AuthorBell, Monica
PositionDouble-Consciousness: Women of Color as Advocates for Ourselves and Others - Discussion

Elise Lopez [EL]: Thank you all for attending our conference. I want to thank the conference chairs and all of our Empowering Women of Color (EWOC) team for putting together this incredible event.

I hope you all are, and continue to be, inspired as I have been throughout the day. We have one more amazing panel, entitled Advocacy in Ideas: Legal Education and Social Movements. Our own professor Olatunde Johnson will be moderating. Please enjoy this culminating discussion.

Olatunde Johnson [OJ]: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. We are very excited about this last panel, which we hope will present an opportunity to bring a lot of the themes together from the day and reflect. I'm always happy to be at EWOC events. I remember the early days of EWOC--it was hatched out of a little bit of pain and despair, but it has become a place of leadership for our entire community. I remember those early meetings in Katherine Franke's house with some of the faculty around here participating in those early discussions. It's really been inspiring to see how the organization has grown. So, thank you for putting together this conference, and to ail of you who have taken leadership in EWOC.

This panel is really an opportunity to explore the role of women of color in shaping ideas in the legal academy and in legal discourse more broadly. Everyone on this panel today is a professor and has joined legal academia, but what I think we really want to emphasize through this is that for many of us it begins in law school, where you can engage in shaping ideas through the writing that you do in your courses and in journals, in taking leadership positions in journals, and in organizing conferences like this. It may seem that in talking about the legal academy it's really a shift away from some of the discussions of particular substantive areas that we were just talking about--healthcare and healthcare disparities--but I think it's important for us to think about the issues that are often marginalized in legal academy and the role that women of color can play in bringing these issues into mainstream legal discourse, or in expanding what we think of as being the mainstream.

We have a wonderful panel here today to talk to us about shaping legal discourse, and they're going to talk about their own paths to legal academia. We'll talk about some of the opportunities as well as the general structural barriers and how one might begin to address these barriers. They'll also talk to you about their work, about their own journeys and methodology, and about how they've approached some of the questions we've been dealing with today.

I'm going to very briefly introduce the panelists. Our panelists all have formidable backgrounds and you should read their full bios, but I will just tell you they've all published fascinating, groundbreaking articles in top law reviews and in prominent journals. Their scholarship spans fields including constitutional law, international law, corporate law, family law, criminal law, civil rights law, and sociology. They've clerked, they've worked in fancy jobs in private practice, public interest, government, et cetera. I'm going to introduce the panelists briefly, then I'm going to throw out a general question that gives them an opportunity to talk about their paths to academia.

First, we have Solangel Maldonado. She's a Columbia Law graduate--and has also been sitting next to me all semester because she's teaching Family Law here--and she's a professor at Seton Hall Law School. Then we have Rachelle Perkins, who's an Associate Professor of Law, and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at George Mason Law School. And then we have Monica Bell, a Climenko Fellow & Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, and a PhD candidate in sociology at Harvard, and she'll be joining the faculty of some very lucky law school this fall. And then we have Professor Chantal Thomas, who's a Professor of Law at Cornell Law School. And Tanya Hernandez, Professor of Law at Fordham Law School.

Let's start with you, Solangel. Can you talk about your path to legal academia? And if you want to, in that context, you can talk about some of the challenges that you might have overcome, and provide us with something we can follow up on in further discussion in terms of how we address some of these structural barriers and challenges.

Solangel Maldonado [SM]: I am delighted to be here. This has been a wonderful conference. My path to academia has not been entirely traditional. Although I graduated from Columbia and did a clerkship, I did not do everything that I should have done because I did not know what I was supposed to do. I realized in my first semester of law school that teaching was a great job. You get to think about the law, do research, and mentor students. What could be better? But I knew nothing about law teaching so I did not do everything that 1 should have done to prepare myself for the academic job market.

For example, I did not try out for law review. How was 1 supposed to know that membership on law review is really important for aspiring law professors? I did, however, join the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law because its mission aligned with my values and interests. I did not apply for clerkships during 2L year--the window when I was supposed to apply--because I did not know that clerking is something that you should do if you are thinking about academia. But Professor Carol Sanger, who had recently joined the Columbia faculty, organized a brown bag lunch for students considering law teaching. She pulled me aside after class one day and said, "I think you should come to this brown bag." At the brown bag, I realized that there were are all these opportunities that I should have been taking advantage of and had not. By then I was a 3L, but after that brown bag, I very quickly took certain actions--such as applying for a clerkship and developing a research agenda--to help prepare me for the teaching market.

After my clerkship, I went to a firm and I was very lucky because I had only been there a few months when I got a call from Seton Hall Law School asking me to interview for a teaching position before I even began my job search. How did they know that I was interested in teaching? Well, I had a network of great mentors who knew that I was planning to go on the teaching market in a few years. Those mentors told Seton Hall about me and helped me prepare for the day-long interview. The rest is history.

I will talk more about my work later, but my interests lie at the intersection of race, gender, and family law--that is my passion. I love researching and writing in this area but it presents challenges. I want to preface my next statement by saying that I have been blessed to teach at an institution that has been very supportive and has been invested in my success. But as the first person in my family to go to college and law school, I faced hurdles in college and law school that my peers from other backgrounds did not. Then, when I joined academia, not understanding the politics of navigating academia as a woman, as a woman of color, and as a first-generation college graduate, meant that I made many mistakes along the way.

The second challenge is the result of choosing to write in the areas of race, gender, and family law, areas that are still undervalued in the academy. We have seen scholarship refer to family law as the pink ghetto, and when you add gender and race to it, you realize this work is not valued nearly as much as scholarship in other areas. So that has been challenging.

The final challenge is that, although I've been teaching for fifteen years, I am still aware that as a woman, and as a woman of color walking into the classroom, there are negative assumptions that will be made about me. I want to plug a book that was written by academics a couple of years ago, Presumed Incompetent, (1) which addresses how women of color in academia are presumed to be less qualified and less competent to do the work that we do.

These are some of the challenges. I'll talk about how to overcome them later.

OJ: Next we have, Rachelle.

Rachelle Perkins [RP]: So, our paths were a little similar, except I went through all of law school not realizing that I wanted to be a professor. I was focused on my tax courses and pursing a job in that field. After law school, I was able to land a great job at a big firm doing corporate tax, and was just as happy as I could be. Similarly to Solangel with Professor Sanger, Professor Schizer dropped a bug in my ear and said, "This is something I think you would be really good at." But at the time I was happy with my job and not sure academia was something I wanted to pursue.

After quite a few years of practicing, I ultimately came to realize that there was a certain amount of intellectual curiosity that I had about some of the very interesting work that I was doing that was not being fully satisfied in the law firm environment. There were topics I really wanted to explore further, but there wasn't really the opportunity to do so.

Thankfully, I was able to transition out of practice by coming here to Columbia as a transactional studies fellow for two years, and it gave me the opportunity to really focus on some of the issues that I had been thinking about while I was practicing, write a publishable article, and get immersed in the academic environment. This fellowship opportunity was invaluable in terms of both my ability to ultimately get an academic job and in making me realize that being a law professor was what I wanted to do with my career.

In terms of the area of law that I was in, I faced a different challenge as a woman of color because tax law is not a very diverse field. Achieving success and establishing a network of mentors meant that I would have to cultivate relationships with people who did not look like me.

OJ: Monica Bell.

Monica Bell [MB]: I'm Monica Bell, and I am from South...

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