All throughout Irene Williams’ life, she’s heard the voices.
On Friday, at 30 years old, she was set to be the student speaker at the UC Davis School of Law commencement ceremony.
But go back — back to a night when she was in ninth or 10th grade, when a neighbor from upstairs sat outside on the porch with Irene’s mother.
Irene’s family lived in Section 8 housing in an area of Houston called Greenspoint. Some called it Gunspoint — the kind of place where you took the long way home from school to avoid gang bangers who’d beat you up if you didn’t sell for them.
The kind of place where you were as likely to get shot as graduate.
Irene was the 10th youngest of 13 kids sharing a three-bedroom apartment. The littlest boys slept on a bunk bed in the hallway.
Irene’s mother, Patricia Walker, raised them on her salary as a Pentecostal minister, money earned from her oldest kids’ low-wage jobs (like Irene’s in the Kmart toy department), and the small amount of child support paid by her husband. Irene’s dad exited the picture when she was 8.
This night was a good night, though. Irene had made the Aldine High School debate team, and she’d made up her mind: I’m going to be a lawyer.
You can’t be a lawyer, the neighbor told her, you’re not white or rich.
Irene said she was sure there were lawyers of other colors.
Girl, do your research. Where you come from — ain’t nobody lawyers, ain’t nobody doctors. You’re gonna end up across the street, managing the Jack in the Box.
Irene earned good grades. But even in school, she heard the voices.
Don’t set yourself up for failure, said a career counselor. Try to pick something more realistic.
There were other voices.
Hadn’t Irene’s mom once told her, You don’t know it, Sweet Pea, but you’re excellent?
Hadn’t her mom said things like, You want to go to the moon, you want to be an astronaut, you can do it, baby?
Yes, she had.
And there was Irene’s debate teacher, too, a tiny, no-nonsense white woman who’d seen it all during her years of demanding the most of her poor students, almost all Hispanic or black.
Ms. Weisinger said, Irene, you have great public speaking skills, but more importantly you have a gift for being able to identify with people. You should think about a career in law.
And so Irene did.
Then, things nearly fell apart. Irene’s oldest brother, Lavell, died of AIDS. He was 28.
Though he’d dropped out of high school, Lavell was a sort of genius with fixing things. He worked at a Shell station. When his boss went home, Lavell let his brothers and sisters have free slushies.
He bought the Christmas gifts and school clothes. He took his siblings to Dairy Queen.
It seemed to Irene as if one day Lavell had been there, chasing them around or playing basketball, and the next she was standing at his funeral.
A voice in her head grew louder:
How is mom gonna pay the bills? Maybe I can get an assistant manager job at Kmart or maybe I can move over to Walmart, where they pay better.
One night, Irene stood in the kitchen, washing dishes.
Are you OK? her mom asked. You seem kind of off.
Irene said she planned to put off college and get a better job, so the family would be OK.
Absolutely not, her mom told her.
That isn’t something that can wait. Everything is gonna be fine. We’ve managed up until this point.
Irene earned a scholarship to the University of Texas in Austin, where she majored in government. Found a job as a barista. Sent money home.
She joined the mock trial team. Got a boyfriend.
As graduation day neared, she decided she’d take a year off before law school.
OK, her mom said, but people are going to tell you that you’re never gonna go to law school. Don’t listen to them.
Six months later, Irene moved to California, when her boyfriend (and later fiancé), Bart, landed a Silicon Valley job.
A San Francisco coffee company hired her, made her a manager, then manager of the year (twice). She earned $50,000 per year, bought a car, sent more money home.
Not all of her siblings have fared so well. One sister earned a nursing degree and another a teacher’s certificate, but one brother is doing 60 years in prison for his third strike, an armed robbery, while another served 10 for being in the car during a drive-by shooting.
Three years passed. Irene thought, This is a good life. I don’t need to be a lawyer.
And then: When people ask me what I do, am I always going to say I’m a manager at a coffee shop? It’s probably what people are gonna expect.
Feeling out of place
Irene applied to UCD and was accepted. When she flew home for a visit, her mom told everyone they met, This is my daughter — she’s a lawyer.
Mom, you can’t tell people that, Irene said. I’m not a lawyer, I’m a law student.
Oh, it’s the same thing.
If only. It was challenging not because of her age or her course work, but because, when she looked around, she saw almost no one who looked like her, who’d grown up like she had, who thought like she did.
Irene walked out onto the King Hall patio one day and looked around.
This is what the legal field looks like: It’s entitlement, it’s privilege. Even after law school, what’s going to happen? I’m not going to be with people who come from where I come from. This is not what we do.
Irene introduced herself to black people, especially older black people, whom she met when she was out, at stores or other places. She found that the reaction she received when she told them she was in law school wasn’t always positive.
Oh, why do you want to be a lawyer?
I want to help people, Irene would say.
Well, there’s better ways to help your community.
That summer, she spent 12 hours a day performing research and writing memos at a law firm. She didn’t interact with clients. It was boring. If this is corporate law?
Nope, I’m out, she decided.
During her second year, Irene served as vice chair of the Black Law Students Association and as regional representative for the National Black Law Students Association.
She joined a mentorship program started by classmates at Taylor Street Elementary School in Sacramento. The idea: spend time with third- and fourth-graders, let them see older students of color and ask their own questions.
She worked with a classmate and two alumni to plan the first King Hall Black Alumni reunion. About 45 or 50 graduates took part.
Irene heard them tell stories about how they’d once felt uncomfortable going into certain Davis stores. She heard them talk about how many black students felt forced out of the same law school where, years later, she never perceived others singling her out.
Her old feeling of not belonging made her laugh.
These people paved the way for me. This stuff they put up with on top of school — what I have to do pales by comparison.
A mock trial teammate suggested that Irene try criminal law. She accepted an internship at the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office and, soon, found herself in court, handling motions to suppress and preliminary hearings.
As she approached graduation, the DA’s office offered her a position as a research assistant. When she passes the bar exam, she’ll be a deputy prosecutor.
It’s not something she tells people about, especially people of color, not even members of her own family.
The attitude in the black community, she says, is that you don’t snitch and you don’t prosecute your own.
I’m going to do government work, she tells them.
Going her own way
The DA’s office is where Irene feels like she can make the most difference.
“I’m making sure the guy of color on the other end of the table, the defendant, is getting a fair deal,” she says. “At the same time, I’m doing what’s best for the community — I’m helping put a stop to crime.”
Irene’s classmates voted for her to speak at the King Hall commencement.
Her mom, who is undergoing emergency hip surgery, would watch her Sweet Pea online.
Irene planned to urge graduates to remember the human dimension of their work. And to hold onto their individuality in a profession in which there’s so much pressure to conform.
For awhile on Friday, standing before the hushed Mondavi Center audience, Irene would hear one voice.
— Reach Cory Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden