This fall I flew to Austin, Texas to attend the GRITS Conference hosted by the University of Texas School of Law. GRITS stands for Getting Radical in the South, which is both a brilliant acronym and an important mantra that, I feel, is equally relevant and necessary here in Virginia. The conference featured practitioners across various fields—attorneys, judges, community organizers, social workers, union leaders, student activists, and artists—fighting various battles—labor rights, prison reform, immigration justice, and gender equality.
Though this blog post cannot adequately convey the empowering message and atmosphere of the GRITS Conference, below are some of my favorite takeaways:
- Attorneys should be a tool of empowerment, not the center of attention. Especially when providing direct client services, we attorneys should always remember that our knowledge and consequent expertise is no more valuable than people’s lived experiences and consequent expertise. Social movements must be fueled by the stories of, and input from, the affected community.
- Effective community organizing is grounded in effective relationship building (not social media). Learn how to ask questions. Be intentional with who you reach out to and with who reaches out to policy makers. Think about the “grass tops” in addition to the grassroots of the community.
- We cannot talk about racism without talking about capitalism. In a discussion on privately run prisons, the panelists provocatively presented two harsh reality checks: (1) When we trade stock in private prisons we are trading human flesh on the NASDAQ. (2) CoreCivic, a Tennessee-based private prison corporation worth almost $2 billion, grew directly out of the 20th century practice of forcing unpaid, largely black prisoners to pick cotton.
- Change is always local. In the words of one of the panelists, local change feeds national change like tributaries to a river. Attorney Generals were once District Attorneys. Smaller elections can have outsized impact—both in their ability to fuel change today, and in their potential to build national change agents tomorrow. Furthermore, elections are not just about the individuals elected into office—they are also about the groups that are empowered along the way.
- Transformative justice trumps restorative justice. Though discussed in the context of prison reform, I think this final lesson is broadly applicable. In so many realms of social justice, the status quo is not good enough—as a country and as a legal system we can do better.
Despite the chaos in our political and judicial climate this fall, I returned to Charlottesville hopeful—both due to my restored sense of empowerment as a lawyer-in-training and my renewed appreciation for today’s ongoing social justice movements. At law school it is far too easy to get sucked into to the rhyme and rhythm of the standard legal education: briefing appellate cases, theorizing about hypothetical applications of the law, cite checking the latest journal article, and stressing about grades. I am continuously thankful for the Law and Public Service (LPS) Program at UVA Law for keeping the reasons I came to law school relevant and salient. LPS added social justice content to my 1L education, established my public interest community at UVA Law, and, most recently, provided me the opportunity to expand that community beyond Charlottesville by supporting my trip to GRITS.
Rachel Davidson Raycraft is a 2L at UVA where she is concurrently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy. Before coming to UVA, she worked in microfinance, human rights advocacy, and labor policy in Latin America and Washington, DC. Rachel spent her 1L summer with the Department of Justice, Criminal Division, Fraud Section. She will be spending her 2L summer with Morrison & Foerster, LLP in Washington, DC. Rachel plans to pursue a career in business and human rights.