Margaret Stapleton and Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley are both attorneys at the Shriver Center, and both focus on community justice. But Margaret—also known as Margie—has been practicing law since 1971, whereas Michelle began her legal career in 2015. They interviewed each other in June 2016 in the Shriver Center’s office in Chicago. We listened in on their intergenerational conversation.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
MS: Michelle, what do you, as a fairly young lawyer—but a very astute lawyer—wish older poverty lawyers knew about this new generation of advocates, your generation of advocates?
MMW: I wish older-generation poverty lawyers realized that they were just as young as we are when they started. There’s this misconception that the millennials are this privileged class that aren’t as invested in the future or aren’t taken that seriously. Whereas, several decades ago, the leaders of poverty law or social justice in general were in their 20s and 30s, and I hope that the older generation remembers that, that the people who were at the forefront of the civil rights movement were young people.
MS: That’s a really important answer. I wrote it down so I will have it. When we were 25 or 26 and coming out of law school, we got to do pretty remarkable work.
MMW: Oftentimes when I’m in a room, I tend to be the youngest person. I’m 26 years old. And I tend to feel out of place, like “Who’s the kid?” But then I do have to remind myself of people like Dr. King or even Julian Bond or Stokely Carmichael, people who really had an impact on social justice in this country and throughout the world—they were in their 20s. Dr. King died when he was in his 30s. It’s something that I always have to remind myself, that I have the capability to have an impact on society, and it’s nothing new. It’s not novel to be a social-change person at this age; it’s actually the norm.
MS: My first boss was Jake Bleveans at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. There were just three people in the office, and Jake would say, “You can do it! You can do it! Just go do it!” It was wonderful. So I’m going to say to you, “You can do it! Go do it!”
MMW: How would you like to be remembered, Margie?
MS: I had an experience a couple of years ago that was just wonderful. My wonderful colleague, John Bouman, wrote an application for an award for me. It was a three-page letter, talking about my legal work. It was the sort of award for people who have been working for a long time. I kept that letter; he shared it with me—and I won the award, by the way. But in many ways it was like a eulogy. It was somebody who had gotten onto the train and done this work and been a good colleague and showed up and always pulled their weight and had good ideas and was brave enough. I would like to be remembered that way.
I would like to be remembered by my clients as somebody who was there for them and cared about their concerns and did my best to get them what they wanted. And I want to be remembered by my colleagues as being a good colleague; I think that that’s really important. And hopefully remembered by my family—I have an adult son and wonderful daughter-in-law and two granddaughters now—as somebody who was there for them, but not there all the time because I had this other life. My older granddaughter actually calls the Affordable Care Act, “Grandma’s Law.” I didn’t tell her this. She was allowed to stay up and watch CNN on the night when it passed Congress. And I have a picture of her sitting on my lap as a not-yet 1 year old watching the TV screen as Congress was voting on that final thing, and she calls it my law. [laughing]
MMW: I think it’s actually catchier than “Obamacare.”
MS: I haven’t told the president.
MS: Michelle, why did you go into this type of practice?
MMW: I found that with poverty, it’s unfortunately very distinctive in that it has the capacity to impact everyone, whether it be race, gender, religion, even home state. I wanted to go into poverty law because of that. It gave me an opportunity to help people that do not necessarily look like me, while also helping my own demographic, an African American woman, a mother. And with the Shriver Center, it’s pretty cool that you have this law side, but you have this policy side, so whereas law is a vehicle for social change, I always feel like policy was the fuel that keeps it going, how we incentivize people to keep this momentum going. That’s why I got into this practice. It’s a perfect coupling of law and policy. And it’s a very unique opportunity, to say the least. Very few people do it.
It’s easy to pull on the heartstrings when you are preaching to the choir, but when you have a population of people who just don’t care about inequality or opportunity because that means that there’s less privilege for them, if you can pull them by the numbers and provide other incentives for social progress and social justice, I think that’s where policy really has a lot of its strength. Numbers tell a very compelling story.
MS: I love the numbers.
