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From The Hood To Silicon Valley: Rukayatu Tijani On What It Means To Be A First Generation Attorney

BOSS UP

There's a billion-dollar industry promising to guide the masses to purpose.

Best-selling books adorn polished store shelves waiting to be read by those starved for answers. Sold-out conferences and seminars convince us to look to their hosts for guidance. Podcasts crash through the glut with episode after episode of anecdotes, interviews, and advice. Everyone's got 'the key' to ultimate success - whatever that may mean today - and we pay them our hard-earned money and our time when many of us haven't spent time examining the course of our lives for the glimpses of destiny we so desperately seek.


The course of Rukayatu Tijani's life made her destiny clear early on. Her path to studying law was set at five years old, when she learned of African-American giants of justice like Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston. Their carefully crafted and executed litigation strategies dismantled structural racism in education and formed the foundation of American integration as we know it today. This narrative intrigued Rukayatu, or "Ruky," as many lovingly call her, and motivated her to forge a path similar to those legal champions whose pictures now grace her office walls.

A Clear, Unpaved Path

Kayla Schmah Photography

Creating a career in which she could catalyze equity, inclusion, and the reclamation of dignity was exactly what she wanted to do. But there was no blueprint for a first-generation Nigerian-American girl from the projects of Brooklyn, New York.

So the path to her Juris Doctor would be hers to cut, step-by-step.

"Looking back I'm really grateful that God kept that vision consistent, notwithstanding the context in which I grew up," she says reflectively during our call. "There's a complexity to my upbringing that I've recently brought to light; my 'hood,' where there were crack vials in the staircase and urine in the elevators, formed the foundation, in a sense, of my grit, drive, and tenacity. But it also brought forth feelings of immense pain, torment, and trauma. I never really saw attorneys growing up, so the fact that I can [now] be an advocate, and use my Brooklyn beginnings to inform the work I do, is amazingly powerful, especially as I navigate the Silicon Valley."

"My 'hood,' where there were crack vials in the staircase and urine in the elevators, formed the foundation, in a sense, of my grit, drive, and tenacity."

Ironically, Ruky has had to do a lot of climbing in her 30 years of life to reach the Silicon Valley. Some upward paths found her pushing past fear of failure and survivor's guilt. But through it all, she found her footing, showing up as her authentic self - heels high, locs set, and her signature bright smile, stretching from ear to ear. She learned to navigate life confidently and define for herself what it meant to be a first-generation attorney.

Though her childhood wasn't easy, it isn't a past she wants to bury. Living in the inner city presented hurdles. With no close examples for who she wanted to become, Ruky found guidance and encouragement in sage mentors, her education, and sometimes, her own life. "I consistently say that I grew up in the projects because I'm proud of it. It taught me determination and resourcefulness."

Leaping Over The Bar

Kayla Schmah Photography

From the outside, it would seem that the path to becoming an attorney is fairly straightforward: study law, pass the bar, and land a job at a good law firm.

But this narrative is deceptive. A closer look at the details lays bare the specific ways in which many aspiring lawyers can fall through the cracks. And those details proved challenging for Ruky, as well as many first generation professionals learning to navigate professional spaces; spaces their peers were groomed to navigate from childhood.

"[The hardest part was] not knowing what I didn't know about the application process, including what I needed to do in high school and college and beyond. Just like there's a pipeline for prison, there's a pipeline for law school. From a young age, it's assumed that you're either going to be successful in this space or you're not; so if you don't 'fit' the success metrics, it can be hard to break into the field later on."

"Just like there's a pipeline for prison, there's a pipeline for law school. From a young age, it's assumed that you're either going to be successful in this space or you're not."

She benefited from the counsel of mentors and sponsors and participated in programs like CLEO, LSAC, TRIALS - all of which armed her with information she wouldn't have necessarily been privy to. "They encouraged me to take this journey step-by-step and I got comfortable asking questions. I had a village to help guide me along the way."

From a deep-seated desire to pay it forward, Ruky founded the First Generation Purpose Project, which helps first generation professionals create actionable steps in their workplace, career, and life by utilizing the tenacity and grit they already possess. The idea for FGPP came, Tijani says, from her own road to career success and the lurking feeling of wanting to give up.

