April 20, 2020 Women in Criminal Justice

Heavy Purse: A Law Student’s Reflection on the CJS Women in Criminal Justice Task Force’s NYC Listening Session

Daniela M. Donoso

If my Tia sees me tagged in anything important on Facebook, she shares it in the 43-membered Donoso Family WhatsApp group chat. And that is exactly what happened when Florida State University College of Law posted about me being the only law student invited to join the ABA Criminal Justice Section Women in Criminal Justice Task Force. Immediately I got a call from my mom, “Y de que se trate esto?” “What is this all about?” she asks.

I explained that women are leaving the criminal justice field, and I am helping to find out why and what we can do to change that problem. I knew my family was very proud of me, even if they had no idea what the Task Force was. But at this initial starting point, I wasn’t sure what I was doing on the Task Force. Of course, I felt honored to be invited, and as any good law student would, I said yes to an opportunity. At the time, however, I was a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, Latina law student who had completed one criminal law class. I worried that I would not have much to offer.

My first conference call as a Task Force member was very intimidating. Reading everyone’s bios was jaw-dropping, inspiring, and scary. Okay, now I really felt out of place. No one was expecting me to talk, right? Maybe no one except Carla Laroche, Task Force cochair, my past clinical professor, and my current sponsor. She loves to laugh, and I make weird jokes when I am nervous, so it really made the space feel less heavy on that first call. The Task Force discussed its first-year goals, including listening to women from various pockets across the country about their unique challenges in the criminal justice profession.

Our first official listening session was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was an incredible time spent listening to powerful testimonies from women who recounted times they were passed over for a promotion, told they could not handle the work, and/or disrespected by coworkers and opposing counsel. None of us really knew what to expect, but this, this rawness, blew us all away. Then came another powerful piece from the trip: dinner.

I looked around the table and felt safe. Each of us was so different from the person we were sitting next to, and yet, we felt so connected by the vulnerabilities of others. None of us really knew what to expect, but again, we were blown away. The table dynamic felt as if we had all been close friends before. The subject matter we discussed was heavy, yet we were able to share moments of joy together and forge a commitment to the mission of the Task Force.

Identity Intersections

Women in the criminal justice profession face various obstacles including work-life balance, not being taken seriously, and lack of institutional support. Before women enter the criminal legal profession, however, they are law students, and law students are facing similar challenges.

Identity as a Latina Student

“I don’t know where I belong.”

These words were spoken by a Latina attorney who diagnosed herself with imposter syndrome during one of our listening sessions.

Imposter syndrome: doubting accomplishment with the fear of being exposed as a fraud.

In September 2019, the Hispanic National Bar Association hosted its Annual Convening in New York City. The Task Force hosted a listening panel for Latina criminal law professionals, traditionally underrepresented in criminal law, to share challenges through an intersectional lens and offer guidance to other Latinas in or planning to be in criminal law.

As a DACA-mented Latina law student, and as a Task Force member, I am especially interested about intersectionality challenges Latinas are facing in the workplace. This experience would be deeply beneficial to both my professional and personal development as an immigrant woman. This is why I am coming to FSU Law to ask if we’ve ever sent students to the HNBA Convening, and whether it would be possible to send, not only me, but other Latina students who are interested to this important Task Force event.

(Daniela Donoso to FSU Law Career Center.) My Career Center happily paid for my flight, telling me this was a “great opportunity.” The fact that the stipend is what allowed me to be present at this event, was more relevant than I could have known at the time.

Law students across the country are finding it difficult to commit to social justice work when there is no guarantee they will be able to pay their loans. In my conversations with students in Albuquerque, for example, they noted their interest in serving the rural communities surrounding them. Many leave law school, however, and must move to big cities. It is hard in rural communities to gain trust and gain employment somewhere they can advance. It is especially difficult for students with various identities who may be hesitant to live in a rural community under the current political climate.

There is a clear need for higher representation of women, particularly women of color, in the justice system within every community. The structural and institutional lack of support and resources keeps many women from joining the criminal justice profession. Law students need women who look like them to give them support, allies to tell them they can succeed and be role models. When this is lacking, students are more inclined to pursue what everybody else is doing.

I was looking forward to the listening session in NYC and I was itching to ask the panelists about the desire and danger of compartmentalizing who you are in a professional setting. Does being Latina ever feel like a bargaining chip? Is it healthy to go into a profession that wants to prosecute people who look like you?

There was no clear answer to any of these questions. Through their unique experiences the panelists all shared two common denominators: a strong mother and scholarship. They have all faced racism, sexism, failure, self-doubt, and exceptionalism throughout their career. They expressed fear of being vulnerable to verbal and physical hate crimes. One panelist described this fear as, “Just something else to carry. My purse is very heavy.”

Despite their professional success being riddled with obstacles and “heavy purses,” it was the strong female mentorship and scholarship that helped them get there. For most of them, it was their own mother who told them never to give up. They were confident in telling the younger Latinas in the room to be grounded in what you’re passionate about and be true to their non-negotiables. They recognized that their student debt was not as high as students coming out of law school now. Scholarship was a major key for them to have the freedom to pursue the right career goals for themselves. Part of their ambition today is making it possible for younger Latinas to fill roles where the panelists are.

Growing up undocumented, I always felt unsure of my future. It was never clear what opportunities were available to me. I didn’t know where I belonged.

Imposter syndrome: doubting accomplishment with the fear of being exposed as a fraud.

It was necessary for me to seek out scholarships for college and law school. At times that imposter syndrome feels truer to me than anything else. I hear the rhetoric that I should not even be allowed in this country, let alone allowed to pursue a law degree. Just like the panelists, two common denominators have helped me get to here, right now: my mother, who has sacrificed everything to make my dreams reality, and the scholarships I have received that now give me the freedom to pursue a career in social justice work.

Looking Ahead

The Task Force is envisioning ways to create platforms for ongoing support for women in criminal law. Law students specifically need the support from their schools, from scholarships, and from sponsors. Law school culture must change from the inside. Students need to be encouraged by their Career Centers to pursue scholarship opportunities.

Sponsors are people in your life who are ready to propel you forward. They make space for you, recommend you, and elevate your confidence. I would not be on this Task Force if it were not for Carla Laroche’s invitation. She saw a passion from adversity in my story and thought my perspective as a DACA-mented Latina woman and student with a strong commitment to social justice work was too important not to have at the table.

The commitment I made to this Task Force did not come from agreeing to a contract or having my name called on a roll sheet. The commitment I made was fostered through the relationships bonded over the Task Force dinner table. What we are investigating and tackling together is important. As a law student, the powerful part of being on this Task Force for me is being surrounded by diverse, professional women who want me and others like me to succeed, without having to carry a heavy purse tomorrow.

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Daniela M. Donoso is a third year law student at Florida State University College of law in Tallahassee, FL. She also works at the FSU Center for the Advancement of Human Rights specializing in immigration and social justice initiatives.