MMW: What was law school like when you were a student, Margie, and how many women were in your class? I'm excited to hear this one because we went to the same law school.
MS: I started at the University of Chicago Law School in 1967. I finished in 1971 because I took a year off to make enough money to pay the tuition. There were about 150 law students in my class. There were 15 women in my class. In the class ahead of me, there were maybe six. And then the third-year students when I was there, there were maybe three. So we were just a multitude of women: 15 of us. [laughing] And so they got us all mixed up. All of the sudden there were so many women, they just didn't know who you were.
We were just a multitude of women: 15 of us. And so they got us all mixed up.
So what was it like? Well, in the sixties, University of Chicago Law School was a very liberal law school. It was viewed as a Communist place.
MMW: Oh wow.
MS: The University of Chicago was viewed as a left-o, pinko organization in general, and the law school was a pretty liberal place. A lot of liberal people went there, a lot of liberal people taught there.
It was the era of the Vietnam War. My class went from about 150 people to maybe about 90 people by our second year because other than the 15 women, every man in the law school had to do something about the draft. A lot of us did a lot of work against the Vietnam War. I was a draft counselor, and I did a lot of work demonstrating, working on issues.
In the summer right after my first year of law school, I worked with the Medical Committee for Human Rights on Medicaid issues for about half the summer, then I spent the remainder of the summer preparing for the demonstrations and protests at the Democratic National Convention, which was in Chicago in 1968. I spent a lot of time bailing protesters out of jail. It wasn’t brilliant lawyering—I was able to bail people out because I had a lot of cash that was given to me by a lot of people who supported the protesters.
Law school was … I wouldn't say I enjoyed it. I'd say I learned a lot. I worked really hard. I'm not always smart, but I work really hard. I learned a great deal in law school, and I think people ought to work hard in law school. I actually think people learn things when they go to class, and I think it’s useful to go to class. At the University of Chicago there was this wonderful trimester, so you actually got to take a lot of different subjects. I’m not saying I liked law school, but I made very good friends. And I got to wear one of those floppy hats.
MMW: I still kept mine, actually. I refused to give it back. [laughing]
MS: I’ll borrow it.
MS: Michelle, how do your race and gender affect the way you approach your work?
MMW: It’s interesting because I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m a dual minority. I’m an African American woman, and I get pulled by race and gender sometimes in opposite directions, where a demographic that’s fighting for racial justice may be the same demographic that’s actually quite sexist and working against gender equality. For me, it’s actually forced me to address the issue of race and gender collectively and to encourage my peers to do the same, whether as people in that population or as allies. It’s really introduced me to the importance of being an ally because oftentimes, I find when I’m addressing gender with people who are not women, or race with people who are not of color, there seems to be a disconnect. We’re all struggling in some capacity, but there’s this tension of, well, if you focus too much on race then it takes away from gender, and if you focus too much on gender, that takes away from racial justice.
Justice and opportunity is not some limited fund. Opportunity is not a budgeted expense.
So I approach my practice, law, and just general interaction with people by reminding myself as a black woman and as an ally to people that are dealing with Islamophobia, people that are dealing with homophobia, that justice and opportunity is not some limited fund. Opportunity is not a budgeted expense. It should be afforded to all of us. And we shouldn’t fall victim to this false notion that, oh, well, if you focus on that issue, it limits my access to justice and opportunity. We should work as allies.
I see people in very impoverished communities in Illinois that are predominantly white and then impoverished communities in the urban areas that are predominantly black, and they're almost seen as complete opposites yet really deal with a lot of the same struggles when it comes to putting food on the table for their family and just basic needs. If there was some way to collect everyone together towards that effort regardless of race, it would really be something miraculous.
MMW: Margie, what are you most proud of?
MS: That’s one of those questions that I am not going to answer. I have difficulty with the concept of pride in an individual. I have a great family, and people say, “Aren’t you proud of them?” And I say, “I’m happy for them, but it’s not mine to be proud.” It’s not something that I want to pay attention to. So, what am I happiest about?
MS: Barack Obama. And my granddaughters. [laughing]
MMW: Not necessarily in that order.