Abre’ Conner grew up in a small town in Central Florida, where she was accustomed to racism both covert and blatant. These experiences shaped her desire to work on behalf of others. She has worked on Capitol Hill and for the NAACP Defense Fund, and is now a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, focusing on environmental justice, and social and civil rights - causes she has no plans to stop fighting for.
The first time I was called the N-word was by a classmate. I told my teacher about it and nothing was done. [When I was older, a] report was returned to me with a low grade. The teacher said, “There’s no way you could have written this with this level of analysis.” It was the first piece of work [the teacher] had ever seen from me. All [the teacher] knew about me was that I was a young black woman.
When my American history class in high school decided to leave out the civil rights era and only teach it as an extra-credit lesson, I spoke up. Excluding the civil rights struggle from an understanding of American history shapes how people think about others in very real ways. I questioned my teacher and talked about it with other students. My parents, who had always encouraged me to speak up for myself and be an advocate, were called in.
Eventually the principal decided that the issue wasn’t something they should pursue. No one apologized [to me], and I wasn’t in a position of power to change the mind-sets of adults who had always felt this way.
College was a time when I started to learn more about civil rights work and especially how it benefits young people. I was studying business marketing and political science at the University of Florida, taking African-American studies courses, and I was very active in campus organizations like the Black Student Union. My freshman year in 2005, the campus newspaper published a cartoon of Kanye West in a joker suit and Condoleezza Rice standing behind him with a thought bubble that said, “N-word, please.”
The Black Student Union marched down to the newspaper in a symbolic protest. The school decided to remove all of the newsstands until [the paper] issued an apology. That opened my eyes to a totally different way of looking at how people can evoke change. I understood why in the 1960s and '70s, students were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, using demonstrations in that way. It made me want to delve more deeply into advocacy work.
I did two different policy-based internships with Congress members while in college. In the House of Representatives internship, I learned how constituents influenced the workflow for Congress members. In the Senate internship, I worked in the Tallahassee office, where I learned the importance of how district offices interact with the Washington, D.C., Senate office.
Some of the feedback I got on my journey to becoming an attorney from black people was, “We don’t see any people that look like us representing us.” I wanted to help change both perceptions and outcomes.
I decided to apply to law school, but I had no idea what I was doing. I [would be] the first in my family to go to law school, which seemed great on paper, but the whole process was very overwhelming. I found a program at Florida State University Law School that helped me understand the [application] process.
When I got back to UF for my senior year, I started a mentoring program to help young people of color with the process of applying to law school. I mirrored the program at FSU, which gave me a grant, and partnered with local attorneys, law students, and judges to give mentees the guidance they needed to navigate the complicated process. I was motivated by the idea that if we really want to change how the [legal] profession looked, it’s important that everyone have access to the tools to help them succeed.
In 2009, I moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Washington College of Law at American University. It was a very big shock for me moving from Florida to D.C. I had to live an hour and a half away [from school] just to find something I could afford. The loans I was taking out paid for school and rent. I took a part-time job phone-banking for the university alumni organization to pay for everything else.
Bar review prep started the day after graduation. I was celebrating with my family, and they were all so excited. But I could only hang out for a few hours before shutting myself in my room to start studying. You spend three years in law school thinking you’re preparing for the bar, but the exam includes subjects law school may have never covered. I felt so much pressure.
After passing the bar in the fall of 2012, I started a fellowship with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I took a critical race theory class with a professor who had worked at the fund. Having a connection with that professor and doing really well in her class was helpful because she gave me insight into what to expect and what to keep in mind when applying. During the fellowship, I assisted in federal civil rights legislation coordination as well as a variety of civil rights cases, including Shelby County v. Holder [the landmark Supreme Court case that deemed sections of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional] and our clients in Fisher v. Texas [in which a white student sued the university for racial discrimination in admissions.] I learned so much about how government works with organizations that affect social change. After a year, I realized I wanted to work more closely with communities.
I had mentors in D.C. who told me about an opening for a staff attorney at the Center on Poverty, Race, and the Environment, which works closely with Kettleman City and other areas in California’s Central Valley, communities I studied in my environmental justice coursework.
It was a big transition for me to move out to California. In 2013, I passed the bar again in California. No matter where you take the bar, it’s always hard work. I didn’t know anyone at all. I learned that I needed to be OK stepping outside my comfort zone and trusting my decisions. I threw myself into my work and got involved in the community where I lived, which was Bakersfield, then Fresno.
I joined the ACLU in the spring of 2015 to work on environmental justice, civil rights, and social justice. I’ve been advocating for better protections against growers spraying pesticides near schools and daycare centers. Gaps in protections continue to disproportionately expose thousands of Latino students in the most vulnerable districts to pesticides.
A case that stands out to me was working with the Clovis Unified School District. They had a dress code policy that made a lot of students feel uncomfortable. For example, boys had to cut their hair short and couldn’t wear earrings, and girls had to dress a certain way that wasn’t “distracting.”
The district had waivers for students who objected to the dress code for religious or cultural reasons, but the school had a lot of discretion on who could get those. We had a black biracial student who was told that he had to cut his hair. When he applied for a waiver, he was told that black people don’t have a culture [exception]. There were other students who were transgender or LGBQ who felt like the dress code was very restricting for them.
We spent four months petitioning the district to change the code. We decided to work with the students to help them tell their stories at school board meetings and feel empowered in their voices. Then we filed a Public Records Act Request, which would give us access to their documents, and prove who was being suspended or reprimanded the most. It forced them to explain [the discrimination]. Within a week, the school board decided to put the dress code issue back up for a vote. In April, they finally removed the gendered language in the dress code, and moved to protect young people’s right to be their authentic selves at school. Those months of advocacy, and talking to the community, students, and the school, led to a place where all sides could better understand one another.
The work definitely takes an emotional toll. There are a lot of people counting on civil rights and liberties organizations to make sure there are some checks in place. But one organization can’t do it all. An important part of being an advocate is sometimes disconnecting from work. It can be just going to the movies, or sitting at home bingeing TV, or going to the gym. Or I’ll take a weekend trip with friends to remove myself from thinking about the issues that are constantly on my mind.
Just being a black woman in this country does influence my everyday experience. [In March 2016,] three [colleagues] went to a bar to sing karaoke. Two of us - two black women who are also ACLU lawyers - weren’t drinking. Suddenly, a bartender demanded we buy more drinks. We looked around and realized several other patrons didn’t have any drinks. There were no signs about drink minimums. The bar was only applying this mandatory drink minimum to us. Then, the bartender, almost a foot taller than me, tried to physically remove me from the bar. After I asked him not to touch me, he stormed off and called the police. When the police arrived, one of the officers asked if we thought it was a "racial thing" and after looking around the bar, noted the rule seemed "made up." And still, the police forced us to leave. My takeaway is that even talking about race and racism is uncomfortable for many people. We’ve got to keep acknowledging and working to end both overt and implicit racism.
I’m proud to be a part of an ACLU that’s swinging into high gear, ready to stop any unconstitutional laws and policies locally and on Capitol Hill. We’re especially concerned about what the next four years will mean for racial justice; immigrants’ rights; mass surveillance, particularly of Muslim communities; and reproductive justice. Ultimately, we’re here to build bridges, not walls, no matter who’s in the White House.
As long there’s a need for civil rights attorneys in California, I won’t feel like my work is done. I want my career to continue to help elevate voices of individuals, groups, and communities who do not have a platform.
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