Here is my rough draft, I would love any comments!
I did not realize I was different until I was 22 years old. Up until then, I had only been distantly conscious of any reality outside of what I perceived to be normal. Then, literally overnight, I was caught in that reality. Suddenly, I was acutely aware of the color of my skin, the clothes I wore, and how I spoke. Every time I walked down the street it was as if I followed a few feet behind my body, witnessing my presence and how other people reacted to it. For the first time, I was uncomfortable with myself. Learning how to live and work outside of my familiar bubble helped me understand myself and the people and situations around me in a different way, and helped me develop a concrete sense of how I can best give myself to others.
When I committed to a year of post-graduate service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I had no idea what I was getting into. I had always felt compelled to help others, but throughout high school and college I rarely did service work outside my white, upper class bubble. When I did, it was always with people I knew, and never for more than a week. I effectively stayed outside of the hardship I worked to end, and I only saw the surface of the unfamiliar communities I reached out to. When I moved to New York to start my JVC year, that all changed. My seven roommates and I lived in an old convent in the almost exclusively African American neighborhood of Central Harlem. I worked in Rent Stabilized apartment buildings throughout the Puerto Rican, Jamaican, and Indian neighborhoods of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. And I was the different one. Everything I did, from waiting for the bus outside the Soft Touch Car Wash to working out at the local YMCA, caused people to stare, call me names, and yell accusations. Every day, I felt like an intruder in peoples’ lives.
Working as a tenant organizer was particularly difficult. I was immersed way over my head in an environment with a level of distress I had ever seen. Not knowing what else to do, I moved forward as if I was still inside my bubble, separated from the communities with which I worked. I did my research, made brochures and meeting agendas, and went out to tell tenants why and how they should organize a tenant association. But my words were aimless. I had created invisible boundaries around the tenants, and I was afraid to cross them. This prevented me from really knowing their lives, problems, and ideas. But the tenants at 2425 Nostrand Avenue, a building with 169 units primarily occupied by first generation Trinidadian-Americans, did not let me get away with sustaining those boundaries.
The first meeting I held at 2425 Nostrand Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn was the second tenant meeting I ever led. “Look!” one tenant shouted after I had delivered my introduction. “I was the president of the old tenant association, we’ve already tried it. What makes you qualified to be here, why should we even listen to you?” I was sure that every person in the crowded lobby could feel the sensation of sweat accumulating into patches on the inside of my shirt. “Okay,” I stammered. “It sounds like you all aren’t interested in organizing another tenant association.” After mumbling something about my contact information, I rushed out of the building. I had never been so blatantly and forcefully called out and questioned by anyone, about anything. And though I put up a confident front, complete with a ten-step guide to forming a tenant association and the ability to recite NYC housing statistics, I had no idea what I was doing.
I thought I would be able to forget about the tenants on Nostrand Avenue. I could not connect with them and did not know how to help them, and I assured myself that they had already forgotten about me. But soon the phone calls started to come. One Nostrand tenant, Marie Rezeau, called me twice per day. She challenged me to come back to the building, reminding me that I had promised to help them. She was right, and I went back. At her kitchen table, as she told me that some tenants had already discussed filing a Housing Part petition against their landlord for failure to meet legal conditions requirements, but they needed assistance. I did not know anything about housing court, and helping with an HP action was not exactly within my job description, but Marie’s pleading eyes pulled me in, and I agreed to do it.
Working with the tenants of 2425 Nostrand Avenue was physically and emotionally exhausting. I traveled to the building, a mile from the last stop on 2 train in Brooklyn, countless times. I spent evenings making phone calls and knocking on apartment doors to collect intake forms and surveys, and I spent hours talking and compromising with tenant leaders. I sat with a crying mother in her mold-infested apartment, saw floors ruined by years of flooding, and listened to the intimidating voicemails from the landlord on a tenant’s phone. But I also learned to teach, organize, and support tenants. And I saw them start campaigns and win a class action to get the repairs they deserved. Interacting with tenants throughout the New York City neighborhoods that most people never see, I experienced racism, suffering, and injustice in the most raw and personal way. As I grew more invested in the lives of the tenants, I overcame my fear of being different. I slowly broke down the barriers I had constructed and built effective relationships with those around me. The tenants had a way of pulling me out of myself and away from the narrow lens through which I had been viewing the world, and I developed a clearer understanding of my role in others’ lives from within the communities I came to love.
When I was a senior in college, I would have told anyone that I did not want to be a lawyer. “I want to do something meaningful for other people,” I would have said. But I was blinded from what that really meant. The year I spent as a Jesuit Volunteer was a defining one for me because it built upon my previous years of education and service to help me make sense of my passion for helping others. I learned to embrace unfamiliarity and invest the time to appreciate peoples’ obstacles and potential separate from my own opinions and ego. I helped people succeed on their own terms, and that is the most powerful and fulfilling work I have ever done. I realize my responsibility and sincere desire to be open to the reality outside of my bubble, to walk with and learn from those I serve.
As a tenant organizer, I was able to educate tenants and unify them around obstacles they faced. I helped them create awareness and long-term strategies. But I was often frustrated with my inability to help them achieve specific results and gain tangible control over issues. My work in housing court showed me how the law can be a powerful tool for those who are otherwise disadvantaged to earn results and control. I know that providing legal services is not always easy or successful. I worked alongside attorneys who exhausted themselves fighting seemingly impossible battles. But I also saw them help tenants exert legal pressure on landlords to make real change, like repairing a boiler that allowed tenants who had waited for five months to finally take warm showers and cook meals at home. Being able to help people create that change is worth the hard work. I now know that I want to study law because it will allow me to pursue a career in which I can use my knowledge, insight, and skills to be an agent of positive change and opportunity in individual lives and communities. Practicing law will allow me to combine my skills in research and writing with my passion for listening to and interacting with people to naturally and effectively contribute to the development the notion of the global common good and the movement towards a more just and sustainable society.