By Bréyon Austin
Pro Bono Coordinator at Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco
I’ve always known I wanted to be an attorney. My mom used to say I decided that at age seven and stuck with it. And it’s true, through being homeless in high school, and working three jobs in undergrad, to half starving my way through law school, I had one goal: become a lawyer.
Then I failed that damn bar exam and it broke me. I didn’t mean to let it, but it did. After overcoming so many hardships, this damn test took me down. And the shame… the shame of knowing that I had what it takes to pass, but hadn’t.. The shame of watching all of my friends pass. And the loss… the loss of all that I’d thought I’d be.
My mom was so proud of me. First in the family to go to college, first in the family to go to law school. She never hesitated to brag about me or my achievements – always let me know that I got it from her.
Shortly after I failed, my mom was on her deathbed in a coma. I impulsively whispered in her ear that I’d passed the bar and was a lawyer. A lie I’m glad I made. A lie I was committed to make true.
2020 was a time of great pain for so many. So many of us lost loved ones, so many of us watched the police murder black and brown people. So many of us vowed to make change. Taking to the streets of Oakland felt different this time. Standing up to protest police brutality and the murders of black and brown people relit something in me. Watching video after horrific video of senseless murders broke me, and built me back up. It helped me to realize that this bar exam, this profession is so much bigger than me. My shame didn’t matter. My loss wasn’t permanent.
So starting in June I got my ass up at 2:00AM every day and studied. Then worked from 10-5, then studied some more, before taking my ass to bed at 8:00. Everyday, without a break. And every single day I repeated the names of some of the many murdered by the police. And I still do.
I say their names to honor the lives they lived. I say their names to hold their killers accountable (even when the courts won’t). I say their names to remind me of why I wanted to be an attorney. To remind me of what I’m fighting for. I say their names because their names are mine. And I will continue to say their names even as the list grows longer.
“This means something because it’s so much bigger than I am. This means something because representation matters. People who look like me need advocates that look like me. I’m proud of what I’ve done. But I also recognize the inherent racism in the legal field and in the bar exam itself. We all have a responsibility to mend broken systems of oppression. Here’s hoping this license will get me a step closer to that goal.”
So I studied and worked and tried to avoid Covid from June-October. And there were tears, so many tears. And long days where I wanted to give up. And nights where I questioned my intelligence. But my partner held me, held it down, and held the household together. Even when I’d wake her up at all hours to ride the emotional rollercoaster with me. I will forever be grateful to her for that unending support.
I cried out to my ancestors: mom, dad, grandmas, all of them, from way back. Meditated on all who marched, sat and fought before me. Dreamed about those who will continue the fight after me. I leaned on my friends and family and actually believed their words of encouragement and reminders of my badassness. I charged my crystals and harnessed my Black Girl Magic. And I took that damn bar exam. And I passed.
When my Auntie told me to write about this she reminded me that, “The fact that you didn’t quit means something! Something to be proud of!”
This means something because it’s so much bigger than I am. This means something because representation matters. People who look like me need advocates that look like me. I’m proud of what I’ve done. But I also recognize the inherent racism in the legal field and in the bar exam itself. We all have a responsibility to mend broken systems of oppression. Here’s hoping this license will get me a step closer to that goal.
To my friends, family, community, clients and colleagues: thank you for believing in me, pushing me, reminding me of my strength and celebrating me. Couldn’t have done it without all of y’all. Can’t wait to celebrate in a post-COVID world.
To 7 year old Bre: thank you for believing in me.
“This took a long time, but it took the right time. You understand what I’m saying? It took the time that it was supposed to take.” – My Uncle Gerry
Note by Barbara Duffield, Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection: I met Breyon nearly 20 years ago, in the fall of 2001, when she received a scholarship from the National Coalition for the Homeless, where I was Director of Education (that program was the seed of SchoolHouse Connection’s Youth Leadership & Scholarship program). Breyon’s perseverance, determination, and tenacity are an inspiration, and illustrate why we must always support the dreams and aspirations of young people – each day, every day, and year after year.