Last week, I was attended a dinner at a professor’s home. This was a dinner for students at my school who were in Chicago but were not participating in the On Campus Interviewing program. These were students who were set on pursuing a public interest legal career (with nonprofits or government, not private practice.) We met at Professor Buss’s beautiful home in Hyde Park. We ate on the patio, near a garden filled with flowers. We talked about career paths, about her experience conducting legal research in the pre-Internet age, about The Bachelor (I had no idea that the show could be so meta.)
We also talked about gender and race dynamics in public interest work. From our group of ten people, I was the only male and the only person of Asian descent. This mirrors some of the demographics of public interest legal work more generally, at least for nonprofits. We discussed why that may be the case. For example, children of immigrants may feel some financial pressure. Their parents have left everything to come to a new country; for these children, their parents’ financial security may hinge on their productivity. Asian families put a high priority on stability, sometimes over self-expression and fulfillment, and children learn that economic constancy is more important than career satisfaction.
Similar dynamics may play out in the realm of gender. Men may believe that they need to be the breadwinners, and so pursue more lucrative career options (BigLaw attorneys start out at $160,000, while many public interest attorneys start out around $40,000.) Public interest work tends to attract people with a more nurturing personality (clients are generally needy people, not companies), which also plays a factor.
What this means for me is that I am entering a field in which there are not as many people who look like me or have similar backgrounds to mine. On one level, this can feel somewhat lonely, but it does encourage me to expand my sights and embrace peers and mentors from a variety of perspectives. Even in law school, I have learned a lot from people like Hannah Lazar and Rachel Zemke and Jackie Newsome. I am also excited that I can encourage other people, of all backgrounds, to enter into this work. It is difficult, and it is taxing, but I’ve seen how it can be so worthwhile.
Rodrigo was at the hardware store, trying to decide what color paint to choose. His wife Irma held out two different swaths of color, looking back forth between them.
Rodrigo and Irma had always wanted to be parents, even before they met. They had tried for years to start a family, without success. When they found out seven months ago that Irma was pregnant, they were ecstatic. They took new parenting classes. They bought diapers, bottles, blankets. They listened to the advice of friends and family, although they were careful to take each one with a grain of salt. Mostly, they dreamed. They dreamed of holding their new daughter in their arms. They dreamed about dinnertimes, family vacations, holidays. They couldn’t wait to meet her.
Now they were at the hardware store, trying to decide the color for her room. The Nursery. Rodrigo and Irma knew that it was important, because it was the color that she would wake up to every day. Go to sleep to every night. They decided on a brilliant yellow, the color of sunflowers. As they drove home, Rodrigo beamed at Irma, excited for the what lay ahead in the future.
But that night, Irma came to Rodrigo, troubled. She had not felt the baby move in a while. They drove to the hospital, each trying to calm the other, saying everything is alright. The wait for the doctor was excruciating. She came back with the news that they were dreading.
“It was a miscarriage. There is nothing I can do. I’m so sorry.”
Irma started sobbing. Rodrigo sat down next to her, held her close, and began to weep.
But Rodrigo had to go to work the next day. He went to Colin, his boss.
“I need some time off.”
“What? Why? This is our busy season, and we can’t really afford to let people take time off.”
“I-We just had a family loss. My wife had a miscarriage.”
“Well, I feel for you, truly I do, but I’m afraid I can’t let you take time off. That’s only for emergencies.”
Rodrigo looked at the floor. He looked up, tears in his eyes.
“I just lost my daughter. Don’t you think that that is an emergency? Do you know how much my wife and I loved her? And now she is gone.”
Rodrigo did get the time off, bereavement leave. Time to mourn with Irma, time to mourn with family and friends. Time to learn, tentatively, to hope again.
Eight years later, Rodrigo was at the hardware store, trying to decide what color paint to choose. Irma was there, and so was their seven year old daughter, Rosa. Rosa was boisterous and energetic, full of life. They were going to plant a family garden in the backyard, and they were choosing what color to paint the fence.
Eventually, they picked a brilliant red, Rosa’s favorite color, the color of apples. They built the fence and planted the garden. They planted potatoes, squash, carrots. They planted rosemary, basil, thyme. They planted an apple tree. And in one corner, next to the apple tree, they planted sunflowers.
You make me happy when skies are grey
You never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away”
I dreamt I held you in my arms
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head, and I cried”
And no one else could come between
But now you’ve left me and you love another
And you have shattered all my dreams
If you will only say the same
But if you leave me to love another,
You’ll regret it all one day”