"I'm a proud first generation four-year college grad but it was a difficult journey and janky road. I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 5. And while generally, I didn't waver in this sentiment, suddenly, less than two years into my career, I wanted to quit. In fact, I was determined to quit. But I didn't know why. I had to take time to unpack what undergirded my motivations. And after reflection, I noticed that a good number of my colleagues come from lawyer families. I didn't have that network or community to ask questions or figure out things with. I didn't have a community committed to convincing me not to quit."

And then there is the assumption that with a degree in hand or a white collar job secured, there is nothing left to do but enjoy a long stretch on Easy Street. This is not the case for most first generation professionals as they are still, to varying degrees, straddling two very different lives.

"[There is the] psychological difficulty of living between two different worlds. The 'homeless to Harvard' trope conveys that as soon as you get to 'Harvard,' everything is solved and that's just not true," Tijani explains.

"When I graduated from Berkeley (a top 10 law school), I came back to New York City and lived near Harlem. I navigated New York as a young urban professional uptown while my mom was still in the projects in Brooklyn. Although I 'moved up' in a sense, I was still tethered to a background that was, frankly, still under-resourced. I couldn't run away from this, so in order to engage and appreciate both worlds, I felt like I had to do mental gymnastics of sorts - essentially moving in spaces where people paid $500 for a pair of shoes, then returning to neighborhoods where a cab ride was a luxury."

Ruky realized she had to take the time to unpack two crucial questions: 1) Why this was such a hard journey and 2) Why no one else was talking about it.

She decided to start talking.

Equipped To Equip

Kayla Schmah Photography

Through speaker presentations, one-on-one consulting, and telling her own story, Tijani wields the First Generation Purpose Project as a weapon against isolation, impostor syndrome, and intimidation for first generation professionals. Harvesting anecdotes from her own life and data from her research, she speaks to the most prevalent obstacles that first generation professionals face.

"One of the biggest [issues] I've seen is the inability to engage friends and family to 'level one up,' frankly, in career and everyday life. This inability stems from the seeming lack of networks and social capital."

Another challenge comes from the physiological and psychological effects of shifting socioeconomic statuses. This influences budgeting and forming healthy financial boundaries with family members and friends.

"What does it mean to now identify as a person with more means, newfound privilege, and social capital? And what can we do with that?" Tijani asks these questions as she finds answers along the course of her own life. And as a result, she stands as an example. "If we don't see it, we can't be it, so I articulate my story and who I am."

"If we don't see it, we can't be it, so I articulate my story and who I am."

Clear on her grounding principles and practices, Ruky offers that prayer and an array of friends and mentors are important in combating impostor syndrome, survivor's guilt, and wanting to retreat to former comfort zones. "Prayer is the big tool. I also learned to be open to different displays of mentorship, including mentorship from white men who have been so gracious and have taught me a lot of the skills needed to hone my craft."

First Generation Purpose Project is another helpful tool to stay in a profession where she's often encouraged to leave - by friends and foes alike. "My pitch [with the FGPP] is that I'm teaching first generation professionals to navigate the workplace; this encourages me to stay in this space so I give legitimacy to my brand. It motivates me to stay in it for the long haul."

Rukayatu Tijani at Yale Law School

Her recent trip to Yale Law School was her first speaking engagement as founder of FGPP. "It was all student-initiated, which speaks to power students have in how they can shape the institutions they navigate," she recalls. "The night before my Yale presentation, I was creating an elaborate PowerPoint, making sure I incorporated all the bells and whistles. But at the last minute, I decided to chuck the presentation and speak from the heart. I spoke about passing the California and New York State bar exams while my mom was on food stamps. I spoke about the daunting task of leasing a car because I grew up with a Metrocard. I spoke about going to schools like Berkeley but coming home to different spaces in Brooklyn."

And the response to that honesty was overwhelming.

"The students said they'd never heard a talk like this and they were so glad they didn't have to let go of themselves in order to pursue their greatness."

The number one lesson she's learned along her path as a first generation professional?

"Keep going, God is working. If I could go back to my 21-year-old self or even yesterday, I would say keep going. Even if you don't see it yourself, somebody sees it. So it's going to work out, I promise."

You can connect with and learn more about Rukayatu's journey and work with First Generation Purpose Project at www.firstgenpurposeproject.com and on Instagram.

Featured image courtesy of Rukayata Tijani

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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