When I started law school at the University of Chicago, I expected to learn the law, but was instead confronted with history. Whether it was in how American tort law frequently assigns lower monetary values to injuries suffered in minority communities, or the various ways common law reasoning worked with legislative statutes to systematically exclude Black families from owning land, I could not escape the pernicious underpinnings of our legal system and how those biases shaped society into what it is today. Furthermore, after an experience in one of my Criminal Law classes made it clear that my peers—scholars who would become judges, policymakers, and partners at firms—were struck by the same biases that impact the country writ large, I felt a responsibility to facilitate necessary conversations about issues that extend beyond what we learn in law school.
I reached out to our Dean of Students and Director of Diversity and Inclusion to recommend a writing program that would compile personal essays into a packet for incoming first-year students. After several conversations, my nascent idea evolved into a full-fledged first-person writing workshop, bringing together diverse voices from across the law school community to reflect on their experiences as law students and future lawyers. The first cohort addressed issues such as race, identity, mental health, and imposter syndrome, bringing those topics to light in a deeply personal and honest way. Once these pieces went public, the response was nothing short of remarkable, with one reader notably wishing she had a similar program at her law school when she was a student.
Reflecting on the first cohort of what would become known as “Bridges: The First-Person Writing Project,” there were three important factors that made it possible for us to successfully build a community with shared purpose and vision:
- I spoke up. The idea for Bridges came months before I actually reached out to anyone, and I had to let the idea evolve before I was prepared to make a case to the administration for why such a program was so important. I also thought it was crucial that the initiative be supported by the institution itself; after all, many of these conversations were happening informally within student groups and among friends, but the law school was capable of amplifying these conversations and the messages they contained. To its credit, not only has the administration been extremely supportive, but it has invested tangible resources into ensuring that this project can continue into the future.
- For members of the first cohort, we set aside a regular hour-long block to discuss our ideas, push each other’s thinking, and refine the output into pieces that could be made public. Our conversations were rooted in a transparency that occasionally verged into brutal honesty, but without that intimate space we cultivated from the beginning of the project, such conversations would not have been possible. Although these discussions were eventually pushed online because of the pandemic, we managed to maintain consistent contact and establish a comfort level that allowed us to share our stories with impunity.
- Finally, we found time to connect outside of our regular meetings when needed to overcome major hurdles during the writing process. Some of the toughest decisions that had to be made about our pieces took place during one-on-one conversations among members of the cohort. We also benefited from having an unbelievable leader in Becky Beaupre Gillespie, an experienced writer and mentor to each member of the group. In refining our ideas under her empathetic guidance, and connecting with each other individually when we needed to grapple with particularly challenging roadblocks in the writing process, we managed to produce a set of essays that each member of the cohort could be proud of—pieces that have gone on to highlight the challenges and triumphs of legal study.
In each instance, no bridges could be created without first carving out space to honestly and openly engage with the issues that impacted each of us on an individual level. Creating space comes in many forms—making time for others, investing in resources to facilitate growth and development, or simply having the courage to say something—but however space is made, it becomes a catalyst for bringing people with divergent backgrounds together with the hope of effectuating positive change.
As I begin work with the next cohort of Bridges, I understand that space is a necessary but not sufficient condition for building community, establishing honest and open conversation, and producing pieces that fully reflect our lived experiences as law students. From finding a group of thoughtful and engaged participants, to establishing personal relationships, the work of building bridges does not end once space is created. That space must be occupied fully and without hesitation, leaning into the discomfort a novel idea springs and embracing uncertainty until it crystallizes into something tangible.