Walking Home By Myself: A Luxury that Should be a Right

Last night I went out for a friend’s birthday. I left my apartment in Northwest Washington, D.C. at about 10pm and got home about a quarter to one. It was a 35-minute walk each way. As I was walking home, I thought about how lucky I was to be in this position. My walk was well-lit, there were plenty of people and cars out, and I felt totally safe. I put my headphones in and listened to music, and never felt like I had to look over my shoulder.

It made me think back to times when that wasn’t the case. When I lived in Fortaleza, in the state of Ceará, in Brazil, I wouldn’t dream of doing something so rash. Walking 35 minutes alone, at night, as a young female, was unthinkable. During the day was already scary enough. I thought about this past summer, when I worked in Northeast D.C., in an impoverished neighborhood where I didn’t even feel comfortable listening to music during my less-than-ten-minute-walk from the metro station to the office.

Having the freedom to walk around your neighborhood is a luxury in this world, but it shouldn’t be. My desire to transform that luxury into a right is a huge reason for my interest in criminal justice. When I lived in Brazil and began to feel like a prisoner in my own city – always on edge about my whereabouts, always alert to threats because the possibility of robbery, assault, and worse was always present – I began to ask why it was this way. What makes communities unsafe?

When I started to understand how the criminal justice system perpetuates insecurity, how it fails to promote public safety, I started to get really interested in learning how to fix the system. When a system is marked by impunity, inefficiency, corruption, misaligned incentives, and -isms of all sorts (racism and classism to name a few) that prevents those who really pose a danger from being locked up; locks up people who shouldn’t be; invests only in surveillance and control mechanisms instead of infrastructure likes schools and jobs; does nothing to rehabilitate those incarcerated so that they will have a successful reentry into society; and uses race and income as a proxy for criminality, among other issues, what results is an environment where we are not free to walk in peace.

Living in a dangerous neighborhood transforms your lifestyle into one of survival. You live in nothing short of a war zone and develop defense mechanisms to deal with it, defense mechanisms that further break down community by spreading mistrust and scaring people away from being in the streets.

I realize how lucky and privileged I was that I had the choice to not walk home at night in Fortaleza. I realize how lucky and privileged I am to be able to go out at night on my own in D.C. and feel confident that I will make it home safe.  But it shouldn’t be such a big deal. Living in a safe community should be a right. It IS possible to create safe communities. We CAN make systems that help rather than hobble community engagement. I KNOW it is possible to live in communities where I can walk by myself and be ok. Why can’t it be that way for everyone?

Share your ideas of how to make communities safe. What are the elements of a safe neighborhood where people feel free to walk outside, even at night? What works and what doesn’t?

That’ll Cost You a Joke: Experiences from Being a Young, Female Law Student

If this story were a hashtag, it would probably be #onlybecauseI’myoungandfemale.

I am a law student, and this semester I am in a clinic, in which a fellow student and I work on cases under the supervision of an attorney. For one of our cases, I needed to get some court documents that weren’t available online, so I called the clerk of the relevant court to see if the documents were on file.

When I called, I mentioned the document that was my highest priority and the court did in fact have it. The clerk asked me how I would like to get the document. I asked if it was possible to email it to me and the clerk said yes, because he found it quickly and it wasn’t a long document, so he would scan it and email it to me, and he wouldn’t charge me for it, but I would need to email him first to remind him of my request and to tell him a joke, even if it was a cheesy one.

Put off by what I perceived as a lack of professionalism, but feeling that I needed this document because it would determine whether or not I could make a certain argument on behalf of my client, I sent the clerk an email, restating the terms of our agreement and letting him know that I owed him a joke.

He responded back with the document, teasing me about whether or not he had truly agreed to give me the document for free, reminding me that “the charge is one joke.”

Feeling further put off and worried that my supervising attorney, who was cc’d on the emails, would question my professionalism, but realizing that this clerk was someone we would need to interact with again and again (a so-called “repeat player”) that for the sake of the clinic I needed to keep on our good side, I replied briefly, thanking him for the document, asking a question about the document he had sent, and including a truly cheesy joke I found after googling “cheesy jokes.” He replied saying he liked the joke and that “it’s all about the effort.”

A few days later, I discussed the incident with an attorney who is familiar with the clinic’s work. I felt embarrassed about the transaction, but she stopped me, assured me that I had done nothing wrong, and asked me, “But do you think he would have asked for a joke from one of the male students in the clinic?”

The answer was no, and what followed was a great discussion about some of the hurdles young, female law students and attorneys face. A lot of those hurdles fall into the general category of others (generally men) not taking us seriously. The attorney I spoke to (who is herself young and female) shared several stories of how when she first started practicing, male attorneys would regularly tell her to smile or cut her off. Probably in the vast majority of cases, it isn’t meant to be condescending or paternalistic, but it is and it is so normalized that attorneys don’t even notice when they do it. I’m sure that’s what happened with the clerk; he probably thought nothing of asking a joke of a female law student who sounded young and was in need of help. I hadn’t realized in the moment that that was what was happening, but I knew instinctively that this wasn’t right – who asks for jokes when you are seeking court documents? – and felt relieved to know that my uneasiness was justified.

We talked about the struggle of keeping the peace with repeat players while maintaining professionalism (and dignity, frankly). We talked about how to handle similar situations in the future. For example, I could have ignored what he had said in the phone call and not mentioned the joke issue in the email at all. Or if he really pushed back, the clinic could have paid for a copy of the document. It’s worth it.

Although this was a very small incident with very low stakes, it raises so many issues that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn are relevant to professional women in all fields. How do we combat the misconception that we are not as competent as men just because of our gender? How do we challenge the expectation that we have to be bubbly and happy all the time – but if we are, we are also perceived as being less competent? How do we establish appropriate boundaries and demonstrate assertiveness without coming across as bitchy and closing doors? How do we express our femininity without feeling that we have to apologize for it? I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to digest this incident and explore these issues so early on in my legal career, but I imagine a lot of these experiences never get aired.

So that’s my closing ask: Let’s get that conversation started. Have you had a similar experience? I would love to hear from you and learn how you handled the situation.