Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of speaking with a group of high school kids about power. During the conversation, I asked them how many of them thought that they had the power to change things at the school. Only one boy raised his hand. I then followed up and asked him how he would convince the others in the room that they too have the power to change things at the school. I asked him what kinds of strategies he would use to move the rest of the class from non-believers to activists. I told the class that power first depends on how you see yourself. It's only if you believe yourself to have power that you then begin to build that power, and ultimately use it. I told them that, simply by believing that they had no power, they had already fazed themselves out of the process. I then asked them, if only that one student who believed he had power was allowed to vote, and I only had to get his one single vote in order to gain the authority to make decisions for everyone, would that be fair? They all said no! I told them that they better start seeing themselves as powerful, then.
That anecdote -- while, in my opinion, true and powerful in what it conveys to the youth -- also had an undertone of reality and disappointment for me. I told the kids that I myself struggle to believe that I have power to make change, that I struggle to feel like I belong in the rooms I can walk into that had basically been off limits to me a couple of years ago before I had gained the title of attorney.
I tried to show them from my own life and experience that learning to believe in your own power -- and maintaining that belief -- can be extremely difficult.
I come from a marginalized background, yet I made it to one of the best law schools in the country, where I alone represented 33 percent of the black male population at the law school. Together, we three black males represented about 1 percent of the total law school population. How is one supposed to maintain his belief in his own power in that environment?
Sure, we had affinity groups like the Black Law Students Association, of which I was a member. Sure, we had minority lawyer associations come and speak to us about how much we were needed in the legal profession as a whole and in the greater Boston area specifically. When it came time to return emails asking for advice or to wield social capital to be helpful, however, many of those associations, and the big firm partners they bring out to sell the diversity narrative, disappear or become unresponsive.
If you make it through being the "other" in law school, business school, or
But it begs a bigger question: How does one maintain his belief in his power when the very people who have seemingly navigated the same waters you have fall silent? It's one thing to make it through school and through the bar exam; it's a whole other issue to make it into and through the profession.
We talk a lot about diversifying these elite professions that have oftentimes been closed to certain populations. What we don't talk enough about, however, is how those who come into these professions sometimes become super insular in the path to acquiring power and because, as Frederick Douglass said, "power concedes nothing," once we acquire the power we yearned for, we become responsible for closing doors instead of opening them.
Recently, I participated in the Oakland Hackathon for Black Male Achievement, where I successfully pitched and worked on developing an application that would simplify the job search for people with criminal records and use consumer power to prop up and incentivize businesses with progressive hiring practices. The theme of the weekend was "code or be coded," a phrase that resonated with me given my thoughts on power. Shortly after my pitch, during the team formation round, I was told by a woman that codes -- a skill I needed on my team -- that I should be aware that my project was just one of many projects she was vetting. In practical terms, that meant she could be responsible for my success or failure, if she chose not to help me and I couldn't locate anyone else who could code.
Since the Hackathon ended, I have been wondering what is next. I still can't code, and I still don't have relationships in the tech industry. Without a more concerted pipeline approach, I'm still left powerless. I am still being coded, not coding. Still left struggling with the idea that the power wasn't in my idea for the application; the power was in the skill to code; the power was in the network to get the project off the ground. How does one maintain his belief in his own power when reality demonstrates to him that he is powerless? Sure, I could take coding classes at night, which I do, but somehow that doesn't seem enough.
The other day, I met a girl on BART who heard me talking about my experience post-Hackathon. She told me that she had participated in Dev Bootcamp and that the tuition of $12,200 had been given to her as a gift. It made me think about the barriers of entry within all of these industries. How can you compete if you can't get the training? Many of these boot camps say they are trying to disrupt the industry, but how much disruption can really take place if you have to have 12k in cash to be a disrupter?
According to Pew, "the typical black household had just $5,677 in wealth (assets minus debts) in 2009; the typical Hispanic household had $6,325 in wealth; and the typical white household had $113,149." It seems like, then, there can't be a whole lot of disruption happening when these boot camps cost twice as much as the total average wealth of Black and Latino households.
Sadly, social capital, like actual capital is also missing for many of us. As of 2011, black associates made up 4.4 percent of law firm associates, according to Vault.com. I'm unsure how many black attorneys there are working for nonprofit or legal services firms, but given that law firms offer pro-bono counsel to nonprofit firms, these numbers are not promising, since she who controls the power and resources, controls what issues or cases are supported, and ultimately what modern issues of inequality are highlighted.
Thus far I have successfully navigated law school and the initial hurdles of a legal career with relatively little direct mentorship, but given that "African-Americans consistently report the lowest levels of overall job satisfaction among racial/ethnic groups," according to Vault.com, I have to wonder if that success will continue, and if it does, will I remain faithful to my belief in my own power, and if I do, will I use that belief and the power I acquire to empower others, or only to ensure my own survival?
Which brings me back to the talk I had with the kids. I believed every word of what I told them, but at times, in the bigger, more powerful rooms I occupy now, I question whether or I not I would have the confidence to raise my hand if you asked me if I believed in my power to change the circumstances of the world that surrounds me.
I told the kids that if they have any questions, they can follow up with me any time, and I meant it.
I just hope I meant it in a different way than those who told me the same thing.
We need to fight harder for entry into these fields, but we also need to check ourselves to make sure we aren't simply perpetuating the same barriers that already exist.