Essita Duncan is the principal for Heritage Hills Law, LLC, a boutique estate planning and administration law firm in Prince George’s County, Maryland. She currently serves as Co-Chair of the Section's Rights of Women Committee and Vice Chair of the Section's Elder Affairs Committee.
Where are you from? How have your experiences here, or throughout your upbringing, influenced your passions and aspirations today?
As a native Washingtonian, I grew up in the NW corridor of the city with my parents, twin sister and older brother. Having lived through the civil rights movement and 1968 riots among other events, my parents often shared stories with us about what life was like for them growing up black in America. Despite the challenges, my parents persevered to raise three black children during the 80’s and 90’s in the District of Columbia to become an auto mechanic, neuroscientist and a lawyer.
My parents’ tenacity to overcome and keep living in the face of adversity ignited my passion to fight for equity where ever I found myself in life. To that end, I started my professional career as an Assistant Public Defender for Baltimore City and subsequently as a Legislative Counsel for the late Honorable Marion S. Barry. Today, as the principal for Heritage Hills Law, LLC, a boutique estate planning and administration law firm in Maryland, fighting for equity means tackling those issues that contribute to the racial wealth gap in America.
What drives you?
I am driven by the desire to do my part to continue the fight for freedom and equality for all God’s children. In the words of the great civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free…” So each morning, I rise with the goal of working a little harder to build bridges for dialogue with people that don’t look like me. And to seek out opportunities to tear down the walls that are keeping all of us separate but unequal and bound by pains and hurts and the misconceptions we all have about each other as human beings.
What is one thing most people do not know about you that you feel they should?
Most people may not know the backstory but early on in my career, I along with some of my friends, and my husband, Colin, grew uncomfortable with where we were in life. Yes, we were helping in many but we felt we needed to do more. Our desire to do more grew into monthly community service projects around the DMV. And in 2009, we launched our non-profit, Servants Without Borders.
Over the years, through Servants Without Borders, I have had the opportunity to work with others to make the world a better place for all. Most notably, in 2016, the group raised more than $10,000.00 to provide a portable shower solution to residents of Flint, Michigan during the water crisis. Recently, Servants Without Borders raised funds to provide scholarships for the entire seventh-grade class at the Cheery Children Education Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. We are currently working with Cheery to become self-sustaining.
When you look back, what is it that you want your advocacy and professional career to stand for?
When I look back at my advocacy and professional career, I want it to be a testament to the fact that I didn’t just sit idly by enjoying the fruits of those who labored before me. But that I picked up the mantle of justice, and carried it a little closer to the finish line. And that I didn’t allow the laws, policies and the circumstances of my time to determine who I became. But with much effort and self-empowerment, I saw things change. Because I became in life what I wanted to see changed.
What is one issue which you care about or work most on and why?
As I have matured in my legal career, the issue that has my attention right now is helping to close the racial wealth gap through taking personal responsibility for the wealth we have managed to accumulate as black Americans. Yes, this country is built on a legacy of discrimination that has given way to the current wealth gap between whites and blacks and it will take intentional policy changes to bridge the gap. However, I believe simultaneously, we must do our part. So through talks, seminars, and authoring articles, I spend my time encouraging people to think differently about their wealth and be more intentional in planning. Engaging in estate planning and eliminating killers of wealth i.e. the normalcy of debt, living at or beyond our means and defining our self-worth by sporting symbols of wealth that have no appreciation value can go a long way in changing our narrative and in turn impacting our families, communities and society as a whole.
What do you feel is the greatest challenge facing this issue today?
I feel the greatest challenge to this issue today is our lack of knowledge of the personal power we each possess in building and preserving black wealth. Historically, our ability to build black wealth has been riddled with challenges at every turn from burning homes, businesses and communities, lynching, robberies, fraud, fear of theft by attorneys that didn’t look like us to systemic barriers, including redlining, subprime loans, court-ordered sales of tenancy in common properties, probate and the like. As a result, we have never developed a history of utilizing estate planning tools to preserve our wealth. Too often, we wrongfully think engaging in planning and the benefits of planning are for the ultra-wealthy and people that don’t look like us. So the wealth we do build oftentimes is lost unnecessarily due to lack of planning. Even among black Americans today, although we have amassed more wealth than our ancestors, and currently have the ability to pass on tangible wealth, yet educated or not, we typically don’t plan.
In what corners do you find the greatest support in propelling these issues you work on? In other words, who are your most frequent allies?
I typically work with other attorneys, real estate agents, CPA and financial planners that share similar views and are interested in working to improve the state of black wealth in America. We talk often, share ideas and host targeted seminars to increase the interest in planning. Additionally, I have started to become involved in specialty sections of the bar that are addressing the issue of closing the racial wealth gap through advocating for changes in the probate and real property laws. I am excited about serving as an ABA Section Advisor to the Uniform Law Commission Tenancy in Common Ownership Default Rules Committee.
What CRSJ project(s) are you working on? Or, what have you undertaken in CRSJ that you found the most rewarding to have worked on? Are there any upcoming events or projects you want us all to know about?
I receive the greatest joy when those in need. So, I was more than thrilled when the Chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, Angela Scott, invited me to chair a volunteer opportunity for Free Legal Answers in April during our Spring Meeting. It proved to be a great opportunity to provide much-needed legal assistance to the public at large while getting to know fellow members. I am looking forward to participating in another volunteer opportunity for Free Legal Answers on June 24, from 4:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. ET hosted by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice's African American Affairs Committee. This event will be a tribute to Juneteenth, honoring the end of slavery in the United States and considered the longest-running African American holiday.