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Finding Your Role in the Fight for Racial Equality

When Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012, it hit way too close to home. In more ways than one.

First was the proximity of Trayvon’s murder. The Sanford neighborhood where he was shot is only 30 minutes from my house.

But even more jarring was the fact that Trayvon reminded me so much of my son, Malcolm. 

Malcolm, like Trayvon, is Black. At the time, they both dressed alike: hoodies and baggy pants. Malcolm and his friends were always at the convenience store blowing their allowances on sour gummy worms and Gatorade. Malcolm was even born in Sanford. 

When I heard that a Black teenager had been shot because someone thought he was “acting suspicious,” my first thought was: holy s***, that could have been Malcolm. 

Raising a Black Son

I told Malcolm from a young age that — through no fault of his own — he had a target on his back. 

I supplemented the usual parental advice with lawyerly-like tips on how to handle police interactions (always push record on your phone before the conversation begins; do everything they say, even if you’re not in the wrong).

But as he got older, Malcolm started pushing back. He grew up in a nice neighborhood. Most of his friends were white. His experience didn’t match my warnings. 

When I worried that a missed curfew meant Malcolm was in jail (or worse), he would accuse me of overreacting.

But then, as the headlines of Black people killed by the police started piling up, he realized I was right. 

It wasn’t a fight I was trying to win. 

Watching Malcolm’s evolution has been a double-edged sword. On one side is relief: He finally believes me. He’s finally taking my advice seriously. 

But I also feel intense sadness that anyone should have to live this way. 

“Come March With Us, Mom”

A few months ago, my daughters and their friends asked me to join them in a Black Lives Matter protest. I told them no, which surprised us all.

Since the death of Trayvon Martin — and Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, just to name a few — I’ve started to grow numb. I feel so helpless. 

When my daughters invited me to march with them, it was an opportunity to overcome this inertia and actually do something. So why wasn’t I joining them? 

Well, for one, there was a fear of playing a part in the spread of the deadliest pandemic in a century. 

Also, I’m not sure if my place is in the front lines. 

What It Means to DO

As the girls headed to the march, I started to reflect. “Doing something” can take so many forms. It can be marching. It can be donating to a cause that matters. It can be educating yourself or others.

It can also be finding the part of the problem that infuriates you the most and focusing all of your efforts there.

Personally, I believe the reason my son and other Black people are born with targets on their backs is because of the systemic racism built into every aspect of our lives. Every American institution, from education to employment to policing, maintains procedures or processes that pose direct disadvantages to Black people.

This is what infuriates me the most. And it’s where I want to “do something.”

Using My Experience to Help Others

As a Hispanic woman whose family hails from Central America, I know all too well what it’s like to feel like you’ve been cut out of the system. One of the reasons I went into employment law was to specifically help those who feel like they have no voice.

But even as a lawyer, I haven’t been able to escape the feelings of being singled out for my race and gender.

In 2005, I was arrested (by a white male cop) for running a stop sign. It had been a terrible year, and this experience was the final straw. 

After I was released, someone got a hold of my police record and sent it to the managing partner of the firm where I worked. While I can’t say for sure what the sender’s motive was, to me it felt like an attack. Like someone was trying to get me fired. 

But my firm handled it so well. As an employment lawyer, the managing partner understood that systemic racism led to disproportionate minority arrest rates. He said, essentially …  “if someone is trying to shame Bertha and get me to fire her, that’s not going to happen.”

Now, as the managing shareholder of my own firm, I feel I have to give back and help other women and minorities find their path through a landscape that was designed against them.

That’s why my firm brings in minority interns every summer. We also established a scholarship at my law school for students of Hispanic or African American descent.

These are the ways I can have the most impact. This is where I need to double down on my efforts.

We all play our part in addressing the systemic racism that has led to the deaths of so many innocent Black men and women. Our role may be to march, to donate, to establish a 501(c)(3) for a cause we believe in.

Whatever the part you play, remember that the ultimate prize is not how you’ll make your impact, but the fact that you’ll make one.

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