On Community

by ursavoice

Professor Trina Jones

As the alarm buzzed, inevitably a familiar question reverberated through my mind. Am I going? The bed was warm and comfy, and it would be oh so nice to just sleep in. Invariably, however, the answer was yes. I dragged myself from bed, showered, donned a suit, and five minutes after eight I was sliding in the door behind the choir, hoping to find a seat on the crowded main level instead of being sentenced to the balcony. If I was lucky, someone mercifully slid over and I quickly joined the people around me swaying to the hand- clapping, foot-stomping sounds of gospel music. I smiled. I was glad to be in the service.

In 2001, this was my Sunday ritual as I attended a Black Baptist church in Durham, North Carolina. I went there religiously every—well just about every—Sunday morning. Part of what pulled me from the comfort of my bed was my deep spirituality; I had a desire to express thanks and associate with like- minded persons. But I have always recognized that part of what drove me to church was simply cultural. For two hours, if the Pastor kept it short, I was in the middle of a community that was as familiar to me as my mother’s hug. There were the billowing robes of the choir. There was the Pastor’s sing-song method of delivery followed by “amens” and exhortations to “preach.” There was Deaconess Smith spontaneously, yet quite predictably, “getting her shout on.” For a short period, I could escape my privileged workplace and my privileged, predominantly white neighborhood. I could breathe freely. To be sure, the church had all sorts of issues, but being Black was not among them. Each Sunday, I would leave feeling replenished, ready to give more and believing that I could be more.

By 2003, this community had splintered. The Pastor was too progressive, or so the more socially conservative members of the congregation thought. His second marriage had failed. He challenged class hierarchy by encouraging members to forego fancy attire and simply to come as they were. He listened to rapper DMX and invited “gang bangers” to church. He discussed AIDS, which was (and still is) ravaging African-American and other communities. He criticized and reinterpreted scriptures that did not support gender equality. He even had the audacity to talk about Jesus as if he was a man and not some sexually neutered being. Rumor had it the Pastor had been seen in a gay bar. He was stirring things up in ways that many of us found stimulating and refreshing. But he was too much for the old guard to swallow. Although the congregation had been growing by leaps and bounds, some complained that the Pastor had “lost his way,” if not his mind. He had to go. His ensuing ouster was ugly with everyone involved, including unfortunately the Pastor, behaving badly. After that, I stopped going to church on Sunday. I did not lose faith in God; I lost faith in organized religion. I was left questioning what it takes to build and sustain a healthy community.

This experience came to mind in September as I was reading the first issue of Voice and as I again began to reflect on the community we are creating at UCI Law and the values it will hold. When I arrived at UCI Law in 2008, each member of the founding faculty no doubt had a vision of the sort of community we hoped to establish. Many of us also recognized that just because we arrived first did not mean that we held a proprietary-like interest in the law school or that we were the sole or even the most important determinants of its future. We understood that there would be competing visions that would need to be negotiated as additional players (students, administrators, and other faculty members) arrived. Many of us welcomed this challenge, this process of collective creation and discovery. One of my hopes for UCI Law was that the law school would be an inclusive place, where difference would not be feared, but engaged. My aspiration was for something more than a superficial type of diversity where we would feel as if we had accomplished something important by simply eating bulgogi, tacos, or collard greens every once in a while, or having a few people of color, sexual minorities, or physically challenged persons sprinkled within our mix. I hoped for a place whose occupants would reach across the boundaries and borders that too often divide—that we would courageously share and be receptive to insights gleaned from our various backgrounds and experiences.

I have been heartened by the ways in which UCI Law students are simultaneously forming and transforming this place. The creation of a newspaper for discourse and dissent in year three of the law school’s existence is simply amazing. But more amazing and important are the messages about this community that are contained within the first two issues of Voice. I was pained by Denny Chan’s description of his first trip to San Diego and his frustration at being reminded of the ways in which Asian Americans continue to be racialized as foreign. I was moved by Irina Trasovan’s reminder that “alliances are essential and require no justification” and her willingness to walk the talk by attending (and encouraging others, including me) to attend Los Amigos of Orange County meetings at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. I have been encouraged by Lauren Davis’ “lollygabbing”—or rather strong argumentation—about how various forms of expression should be accorded different levels of protection. I have been inspired by UCI Law students who desire to hear the voices of those who have been and continue to be marginalized— students who have organized and attended panels, written essays, and organized reading groups and lectures on educational reform, immigration policy, same-sex marriage, tribal sovereignty, and other complex and controversial policy issues. And student efforts extend beyond this year. I recall the sleep-deprived weary stares of members of last year’s inaugural class as they struggled to balance the demands of their 1L year while simultaneously organizing the PILF auction, participating on faculty committees, and forming student organizations. They did all of this with no upper-class students from whom to seek advice.

I am no longer naively optimistic about institutions or the possibilities for change. As my own scholarly work, and that of Professors Barnes, Chacon, Lee, Weinstein, and so many others shows, the prevailing impulse in the United States is often to exclude, rather than to include—to suppress difference rather than to encourage it. There are formidable structural and social barriers to inclusion in this country. UCI Law is not immune to these forces. Like in many law school classrooms across the country, African- American and Latino/a students are woefully underrepresented at UCI Law. While UCI Law has a richly diverse faculty, the Law School cannot rest on its laurels, but must continuously press to ensure that this remains a place where women, people of color, and other historically marginalized peoples will want to be. As Jennifer Elrod’s observations in the pages of Voice remind us, “talking the talk on diversity is important but walking that talk is really what is needed.”

Despite these challenges, the students at UCI Law are providing reasons to believe that this community will be different. Exercising voice, especially when one is representing an outsider perspective, requires courage and a willingness to take risks. Building community requires that we be honest about who we are, what we aspire to be, and where we fall short. It requires that we listen to each other, even when listening is hard or we disagree. I salute all of the UCI Law students who are undertaking the hard work of negotiating what the principle values and commitments of this community will be. It is for this reason that I close with words directed to you.

Back in 2003, I learned that difference is not what disrupts community, fear of difference does. When faced with new ideas and the winds of change, a lack of leadership, courage, and conviction caused my church community to implode. You cannot allow that to happen here. There will be days when you will not want to come to campus, when you will prefer to sleep in. But I hope that you will be pulled out of the comfort of your beds and drawn to this place because it has much to offer you and you have so very much to offer it. You are, as Dean Ortiz reminded us, pathmakers leading where there is no path. If you take this task seriously and stay true to your goals, then when you leave in one or two years, I am sure that you will feel not simply temporarily replenished, but permanently empowered—empowered to do more and be more than you ever could have thought possible when you arrived.