Purvi Shah

PurviShahIs our radical imagination dead?

For many of us, going to law school was a radical choice. We chose the law because at some point in our lives, we witnessed injustice and oppression up close--maybe in our own homes, maybe in our neighborhoods, maybe in a community far away from home. But somewhere along the way we developed a gut-sense that something was deeply wrong with the world. And as we searched for a way to be useful in the fight to improve the human condition, we imagined law would help us solve some of society's most daunting and intractable problems--from poverty and police brutality to climate change and xenophobia.

When we arrive at law school, we spend countless hours reading hundreds of pages of legal jurisprudence for classes where there is no mention of these societal problems. We are advised that we would be best served by learning to distinguish fact from opinion and to divorce our passion from reason. While we try to make sense of this new sterile way of thinking, we are introduced to a new set of myths: about the importance of lawyers, about the neutrality of the law, about how the law protects all equally. We begin to believe that as lawyers, we have the answers.

When we join the field, we learn the cold-truth that lawyers working for the most vulnerable in our society are severely under-resourced and outnumbered. We work day and night, drowning and overwhelmed by the never-ending stream of crisis, cases, and clients. The hours we spend slouched in meetings and on conference calls talking over and past each other give rise to disillusionment and detachment from the sense of purpose that initially drove us to this work. Our imagination starts to dwindle, and our cynicism blooms. We become cogs in the wheel.

As some of us begin to run legal organizations, we experience levels of alienation, competition, ego, and oppression reminiscent of the corporate world we used to impugn. We talk about our work in terms of deliverables and platitudes, sexy enough yet safe enough to satisfy the funders that keep our organizations afloat. We're too busy to evaluate our work in authentic ways. As leaders, we are fearful and fail to solicit real feedback from our staff, clients, and partners, [because] being honest about the failings of our work would mean losing what little self-worth we have. Worst of all, some days when we go home, we can't feel anything at all. The law has turned us into problem-managers instead of problem-solvers.

However, in rare moments of contemplation, we may hear a voice inside us that asks quietly: are we really making things better? Is my work truly radical? Am I fundamentally transforming power relations, or am I simply tinkering at the margins by treating the symptoms of injustice instead of the root causes? And just as soon as that voice emerges, with our bodies tired and our brains on super-drive, we push these overwhelming existential questions aside and return to the comfort of having what appears to be a noble job, and the simplicity of checking things off our to-do lists.

RadTalks intends to re-route this common trajectory. RadTalks is an intervention in the ever-pressing grind of day-to-day social justice work. It is a space where our individual and collective imaginations are free to run wild. A space where bold ideas pierce through the cynicism and routine of social justice work, re-centering us on what is possible when we find the courage to dream.

RadTalks is a curated series of short, inspiring talks given by visionary social justice thinkers on a theme relevant to the current moment. Speakers are asked to use their radical imaginations to present radical ideas that will lead the audience toward radical action.

Though the legal community is an intended audience for RadTalks, the talks are intentionally interdisciplinary, featuring visionaries in law, organizing, art, design, and entrepreneurship. By centering legal visionaries amongst other types of change-makers, RadTalks hopes to inspire the cross-pollination of radical ideas from different sectors working towards social justice. RadTalks asks speakers to subvert the traditional discourse of band-aid solutions and instead present transformative visions of how we might sever the very root of oppression and injustice in our communities.

In light of these goals, we launched the first RadTalks at the Center for Constitutional Rights' (CCR) Law for Black Lives convening in the summer of 2015. Law for Black Lives was a national gathering of lawyers, law students, legal workers, and jailhouse lawyers committed to building a world where Black Lives Matter. More than a meeting or a conference, the gathering was a call to action for legal advocates from diverse parts of the country to join together and spend a day dreaming about how we can support the growing Movement for Black Lives. Law for Black Lives unapologetically prioritized the voices and leadership of people of color--most importantly Black lawyers and legal advocates.

Birthed out of CCR's experiences building legal infrastructure for the resistance in Ferguson and Baltimore, Law for Black Lives was a groundbreaking conversation that ignited a new level of inspiration, motivation, and intention within the legal community to support the Black Lives Matter movement. The two-day convening, endorsed by seventeen organizations, was hosted at the historic Riverside Church in Harlem and at Columbia University, and consisted of a combination of thirty-three workshops, panel discussions, and plenaries conducted by more than eighty renowned organizers, lawyers, and activists. About 1,000 participants joined us in person to dream big about how we can support the growing Movement for Black Lives. Beyond those who attended in person, the convening reached 4,400 people across the world through our livestream of the event. This conference trended nationally as one of the top three hashtags on Twitter (#Law4BlackLives).

The prompt for the first set of RadTalks was “What Could Be Possible if Law Really Stood for Black Lives?” and centered the voices of those often marginalized within the law--Black lawyers, community organizers, jailhouse lawyers, transgender individuals, and lawyers from the South. The combination of viewpoints and ideas in these first RadTalks was exhilarating and electric. From Alicia Garza's vision on how Black workers must be a part of the fight to make Black Lives Matter, to Norris Henderson's recounting of his perseverance as a jailhouse lawyer working to free himself after being wrongfully incarcerated in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for twenty-seven years, to Elle Hearns' vision of what it would take to build a world where transgender victims of police violence are not misgendered after their deaths, to Colette-Pichon Battle's talk on disaster recovery and how we go from resilience to resistance--each talk expanded our hearts and minds, each talk made us reflect on our own work, each talk challenged us to think more radically.

What the transcripts you are about to read will not communicate is the energy of the room. The audience sat rapt during the RadTalks, incredibly moved by the speakers, at times bursting into applause. And at the end of the talks, many of us were moved to tears, having remembered how healing it is to dream about what is possible.

I created RadTalks to answer Mr. Belafonte's call to take radical action and to heed Ms. Baker's wisdom to focus on the root of the causes of injustice, and to give us fuel and inspiration in the long haul of social transformation. I hope at the end of reading these talks, you too will feel re-centered in your radical imagination and willing to take the risk to be as radical as possible in your work.

If changing the world begins with the belief that it is possible, then this is the moment. The problems of oppression, poverty and human suffering are not intractable, but solving them requires awakening the most creative and expansive part of ourselves.

Are you willing to dream with us?