My Mother as a Role Model

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I often accompanied my mother to work when my after-school babysitter called in sick or was otherwise unavailable. Encouraged to be quiet, I sat under her office desk, unnoticed by the steady stream of clients who came and left. Her specialty was family law and she worked three days a week at the Hartfield Legal Clinic in South Detroit. Because good child-care was hard to find, it was my playground on many late afternoons.

As a privileged child, I didn't know that the clinic was considered the "bad" part of town or that my mother was considered crazy to practice there. She is a talented attorney and could have secured a partnership at her choice of the city's many fine law firms. But my mother was an exception in her field, the rare African-American woman raised in inner city poverty who successfully made it through college and law school. Few people understood why she refused to use her ticket out of South Detroit and instead returned to work at the free legal clinic there.

I've only started to understand it myself in the past few years.

All I knew was that my mother was a lawyer who worked to improve people's lives. On any given afternoon, she'd see up to 20 clients and resolve a wide range of problems. A typical day brought clients who were being evicted and needed to know their legal rights. Others were fighting for child support from ex-lovers and husbands who had shirked responsibility for their offspring. Others were elderly people who acknowledged their own mortality and the need for a living will. The clients were a challenge, many unable to read the simplest legal documents. My mother would calmly, slowly read each line to them and make sure they understood. She would challenge them...