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An Interview with Ameca Reali, Membership Director, Law For Black Lives

 

With this current moment that we are in, there is so much layered on top of everything: a global pandemic, coast to coast protests, maybe a moment of awakening related to racial injustice. Has there been a particular moment of reckoning for you as you have navigated quarantine these past few months?

Yeah, this has been an interesting few months for me, and has really required me to be in different phases in order to cope, to work, and to move forward. Early on my partner got coronavirus. We were actually in an urgent care waiting to get a coronavirus test which was very hard to come by in March when Louisiana announced it had its first case.

I think it was like March 9th and he had been sick for probably about a week and we were trying to get him care. And he didn’t even get diagnosed with double pneumonia for another week. They had sent him home multiple times from the doctor because he’s like 30-something; he’s healthy. They just kept telling him to take Tylenol. And to me, someone who had been hearing about the coronavirus for like a month or so, because I listen to this news podcast, The New York Times Daily, they had been following the evolution of the coronavirus from China into the U.S. and into other countries.

So for me, it felt very present. I’m like maybe we should be taking this seriously. Like, you don’t know what this is. We didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t want anyone else to get it. Our block is like a bunch of elders and elderly folks. I didn’t want them to get something from him, so I was quite worried, actually. And there was just this moment where I’m staring his doctor in the face. He can’t speak because he can barely breathe. I am inside of a hospital now with other people who are potentially infected, trying to help my partner, like, advocate for himself and say like, “Hey, I actually don’t feel good and I don’t want to go home and take Tylenol. Like, that’s not working.” And we had presented him with two weeks’ worth of worsening symptoms and all of the things we had done to try to mitigate the symptoms. And he quite literally did not want to give him a coronavirus test.

And, you know, as a Black person, all the time you are thinking like, is this me just thinking this is racism? Or is this actually like systemic racism, just kind of like boom in your face and you can’t recognize it? And there was just a moment for me where I was just like this is actually turn up time. Like this is the time where I need to actually just acknowledge that racism is at play here. We are being denied access to care all kinds of ways and this is actually not okay. And I don’t think really from that moment until now, both in my personal and in my work life, there has been like a slowing down of that, right. It’s just gone from that to in my work dealing with what coronavirus means to movement folks on the ground and to lawyers who want to help, right. What is my role to help people? To support other Black women in my friends circle who are terrified for their families, terrified for themselves and what that looks like. And so this moment has been kind of crazy because there are times when I have to lean in to what’s actually happening to be able to either support others or to tap into my own feelings so that I cannot let this all pile on.

And then I think the uprisings have really added to that. And just even that scary moment where you’re realizing like oh, folks have to go in the streets, but this is really terrifying because I could also be sick and like what that means. So there have been many moments over this past few months where I have just been sitting with and reckoning with like where we’re at in this country, what actually is happening to us and our people, and what that demands of those of us who say that we want better for ourselves and for future generations. What does that look like? So it’s been it’s been an interesting like three or four months really.

There’s so much in that. I’m still sitting with your partner’s experience navigating the coronavirus and having that huge amount of vulnerability and doctors not wanting to give a test when it doesn’t cost them anything to give the test. The denial of access is always in the back of my mind, and how many other people have succumbed to the virus because medical professionals were just like, “No, we don’t think so.”

Take Tylenol. Go home. Then he was diagnosed with double pneumonia that day. He had every single symptom of coronavirus that existed at the time and that continues to evolve the more we learn. It was just one of those moments where I was like, oh, this is that time when you think back about when folks you knew or maybe your ancestors had a time when they were like, “Okay. Y’all are really not here for me…This country is actually really not built for me in any manner.” It really was such an interesting experience and sort of rumbled something up inside of me that was like, “Okay. I see I’m just going to have to show up for myself and for my people and for my family.” I think I even said to the doctor at that moment, we don’t even need to stay in the hospital at this point. I just need to know what I’m dealing with so I can keep myself safe and I can help him back to health. I’m in my head about all the remedies that you know for respiratory distress and all the things that you know from your family members and your ancestors about caring for people when they’re sick. I’m literally going into my brain and thinking, “Okay, I can help him through this. I just need to know what I’m dealing with so that I can keep myself safe. And, you know, I can figure the rest out which is a mess, but something that you have to do, unfortunately.

