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    We Belong at the Table

    By Tyrone Hanley–

    When I went to law school, there was that initial reaction of: Oh! There are already too many lawyers in Washington! But guess what? There weren’t—and still aren’t—many lawyers who are gay and Black, grew up poor, and were raised by a Black lesbian mom. I think the policymaking world needs more people with my lived experiences because that’s what has been missing. We need to be at the table.

    Even though a person can understand poverty from an academic and theoretical standpoint, I don’t think someone can fully grasp the emotional and mental side of it: the fears, the shame and the stress of survival. These things impact the decisions that poor people make every day, including decisions that may not seem rational to someone who has never experienced poverty. Therefore, it is important for the people that have experienced poverty to be at the forefront of this fight. And that’s why I’m here!

    My message to underrepresented students who are thinking about entering the policy and/or legal profession is: Yes, you DO belong here. The system might not welcome us, but it does not mean that we don’t belong. I will be the first to acknowledge that a career in policy or law can be a rough and alienating path for the most marginalized. I seriously considered dropping out two months into my first semester of law school. I was like, “What am I doing here? What is going on? I can’t get this. I don’t understand what these people are talking about.”

    Now, I work on policies that center members of the LGBTQ community with the most at stake. Every day is different, and I work to raise the profile of issues that I am passionate about, such as LGBTQ poverty and the criminalization of LGBTQ people and those living with HIV. It was really hard to get to where I am today, but I am so thankful that I never gave up and that I can do the work that I do now.

    I believe that we are constantly going through a learning process. And as challenging as it can be at times, I highly encourage people to enjoy the never-ending learning journey that is social justice policy work. There are going to be good days, and bad days, and everything in between, but this work is worth it. I am regularly reminded that I do my best work when I am being my authentic self and permitting myself to be vulnerable with my colleagues.

    Tyrone Hanley is the Senior Policy Counsel at NCLR, where he focuses on the criminalization of queer/trans sexuality and those living with HIV and LGBTQ poverty. Hanley was a creator of the #EndBadHIVLaws campaign with the Center for HIV Law & Policy and Human Rights Campaign. He was also a co-author of the first national LGBTQ poverty agenda, “Intersecting Injustice: A National Call to Action, Addressing LGBTQ Poverty and Economic Justice for All,” and is a co-founder of the National LGBTQ Anti-Poverty Action Network.