter of course? Would officials have allowed and participated in the coercion of women so obviously under duress outside of a culture that objectifies women and relegates them to caricatures instead of people?

The online rhetoric surrounding CIR’s controversial report is overwhelmingly in favor of forced sterilization. This suggests that vulnerable populations, particularly female prisoners, are not yet deemed “fit to live among us.” This report must convince us that women’s rights are still overwhelmingly unattained, and must force us to vehemently and unfailingly rebuke the idea that anyone can be viewed or treated as less than human.

Stand Up California!

Erin Panichkul, LSRJ Summer Intern (’15, Thomas Jefferson School of Law)

Isn’t California known for its progressive ideologies? Don’t we pride ourselves by leading other states in protecting the sanctity of basic rights? Last I checked California wasn’t known for discriminating against lower class families, mothers, and newborns. So why does the Maximum Family Grant (MFG) aka the “family cap” still exist? California is sending a message that poor people shouldn’t have any more children, a true reproductive inequality.

MFG is a program limitation that will NOT cover any additional funding for additional children born to a family that has been receiving CALWORKS for the past 10 months. Essentially, families who need the most help and are currently receiving aid, have the most limited options available when it comes to family planning and reproductive choices. The additional funding is minimal but to some families, it makes a world of a difference. MFG hurts real California families.

 “People think the worst of you when you are poor. They think you are less of a mom and that you are a bad mom if you choose to bring children into the world when you are poor. Even more insulting is the idea that poor women like me are controlled by money more than we are liberated by our emotions, experience, and sense of knowing what is right for our families.” – Melissa Ortiz

California’s government has demonized struggling mothers like Melissa. Are we systematically forcing struggling women to choose abortion when they don’t want to or  leave a newborn without proper health care and nutrition due to lack of access to aid? What’s next, forced sterilization of the lower class? Reproductive decision-making is not a privilege; it’s an individual right that California should protect! Why? Because ALL families matter!

MFG is fundamentally wrong and a true injustice to all California families. It’s a form of reproductive oppression and coercion based solely on income. Bottom line: The amount of money a woman has or doesn’t have should not be the main factor in making decisions about the outcome of her pregnancy, including abortion, and giving birth.

California, we can stand up for the rights of all families! Show your love and support for Melissa and all California mothers by supporting AB 271 (Mitchell), a bill to repeal MFG in California.

Dangerous Data

Rosie Wang, Resident Blogger (’14, Columbia Law School)

The Utah Senate has passed SB60, a bill that would force health care providers to collect information from women seeking abortions on their ethnicity, the stage of pregnancy, and the reason given for the procedure. While the federal government already provides this data, this bill is a preventative measure to ensure that even if federal government changes its approach, Utah will still have access to this information. This is troubling because the sponsor of the bill, Senator Margaret Dayton, has previously expressed interest in challenging race-selective abortions as well as targeting specific cultural preferences that supposedly give rise to sex-selective abortions. The information sought to be gathered by SB60 sounds like it could be a stepping stone to a number of racially charged campaigns that disguise their anti-abortion agenda with a veneer of concern about women and people of color. This is a strategy that has been attempted before, with billboards accusing black women who seek abortions of committing genocide. This bill also sounds like a precursor to so-called “Prenatal Non-Discrimination Act” or PRENDA, which would have required health care providers to report women they suspected of seeking an abortion for reasons based on the fetus’ gender or race. PRENDA purported to be pro-women but was actually a way to both scrutinize and stereotype women based on race and create arbitrary obstacles to abortion access.  PRENDA failed in the House of Representatives last May.

Senator Dayton’s assumptions about the makeup of society and people’s ability to function within it suggests that she is not aware of the effects of being denied reproductive choice. It is her stated belief that the “traditional family is the fundamental unit of our society” is blind to the fact that “traditional families” account for only 7% of the US population. It is her belief that “personal initiative is better than government programs,” when unplanned pregnancy perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Dayton’s focus on personal initiative sounds like another way of saying that she would not be in favor of investing in programs targeting poverty, hunger, and poor health outcomes that would help women considering abortions post-pregnancy. Legislators who ignore the reality of family structures and what it takes to sustain them can hardly be presumed to be using this type of information to the best interest of women.

Django Rechained

Rosie Wang, Resident Blogger (’14, Columbia Law School)

Going into the midnight premiere of Django Unchained, the only real context I had was that (1) It was a Quentin Tarantino movie and (2) in Spike Lee’s opinion, it was racist. Coming out of it, I thought, “Wow, that was breathtakingly racist.” And not because of the copious use of racial slurs (which is what Mr. Lee objected to).

There’s something much more subtle and insidious in it’s portrayal of slavery: It adopts wholesale and without irony some of the worst plantation tropes and erases and reinterprets the historical narrative of black women’s lack of reproductive autonomy.

In Django Unchained, a German bounty hunter frees a slave, Django and partners up with him in capturing criminals. Django is dedicated to finding and rescuing his wife Hildy, who now belongs to a plantation owner who has male slaves killing each other for sport. It’s supposed to be okay for Tarantino to write and tell this story because it is a revenge fantasy of slaves rising up against their masters and thus subversive and empowering. However, there is a lot that goes wrong in the execution of this idea.

The black body is on sensationalistic display in a way that no white body equivalently is. Hildy is put in the “hot box” for trying to run away, and has water splashed over her nude body when she is released. Django is suspended upside down, naked and about to be castrated after his true intentions to save his wife are revealed.  Nearly naked black men fighting to death appear on screen multiple times. These are fraught images because the institution of slavery viewed black women’s bodies as  open for sexual consumption and black men’s bodies as threatening and open for torture. The way Django Unchained offers images of naked black bodies for visual consumption is exploitative and revels in the morbidity of the scenes, rather than aiming for historical accuracy.

With no historical background knowledge, someone watching the first scene depicting a plantation might think that a black woman’s life under slavery consisted of swinging on oak trees in hoop skirts – as long as she didn’t try to escape. In reality, coerced reproduction and rape is the way that slavery was sustained and slave owners’ wealth multiplied after the 1807 ban on the slave trade. The monetary worth of slave women being auctioned was determined by speculations on her reproductive capacity. Slave owners would pair their slaves with multiple partners and force them to engage in sexual activity without regard for any person’s consent. Slave women were especially vulnerable to sexual assault by their masters and the resulting children from such rapes were targets of violence by the master’s wife.

Harriet Jacob’s narrative of her own experience, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl describes her 55 year old master beginning sexual advance on her when she was 15. She eventually forms a relationship and has two children with another white man as the only method for escaping him. Children were often sold away from their mothers, dashing any potential of forming family bonds. Hildy is 27, and some mention is made of her role as a sex worker, but the very real reproductive consequences are never addressed. The legacy of all this is an entrenched distrust of the medical system among many black women which leads to poor health outcomes and the stereotype of not being able to be trusted to make their own reproductive decisions.