Wow. The level of advocacy and agency…I feel it in what you just said. Thinking about your current role, can you tell us a little bit about the work that you do because I think it is adjacent to and/or really centered in the advocacy space.

I’m currently the membership director at an organization called Law For Black Lives, which is a national network of about 4,000 lawyers, law students and legal workers who are committed to building the power of Black-led movements. Originally, we started as sort of the legal arm of the Movement for Black Lives but have also expanded that to mean unaffiliated Black-led movements across the country. Most of what I do is figure out how to support radical lawyers, particularly Black lawyers, in showing up for Movement. And that looks like a lot of different things.

When I first got to the organization over a year ago, there was a loosely affiliated group of three thousand or so of our 4,000 members who were lawyers or legal workers and then a smaller subset who had been answering our calls to action and wanting to be involved. We didn’t know much else about our members, what they wanted and what they were experiencing, and so I spent a year just trying to figure out who our members were. What do they want? What moves them? What are their pain points? What do they want from us? And what would compel them to show up for Movement over and over and over again? I’ve found some very interesting things. Black lawyers are naturally drawn to us because it’s a staff of mostly Black women.

The most difficult part being connecting them to the resources or trying to hold the space for their trauma and challenges in the work? Or both?

I think for me, it’s finding a space that is useful and also effective in just seeing people and holding people as they are. You’re a public defender. You’re just not really feeling the structure that you work inside of. You feel the pressure and also the vicarious trauma of your clients who look like you, and we want you to be well. What does that look like to help someone be well at the same time you’re helping someone show up for others? What does that space look like? How can it be effective? Are we well positioned to be effective in that given that we’re lawyers and we organize lawyers? Are we really healers? Can we really do that? It is a question I’m constantly asking myself, and for some, it’s just a matter of being able to have Black only spaces where they just talk about that with each other and just say, “Yeah, this is really horrible and I needed to say that in a safe space with other people who understand me.” For others, that means something else and trying to crack that nut about the “something else” is where we’re spending a lot of time.

That sounds really important. Thinking about the different flavors that your network needs based on their tenure, geographic location, lived experiences beyond being a lawyer, it sounds really complex and textured to determine how to meet them at the point of their need.

Yeah.

You have done a lot of different types of work. In my mind, I have you pegged as a social entrepreneur, which I’m sure you’re more than that. As you think about your work, navigating the social sector, and the different experiences you’ve had, can you talk a little bit about some of those experiences and if there is an example of when you had to negotiate values tensions?

I started my professional career as a social entrepreneur in my late twenties. I was about 27 when I started Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana (JAC) with a co-founder who was a little bit older than me at the time. Navigating the social sector as a Black woman partnered with a white co-founder was hard. I come from a long line of people who have made a way out of no way, but not in that context. I did a lot of figuring things out – which is basically what we do, right? I don’t think Black women are ever — I will say for me — I just don’t come from the kind of place where you have the luxury of not figuring it out. You actually have to figure it out. So that was a lot of my early experience in founding an organization that didn’t have a name, had kind of a general purpose, but like many early entrepreneurs wanted to solve a lot of problems with very little capacity. I learned a lot about building things, about trying and failing, about figuring out how to raise money from philanthropy which is hard. I also learned a lot about how you build an organization whose mission is more than just raising money or scaling. It’s actually about a deeper level of impact that requires a lot of time, a lot of care and a lot of intention.

So those were really hard lessons for me to learn, and they all felt high stakes when I was a young entrepreneur, especially because I felt like I was helping people who I knew. A lot of our early mission came from my own drive to make right some of the things that I saw people in my life go through. Any startup is just a lot of craziness for the first few years. It just felt like a lot of trying and failing, mostly for about five years. I credit that experience with my ability to be entrepreneurial in most all the roles that I had afterward. And even my role at Law For Black Lives is helping us to build out a product or service that has never been offered at the organization that could potentially be revenue generating, that could double our impact. There’s so much about the work I did at JAC that I tap into now that is quite interesting.

