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The Inclusive Office: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’

Heather Neu

Heather Neu

I was dumbstruck the first time I heard the phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see,” which occurred during Assistant U.S. Attorney Tiffany H. Lee’s swearing in as the 32nd president of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys in 2014. (Fun fact: Scholars have widely attributed this quote to Marian Wright Edelman, children’s rights activist and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund). I was struck because white people, of which I am one, had already done all the things and because I grew up in environments where women ran the show. Even just seven years ago, I was woefully ignorant of the reality of this country’s systemic injustice, particularly racism and misogyny. So as the nation celebrates innumerable “firsts,” it is increasingly vital that we work hard to ensure “but not the last.”

In the year 2021, the inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris ran a litany of firsts: the first female VP, the first Black VP, the first Asian American VP, the first Jamaican American VP, the first VP to graduate from an historically Black college and university.

At the inauguration, a squad of other firsts took the stage: Andrea Hall, IAFF Local 3920 President and the first Black female captain of her fire department in South Fulton County, Georgia; Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in history; Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice ever, as well as the first to conduct a swearing-in at a presidential inauguration.

In the year 2021, Rev. Raphael Warnock became the first Black senator from Georgia and Alex Padilla became the first Latino senator from California.

In the year 2021 (Senate confirmations pending), President Joe Biden’s Cabinet will create a volume of firsts: Janet Yellen, the first female Treasury Secretary; Avril Haines, the first female Director of National Intelligence; Gen. Lloyd Austin, the first Black Secretary of Defense; Xavier Becerra, the first Latino Health and Human Services Secretary; Alejandro Mayorkas, the first Latino Homeland Security Secretary; Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary ever; and Pete Buttigieg, the first openly LGBTQIA+ Cabinet secretary ever. Dr. Rachel Levine is slated to become the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Locally, in the year 2021, the New York State Assembly swore in its first male and female South Asian Americans and the Senate, its first Asian American from upstate. In the year 2018, Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes became the first female and the first Black Majority Leader of the New York State Assembly; and in the year 2019, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins became the first female Majority Leader of the New York State Senate. Within only the last decade, Assemblymember Helene Weinstein became the first female chair of the New York State Assembly Judiciary Committee and then of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

For our grieving Bills fans, in the year 2021, Sarah Thomas became the first female official in NFL postseason history.

Observant readers may notice my reliance on the overly formal “in the year” phrase, but I assure you, its purpose is to highlight my not-particularly-formal feeling of WHY HAVEN’T WE DONE THIS YET? Why in the year 2021 are there still firsts to be conquered? In 245 years, we haven’t had a Native American Cabinet secretary? Or a queer one? Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton has a hip-hop musical, but Janet Yellen is the first female Treasury Secretary? There was literally a wildly popular, internationally beloved hip-hop musical about a Treasury Secretary before a woman was ever appointed to that role.

As we check off (a hopefully ever dwindling list of) firsts, we need to do the active work of making sure “the first, but not the last.” Just like it is no longer enough to simply not be racist as we must be anti-racist, it is not enough to simply celebrate the achievement of the “first” and hope their presence magically fixes everything. As lawyers, we need to encourage youths with marginalized identities to attend law school and then to apply for our internships, clerkships, and jobs; when people with marginalized identities are in our classrooms, offices, and courtrooms, we need to ensure they’re receiving meaningful mentorship and support; we need to create room for them to speak openly and honestly about their experiences to us, while we also do the work of educating ourselves and acknowledging our own privileges; most importantly, we need to be committed to progress — real, meaningful progress; progress not concerned with optics or quotas, but the genuine belief that all people are created equal and are inherently entitled to equity. You can’t be what you can’t see and to perpetuate that visibility, we need to ensure that “firsts” are never “lasts.”

Heather Neu can be reached at heatherneuesq@gmail.com. If you would like to submit a column for “The Inclusive Office,” contact Ben Jacobs at bjacobs@bridgetowermedia.com.