Why education matters as we seek societal change

This post is authored by Jessica Chinnadurai. Jessica is a recently-licensed attorney who graduated from the University of Missouri School of Law in 2018. Her hope is to increase transparency around mental health issues in the legal profession, and to spread light to those fighting battles no one can see. You can connect with Jessica on LinkedIn.

A few years ago, I was the victim of relationship violence and I filed a Title IX complaint during the summer of 2017. For anyone unfamiliar with this law, in part, it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in an educational setting. Coincidentally, the “Me Too” movement picked up momentum a few months later, in the fall of 2017.

As I reflect on recent events related to police brutality and racism, my mind and heart feel heavy. But…a glimmer of hope shines through. In comparing the astounding Black Lives Matter revolution to the powerful “Me Too” movement, I am hopeful that the same sort of systemic issues centered around discrimination can finally be addressed, and that we will see profound, lasting change once the dust settles.

In comparing the two movements, I found myself reflecting on what it was that I wanted from my friends and family as I went through my own “Me Too” experience, via the Title IX process. Aside from a desire to express my pain and feel heard, I had what I thought was a simple request: that my loved ones educate themselves. I deeply yearned for my friends and family to gain a basic understanding of patterns in an abusive relationship. I wanted to talk about my confusion and fear, without being judged or criticized. I wanted to hear my closest allies say that they would try to understand my pain, no matter how complex the situation seemed as a third-party observer.

And while not many of my female friends did that, quite a few male friends did. Astonishingly, in what has been a permeating and lasting lesson, I witnessed numerous men step up and show me that their gender can be kind, caring, and compassionate. Their actions were exactly what I needed to believe in the goodness of humanity again.

If your mind and heart are also heavy at this time, perhaps a critical step you can take right now is to educate yourself. Let’s ask ourselves the tough questions and learn from any answers we receive.

At its worst, racism results in the cruel deaths of valuable human lives. But what does it look like in its simplest, most basic form?

After releasing the “Becoming” documentary on Netflix recently, former first lady Michelle Obama said:

“When we share honestly about our own experiences, we invite others to do the same. The connections we build in these moments of vulnerability are so powerful and so healing.”

My own experience involves my parents immigrating to the United States from India and settling in a small town in southeast Missouri, with a population around 16,000 people. Growing up, I was constantly asked “What are you?” I could be at a Walmart or in a classroom and the question always made its way into the conversation. The first time I was asked this, I was more annoyed at the person’s inability to correctly articulate what it was that they wanted to know. As I got older, I would smile and say “are you asking me what my ethnic origin is?” and most people would reply affirmatively, with an embarrassed nod. At the core of that question was a seemingly larger one – “are you American?” Having been born and raised in the heartland, like Jack and Dianne, it was an undeniably subtle form of racism that people’s first assumption was that I wasn’t from “here,” I wasn’t one of them. The juxtaposition of my name alone, Jessica Chinnadurai, leads to quite a few interesting comments. I continue to openly share details about my family’s background with anyone who is curious or confused because it typically helps educate people. What am I? A human, just like you.

In the same vein, a seemingly innocuous question about a Black person’s hair can be racist and discriminatory. My article from February shares insights on this subject from an interview with a Black attorney. I appreciate my colleague’s openness to share her story then and invite others to do the same now, so that we can continue to learn and encourage healing, as a community.

As legal professionals, what is our role in helping to achieve change?

In this framework, the meanings of the various roles are described here. I think many lawyers can primarily be categorized as “guides,” who can “teach, counsel, advise and use [our] gifts of well-earned discernment and wisdom.” We also have the opportunity to be powerful “disruptors,” “visionaries,” and “weavers.” Dependent on our personal strengths, each of us may feel called to take on a different role. Whatever that may be, step into it. . .step up! Become the ally. Diverse communities need us. In a profession where “duty” often carries a very specific meaning, let’s remember that we simply have a duty to care.

What if educating ourselves could help relieve the pain of just one Black individual who is dying to be heard? 

I think a common thread that ties all of humanity together is our desire to feel and be heard. We want to know that our voice matters, that our life matters. If you’ve never had to hesitate and wonder if yours does, empathizing with someone who has questioned it their entire existence can make a world of difference. Clint Smith explains just how much of a difference in his 2014 TED Talk titled “How to Raise a Black Son in America:”

“So, when we say that Black lives matter, it’s not because others don’t; it’s simply because we must affirm that we are worthy of existing without fear, when so many things tell us we are not.”

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