A few months ago, I attended a networking function for female attorneys. I had just accepted a non-legal role after years working in a niche area of policy research. I was never an attorney as the world may understand them – I never once stepped foot in a courtroom and I wore jeans. As tenuous as I may have felt my connection to “real attorneys” was in those years following law school, I was still feeling a bit torn about this new role that had me stepping completely outside the legal profession. It was through this lens that I attended the event, stood at a high-top table and introduced myself to two young, female attorneys who had sought out our somewhat empty table space. Both women worked at large, international law firms, and as I extended my hand to introduce myself, I shared that my background was in policy, but that I had recently accepted a new, non-attorney role. “Oh,” one of them practically spit out.
“Why are you here?”
In the months since, I’ve let that question bounce around in my head. My insecurity comes out when I introduce myself to colleagues. “Well, I took a bit of a winding path to get here. I’m actually an attorney, but….” is how I start every introduction these days. It comes out in other ways, too. Just this month, I stared at my state licensure renewal form (and the $400 payment required to maintain it for another year), intermittently switching my renewal selection between “Active” and “Inactive” status. Inactive attorneys only pay $120 to maintain their license, but they aren’t legally allowed to practice law. I ultimately chose “Active,” even if in in my heart I believed that I was spending money on my ego. “Why are you here,” I asked myself.
On Friday, the President signed an Executive Order which limited the ability of non-US citizens to enter the United States. I woke up on Sunday to the news that, despite a federal judge’s ruling to temporarily stop the process, federal agents continued to broadly interpret and apply the order, detaining large groups of people landing at airports across the U.S. People who had boarded planes for the U.S. with legal visas or green cards, only to be detained for indefinite periods of time, some without food or communication with the outside world. My brain was screaming at the injustice and distortion of our Constitution, the very constitution I vowed to uphold when I took my attorney oath. At JFK and Dulles and LAX and SFO and ORD, away from the support of family or translators or legal counsel, border agents were asking confused and scared people, “Why are you here?”
In an effort to stop my brain from spinning, I turned to Todd and asked if we could go to the airport that night. People were planning on gathering to protest what was being referred to as a #MuslimBan, and I while I wavered at what felt scary and unfamiliar, I ultimately felt strongly that I needed to be there, to move my frustration forward in a meaningful way. We arrived at the International Terminal with a dear friend, signs in tow, and stood alongside a welcoming and growing group inside the Arrivals gate. We sang “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful” with quiet, sweet and steady voices. Tears welled up in my eyes. An attorney introduced himself as one of the leaders of a group of lawyers who had descended on the airport to assist those in need. My friend took the initiative to introduce us as lawyers, and he took us over to show us the pop-up law office. As I walked up to the group of my peers, dressed sharply and moving decisively, I felt the pull of insecurity once more. What did I have to offer these people? I was a bit relieved that they didn’t need help, but I almost reluctantly wrote my contact information on the worn notepad that served as a de facto sign-up sheet. “Why are you here?” I thought.
We stayed with the protesters that night, continuing our chants, and eventually moving outside to the street. I stood behind several community leaders, congressional reps, and Jesse Jackson Jr. as they continued an impassioned, sometimes angry plea for humanity and civility. Despite feeling better for having put my feelings into action, I went to bed with my own self-doubt echoing in my head, and woke to an invitation to join a listserv dedicated to the volunteer attorneys. I spent the morning feeling physically overwhelmed by the constant flow of emails to the group and paralyzed by my own insecurities. This afternoon, in an effort to curb the dark feelings in my heart, I decided once again to put my emotions into action and submitted a volunteer sheet for this weekend. I was tired of worrying about whether I was “attorney” enough to help. If the one and only time I ever used my law degree in the traditional sense was to ensure that the rights of human beings are upheld, that the Constitution remains intact, that the ideals we hold tightly as Americans are protected, I’m ok with that. Regardless of my belief in my own abilities, I know with 100% conviction that I will be of help.
I’ve been sharing my participation in the Women’s March and the airport protest on social media and among friends, not for the head pats, but in an attempt to normalize participation in these events for the people who, much like me, don’t see themselves as activists or protesters. Before this month, I was a “normal” person who took the normal, easy route of sitting at home and doubting my ability to impact change. I let the opportunity to participate give way to the normalcy of my life. It felt scary and uncomfortable to say, “Let’s go,” or to raise your voice along those beside you. To draw attention to yourself. But it’s not supposed to feel easy or comfortable. I’m hardly an expert at political activism, but after these experiences, and with a newfound respect for how they feel and what they mean, I know one thing is true. I no longer want to outsource my indignation. If not you, then who?