I grew up in a small Mississippi town of less than four thousand people. My great-grandfather was seventeen years old when he traveled unaccompanied from Poland to Newton, MS in 1907. He started a family business that my grandfather and, ultimately, my father inherited. When I was in fifth grade my parents enrolled my siblings and me in a private school in Meridian, MS, and we were the first of my family not to graduate from Newton High School. For decades, white families had been moving to surrounding school districts, and all that remained was the handful of deep-rooted families who’d been there several generations. We were some of the last white kids to leave.
Every day of high school I would start my forty-minute commute by driving down MLK Drive — where my former classmates were bussed to inadequate educational facilities. That private school, founded in 1964, was where the white children of lawyers and doctors and I would pull into the parking lot blaring underground Memphis and Atlanta rap music.
That private school was in the heart of a city where poor children of color were being funneled from public schools into a juvenile facility that abused them before shutting down in 2012. While I was given a college preparatory education, their juvenile “education” was designed to prepare them for incarceration in prisons such as Meridian’s adult facility that, according to the ACLU, operates “in a perpetual state of crisis.”
Getting to Law School
I think there’s a point where you realize the world has just been revealed to you… It’s sort of, Oh no, things will never be quite the same again.
Halfway through my junior year of college, I realized I had no interest in going to medical school or pursuing any other career related to the biology degree I was a few semesters shy of earning. I turned on the TV, saw news coverage of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and my problems faded away. That inability to focus on #FirstWorldProblems when faced with real-time footage of unimaginable devastation was a major factor in my decision to join a disaster response nonprofit in Haiti for the summer.
While in Haiti, I found myself fighting the urge to remain there, drop out of school, and live a simple but meaningful life. The thoughtlessness of manual labor, especially on a tropical island, had incredible appeal. But there was a line in a book that really stuck with me, and it sticks with me to this day.
The goofiness of radials thinking they have to dress in Guatemalan peasant clothes. The poor don’t want you to look like them. They want you to dress in a suit and go get them food and water.
I returned to Haiti for a second time in 2011, and it was during that trip that I decided to go to law school. I wanted to advocate for social and economic justice in Latin American. I was surrounded by positive, hardworking, amazing locals, but the reality of their suffering — their unearned misfortune of being born into circumstances denying them basic needs, such as clean water and access to healthcare — was ever-present. I decided to pursue a career in International Law, specifically human rights and public health law. A career in international human rights seemed adventurous and gratifying, and I romanticized advocating without boundaries.
It wasn’t until my first year of law school that I realized the outrageous injustices throughout our criminal legal system. Moreover, I wouldn’t begin to recognize and reflect on the racial dynamics of my upbringing until my first of year of law school. Even into my early twenties, I was blind to the socioeconomic and racial injustices that are so obvious now. At the very least, I had conditioned myself to undermine their severity and significance.
Waking Up in Law School
Realizing the Legal System's Indifference for the Liberty and Dignity of People of Color and Poor People.
In Haiti, a world was revealed to me, but in March 2013, Bryan Stevenson’s guest lecture, “Social Justice Lawyering: Confronting Power, Racial and Economic Injustice and Hopelessness within the Law,” revealed my world to me — a world of which I was immediately and profoundly ashamed to have been ignorant. In hindsight, Mr. Stevenson’s lecture was likely the final straw after months of buildup.
During my first semester in law school, I was blown away when more than one classmate dismissed studies that empirically evidenced racially biased prosecutorial discretion. Enrolling in Criminal Procedure I for my spring elective provided little relief when classmates were further removed from the practical consequences of the Supreme Court decisions like Whren. In case after case, low thresholds for probable cause were frequently justified because “it is just for arrest, not conviction.” Knowing that I had been ignorant for all of my life and that the data, case law, and social science that corrected my ignorance was less than compelling to others made me hyper-aware of the blinders privilege provide.
I look back to Spring 2011 and see myself counting the days until I could leave my college town of Hattiesburg, MS and return to Haiti, where there were “real problems.” My 21-year-old self was ignorant of the children being physically tortured in the county juvenile detention center in that same college town. My 21-year-old self was ignorant of racial bias in suspensions, police encounters, bond hearings, prosecution, and sentencing. And my 21-year-old self never imagined that these injustices were related to my home state’s racial history — the lynching of Emmett Till when my dad was six years old or the 1964 lynching of three civil rights activists, a half-hour drive north of my home. Bryan Stevenson’s one-hour lecture washed away more than two decades of ignorance I had never been without. I’ve never been able to articulate my reaction more than to say that it was simultaneously physical and spiritual and emotional yet numbing.
It was an indescribable response to seeing something for the first time — something that had surrounded me for twenty-three years, something that was Earth-shattering, something I could never close my eyes to again. For the first time in my life I had an uncompromising conviction to dedicate my life to something. Several law school classmates were motivated by personal struggles and experience, such as having a father incarcerated or seeing so many peers from their communities unable to hurdle the barriers designed to keep them marginalized. I found myself so privileged that I was years from recieving a law degree without having ever personally experienced a substantial injustice. My life has been shaped by unearned advantages to the extent that the only meaningful cause I could conceptualize was degrading the unjust systems and structures responsible.
In the years since, I have reflected on the implications and validity of being motivated by my personal privileges to advocate for social and racial justice. Like most people, I want to live a meaningful life. I’ve volunteered a lot in my life — after hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes — and friends and family constantly praised me for being selfless. My primary motives for volunteering with disaster relief were to temporarily quench a thirst for adventure and to temporarily run away from worrying about what the hell I was going to with a biology degree if I didn't go to med school. Of course, there were other reasons, and I don't deny that I've always enjoyed the feeling of helping others. But even that -- enjoying the feeling I get when I help others -- illustrates a blend of self-interest and selflessness. I’m pursuing this work because — more than anything else — I want to live the most meaningful life I possibly can.
After Law School
Public Defender? Lobbyist? Advocate? Civil Rights Attorney? Organizer?
Although I made sure to enroll in all the right classes, clinics, and internship programs to land an assistant public defender position after graduation, I found myself wanting to advocate for broader change.
As a law student, I volunteered or interned with indigent defense offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia, but I also took on roles in policy, advocacy and student organizations rather than reading casebooks from sun up to sun down. Ultimately, it was an intern with the Bronx Defenders in 2014 that I discovered my passion to advocate for a more just criminal legal system beyond the limitations of individualized trial advocacy, and thus, I decided to bring to bear the knowledge and the skills I sharpened through law school clinics and internships by advocating for broader policy reform. I didn’t to narrowly define myself. I didn't just want to be a criminal defense attorney.
I understand the value of specializing, but I strive to be an advocate for individuals and communities, long before and after trial. There isn’t an issue out there that is more important to me than mass incarceration, the erosion of the Fourth Amendment, and the daily violations of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, and I was thrilled to accept the opportunity to join the ACLU of Mississippi in its efforts to reform Mississippi’s criminal legal system through legal and legislative advocacy.
For nearly three years, I have worked closely with national, state and local partners to advance ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign in addition to other issues less directly related to decarceration – from police accountability to death penalty executions methods. Beyond legislative and administrative advocacy, I also worked closely with the legal department in preparing for major civil rights lawsuits concerning the criminal justice system.