By Steven Goldberg, on behalf of NLG Portland
As an older Guild member, I have always taken pride in representing, working with and learning from my clients, both within and outside of the U.S. I have been mindful of my privilege, that my background and economic and cultural circumstances are so different from my clients, but at the end of the day we were at least bound by our struggles – whether against racist employers, a government that subverted human rights in the name of national security, against a spouse in a custody case who could not accept that the person he married was gay.
We are now in a time when those struggles, and the – albeit rare – victories we enjoyed together, are being challenged by an administration overtly propagating an ethos of racism, homophobia, xenophobia. But where I have taken the greatest pride, and hope, is in the work of younger Guild members from whom I have learned, and continue to learn, so much.
Kasia Rutledge is a member of the Portland, OR Guild chapter, one of our many younger members. She is a public defender, a teacher; committed, passionate and wise beyond her years. She was recently honored by Oregon Women Lawyers (OWLS) with the Judge Mercedes Deiz Award. Here are her inspiring remarks at that dinner:
It still comes as a surprise to me that I am even a lawyer. Like many others in this room, I often feel like an imposter. I feel inadequate, transparent, and vulnerable. I am sure that at any moment someone will discover that I don’t actually belong in this space. That my voice isn’t worth listening to. Even tonight I am sure that the play off music will start playing, the curtains will begin to close and I will be pulled off the stage. But in those moments of feeling small and wanting to retreat before the spotlight of harsh truth reveals me as a fraud -it is in those moments that I am truly the most powerful, the most connected to others, and the most capable of grace towards myself and those around me.
Because the truth is, the spaces I often find myself in the law were not made for me. My voice is often not welcome or valued. Those spaces have been traditionally and are currently filled by the same people who have filled it for over 200+ years.
And if I as a straight cis non-disabled privileged citizen white woman experience feeling like an imposter it is hard to image how stifling it is for queer, disabled, noncitizen, or lawyers of color in the same courtrooms, classrooms and boardrooms.
To continue moving in those spaces as someone who doesn’t get the presumption of being entitled to one’s own air, is an everyday act of bravery. It means having to endure sting after sting of micro-aggression hearing “where are you from?” and knowing that means “you don’t belong here.”
So my first thank you goes to the students, lawyers, judges, friends and family of color who over the years have been willing to call me on my racism and trusted me to use their truths and experiences for self-exploration and transformative change.
To my queer, gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and non-binary friends and family who in telling me their own truths and struggles have helped me recognize my own embedded homophobia, transphobia, and cis-centered way of thinking. To my friends and family with disabilities who have taught me that to make literal and figurative space for others requires me to move from my own privileged position.
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I also want to thank the brave people who have been and are still fighting to call attention when our most vulnerable incarcerated brothers and sisters are being assaulted in our jails or denied proper medical care. To the people that move into action when racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia threaten to separate families and weaken us all as a society. And to the people who fight fascism no matter how dressed up and legitimized it pretends to be. Thank you. Specifically, I have been honored to be a long term member of the National Lawyers Guild and to be on the Board of Directors for the Oregon Justice Resource Center.
The law has never been a leader in social justice change. More often than not, the law is responsible for upholding and legitimizing patriarchy, white supremacy, and homophobia. It is only when the people speak and protest and bleed and die, that the law, dragged kicking and screaming by the best and bravest lawyers amongst us has changed. The law serves the world best when it has the capacity to listen to the needs of the most excluded. When it is unpopular but responsive to the just and right thing to do. But the law, which is a formidable institution, is built, maintained, manicured and molded by us in this room.
We have an opportunity and obligation to listen to communities when they tell us what they need, to believe people’s experiences are as they tell us they are and to understand our complacency in their suffering.
When we have access to secret doors, passages or rooms that shield us and protect us, we should open those doors and chambers of safety to others. When we are in spaces where decisions are made, we should look around and see who is missing and then make room for those not at the table. When we have the opportunity to amplify the voices of the marginalized, we have an obligation to de-center ours and help center the experiences of those people. We must be open to the work of learning and admitting that our own comfort is often granted on the backs of others.
This has always been the price we pay for the access to power and resources and safety of the law. But we are past due. Reparations are owed. ■