I then moved to philanthropy which was not something I wanted to do. For someone like me who had spent a lot of time raising my own money and having to be the one to provide, it felt like a good shift. It would be a respite from having to do that full time and I could just explore ideas. They wanted me to build out a portfolio for criminal justice work because they hadn’t explicitly been supporting criminal justice work. We don’t really know how to do it. You understand how these systems work. Would you help us do that? In short, I did help them do that times a lot, but I think philanthropy is difficult. Philanthropy is like one of those monuments to white supremacy that we don’t talk about.

I just read an article that made the same point about philanthropy not reckoning with where its money came from.

Yes, it is not their money! I went in naive, not really understanding the inner workings – having some savvy about how you raise money, how you give money away, that sort of stuff. It was hard for me to understand the number of roadblocks that philanthropy will put in the way of you trying to give the people the money to do the work that they need to do. And I saw my job as like, “Oh, I understand what it’s like to be an organization that was severely underfunded, that was often overlooked; I understand what it’s like to not have support as a Black founder. I was well positioned to be not only supportive of our grantees, but able to move the money once I built the portfolio for them. Many things happened in that role that made me realize it was not the space for me. This was one of the places where I’ve seen Black women undermined the most. It’s almost like an understanding that if you are a Black woman in a lower position in philanthropy who comes up with an idea or some body of work, that you are expected to hand it over to whatever man or person in the organization is in a higher position than you, and that’s just how it goes. So if it’s your writing or program design, if you figured out how to navigate all the roadblocks and get the money to the people, you have to give that over to somebody else. I’m pretty humble. I don’t need a lot of credit, but you cannot just steal my work and not give me any kind of credit. There was a lot of that.

For me, it came down to pay. There is a lot of underpaying women, particularly Black women, for their work and I’m not okay with that. If you think about the way philanthropy has made their money on the backs of Black people who built this country and then you employ Black women and you exploit their labor and you take their knowledge and then you don’t want to pay them on top of that?!? There was a point at which I had my values reckoning.

There was a moment when I was like, “Okay, I work for people who say they work for Black women and they believe in and trust Black women. But I’m watching them reinforce all kinds of social and structural inequalities in the way that they do business.” I have tried to bring this up. Fellow women of color and I tried to organize; we were undermined by somebody inside of the organization. I tried all my tactics and at the end of the day, I realized I was participating in this. I am participating in them undervaluing me. I have got to get out of here and it wasn’t a question of going to another philanthropy. I worked for an intermediary organization, which is a little different because they must raise their money in some ways. And it was not hard for me to raise money since I had experience doing that and able to do that. I realized that they never intended to pay me for my work or at the value that I deserved. I had a white counterpart who was less experienced. She had never done the work that she was supervising. She was relying heavily on the work of a junior employee who had more experience and had a technical degree who was not compensated in the same way. Her work wasn’t effective, and she was making $35,000 more than me. When they finally gave me a raise, they gave her a raise too, so it didn’t even close the gap. At that point, I had to go. I can’t participate in this. I know for everybody the privilege to say I have to go now demonstrates some of us have more privilege than others. At the time I was willing to risk it; I was pretty confident that I could leave and figure out what to do next. I can hustle. I’m scrappy. I had stopped being afraid of what might happen to me because of all of this.

You said that you know how to hustle, you’re scrappy, and you will make a way out of no way. I am curious about how you prioritize self-care especially since you mentioned that you’re trying to create safe space for the Black lawyers and legal professionals that you’re working with.

I have learned a lot about boundaries and being firm about those boundaries. Through all of this, I was introduced to therapy, Brené Brown, and the people that help you see yourself and do your work so that you can better position yourself to be well and be okay. It’s a combination of a few things. Boundaries are so important to me because I spent a lot of my twenties living without them or at least not enforcing them where I knew they should be. I really understand now that I’ve done some work in therapy about what that means for my wellness and what that means for me as a person who wants to thrive and do good things. I have a boundary about even email, for example. My work email has about a 60 percent answer rate and I don’t feel bad about that. If you don’t ask me for something, I’m not going to answer your email. So, if you’re just sending me an email, that’s great. But if you ask me for a meeting or for feedback and you give me a deadline, you’re probably going to get an answer. I don’t work after a certain hour, no matter what. I set my limits based on the workload I have and based on my personal commitments. When it’s quitting time, that’s what it is. I have real firm boundaries around working: the times I work, how I work, that sort of thing.

