I posted a revised version of this below, but I'm keeping this one here for the sake of comparison. Thanks in advance to all you read it!
Winter in West Michigan is terribly cold, especially when your family leaves you behind for a relaxing vacation under the Mayan sun. It is even colder when you have nowhere to sleep but the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, where you must pass a drug test to stay in the dormitory. I saved myself the embarrassment of testing “dirty” and, instead, chose to sleep on the floor. I convinced myself that I’d be too claustrophobic to sleep in a crowded dormitory – as if the alternative of sleeping on the floor in a crowded room of drug-addicted men might be more conducive to an uninterrupted night’s sleep. The other option, sleeping alone outdoors in the dead of winter, was out of the question, for what my exorbitant designer clothes exceeded in cost, they lacked in warmth. I was two months out of my second of three stints in rehab, and had managed to find a trap door at each and every “rock bottom” I hit.
I was admitted to my third and final rehab in June of 2008, at which time I tested positive for HIV and chronic Hepatitis-C. Although HIV is no longer the death sentence it was in the 1980’s, coinfection nearly triples the mortality rate, unless the Hep-C can be quickly eradicated with an aggressive treatment that involves a rigorous six months of chemotherapy with Interferon. My treatment lasted through the first four months that I was back in school. Although the thought of sleeping through those painful four months was tempting, I had learned by extensive trial and error that giving into the temptation of instant gratification was precisely the habit I needed to break. I was also – and in no small part – privileged to be under the medical supervision of my father, whose specialty is Hepatology. As I became accustomed to the side effects of the chemo, I noticed that the fatigue, depression, and body aches seemed to diminish as I spent more and more time outside of the house. I endured the treatment while maintaining sobriety by regularly attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, keeping up with my schoolwork, and completing an internship at the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce.
As an advocacy intern at the Chamber, I was responsible for writing position statements on issues relevant to business and governmental affairs. One such assignment was to draft an opposition statement in response to a proposal by the Michigan Organizing Project (MOP). This proposal was intended to act affirmatively for convicted felons seeking employment with private businesses that received public funds. I thought of the homeless men with whom I shared the floor of the Mission, and of the women and men in rehab alongside whom I fought the real war on drugs. Many of these people were convicted felons, but I knew them first and foremost as people struggling for survival against unbeatable odds. One consequence of this widely misunderstood struggle, and a reflection of its over-regulation by the state, is that addicts are heavily burdened with the most tarnished of legal records. I witnessed firsthand my fellow addicts’ many failed attempts to secure employment, which was a necessary condition for completing rehab. The catch-22 was that for many convicted felons, successful completion of rehab was a necessary condition for transitioning back into mainstream society. My male and financial privilege helped me to barely evade the law, and subsequently get the job, at the expense of many women and poorer, darker men situated beneath me. The MOP proposal I was asked to oppose would have been a step towards the subversion of this self-perpetuating and oppressive hierarchy.
I was torn between honoring a commitment I had made to my manager at the Chamber and a personal commitment to a substantive and radical understanding of social justice. A very useful skill I have developed in recovery is to approach all conflicts with humility and to ask for help when in need. I stepped back and took stock of the situation: I was an unpaid intern, still young in recovery, and trying hard to put my life back together. I asked my professors and mentors for advice, and it became clear to me that I was responsible for completing the assignment, regardless of how deeply antithetical it was to my beliefs and experiences. Not only was this a practice in humility but it was also a practice in creativity and flexibility. If I expected others to accept my experiences as valid, I must at least be willing to acknowledge and accept as valid the experiences of others. This assignment was a pivotal learning opportunity for me to assume another’s viewpoint and thus to better understand my opponents and the ideology informing their policies. Though the structural inequalities underlying this problem persist, I have found pockets of space within society where everyday resistance and agency is possible. To take up my agency and resist accordingly requires humility, creativity, and flexibility.
As a system that reproduces and regulates these subjective experiences, the field of law is a potentially transformative space within which I can apply with humility, creativity, and flexibility my unearned privileges towards the liberation of others. As an upper-class, HIV+, gay, Muslim man in recovery from addiction and anorexia and a survivor of Hepatitis-C, I initially suffered gravely from having such a conflicted identity. My continued growth above and beyond this conflict has enabled me to reconcile this tension. Along the way, I learned to survive by building genuine and mutually productive relationships with others who were similarly socially stigmatized as junkies, bums, and monsters. All are deserving of representation and justice, but the regulation of certain acts and identities has rendered some people increasingly marginalized and thereby voiceless. I understand this voicelessness both practically and theoretically. It is no coincidence that the overwhelming majority of those who successfully recover from addiction have the financial means to afford expensive trips to rehab. Nor was it coincidental that the majority of people at the Mission were brown or black. Nearly every woman I met on the streets was a survivor of repeated and unpunished acts of sexual violence.
My recovery culminated in a humbling waking up process through which I have developed a creative and flexible perspective on problems and solutions especially relevant to the deployment of law in society. Though I left several women and men behind in my recovery, I have not forgotten them. Many of the addicts and people without homes with whom I shared a common struggle for survival are in an ever-pressing need for transformative and compassionate legal representation. I am now in a position to give back to those whom I left behind. An education at the University of Michigan Law School will enhance my unique experiences with the knowledge, resources, and credibility to provide representation accordingly. Although I cannot speak for every addicted HIV+ gay man of color, I am equipped not only to rise beyond the rigorous demands of a U of M education, but also, and more importantly, to understand the traditionally misunderstood, so that they can speak through me in a society where they have otherwise been marginalized, outlawed, and silenced. By building a career directed towards the subversion of structural oppression, I will provide innovative and impeccable legal counsel to those whose marginalization would otherwise be exacerbated by the law. With your consideration, I hope to begin this career with a Wolverine JD.