I am a firm believer in therapy. I don’t know that I could be okay if I had not discovered it.

I think I’m also doing all the things that everybody’s trying. I’m journaling and writing my feelings. I am really trying hard not to detach from my feelings and from myself. Mindful meditation is key. Sometimes I meditate more than one time a day. If it’s a really tough time and I can feel myself doing that detachment thing where I just pretend like I’m not feeling worn down, pretending like I’m not feeling emotional, or I’m pretending like something didn’t hurt me, that is a signal to me to re-center, to focus on self, to focus on breath, even if it’s for two or three minutes.

I went to a thing called The Stress Protest. It’s a Girl Trek retreat tin the mountains with hundreds of Black women and I went because I know the founders and have a very good friend who works for them. The Nap Ministry was there and I went to this session kind of making fun of it. It was billed on the program as a collective napping experience. They had this gym with rugs, pillows and beautiful mats; it was just gorgeous, and the light was low. There was an altar at the front with a few of her ancestors and some other beautiful things. She read us into a nap. Everyone got a comfortable space and she read the Nap Manifesto. Then she woke us up very slowly with Nina Simone’s “Here Comes the Sun.” Afterwards, we all talked about what it meant to just nap and people shared in this intergenerational meeting. The Nap Bishop, as she calls herself, said resting is your birthright. Your ancestors literally gifted you with the ability to rest with all of their forced labor and the things that they went through.

And I mean, I had chills down my spine. Yes to naps! Yes to resting! Yes to taking my God damn time when I feel like it. That was transformational for me. I make time for naps. I make time for rest. Even if it’s just closing my eyes for fifteen minutes in the middle of the day. If I need it, I will just take it.

I need to get in on that and shake off the whole “sense of urgency” which is an exhausting mental model.

This is white supremacy culture at play and something that I also learned in philanthropy: the culture of rushing, of never examining, of never having the time, of always needing to produce, of always needing to scale is not sustainable and it actually doesn’t benefit humans. It benefits a larger system of exploitation.

With all the gems you’ve just offered up, I’m curious what advice you have to offer other Black women who are trying to develop or amplify their voices and become better self-advocates?

That’s a hard question because I honestly think folks have to do what’s right for them in order to shine. But this reminds me of two books that really changed my perspective. Carla Harris’ Expect to Win was all about visualizing yourself as a person who wins. I’m going to accomplish everything I set out to do. I have everything I need. Other people cannot stop me. What it doesn’t really say in this book is that it’s about having an abundance mindset: I am doing what I need to succeed and making sure that I’m on the right path. I think that this visualization is a helpful exercise, even as a meditation. Also just understanding that fearlessness is not required, just bravery is actually required. All this time I had been thinking in my early career that I just needed to be unafraid when in fact I was often very afraid. I was doing things I didn’t know how to do. Failing could mean that someone’s life could be messed up. Someone could suffer some consequence. I didn’t want that to happen. Failure could mean for Black people that other Black people don’t get an opportunity. I just learned to lean more into being afraid, but also just being brave enough to commit myself to try. And if I fail, then figuring out how to rise. The visualization of abundance and of success coupled with this breaking down of the need to be fearless really helped me along the way. Someone gifted me Rising Strong and that book changed my whole situation. It changed my life.

If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what two songs would make the playlist?

Hip hop really gets you amped and it is an expression of a lot of Black joy, genius and rage and the things that we’re going through. Kendrick Lamar’s last few albums like Untitled, Unmastered…anything from that album is on my playlist.

I would also say Beyoncé — she and I are not always politically aligned — but if there is a master of releasing songs for women to just feel themselves in…you know, I mean, just to, like, lean into and be like, yes, I’m feeling myself. I’m the shit. I got this. It’s Beyoncé all day.

Freedom” on the Lemonade album can literally send me into another place whenever I hear it. That’s also one of my favorite songs and makes it to every playlist. It’s amazing how medicinal music is just in navigating or being still; it’s a good reset and gift.

What brings you joy?

It is a joy to do work in service to Black liberation and I don’t think I knew that joy before. I didn’t know that this work could be joyful. I didn’t know that there could be so much levity in this work. I’ve come to realize that more recently. There is joy in doing work in service to Black women and Black people, and that’s important to say.

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