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’DEIS Impact keynote speaker addresses inequality and the law

By Max Gould

Section: News

February 5, 2016

Germaine Ingram, keynote speaker of ’DEIS Impact’s weeklong Festival of Social Justice, gave her keynote address “The Law and the Stage: Platforms for Pursuing Social Justice” this Wednesday. Director of TriO Student Support Services Program Jennifer Morazes, Interim President of Brandeis University Lisa Lynch and President of the Undergraduate Student Union Nyah Macklin ’16 all went on stage individually beforehand to introduce Ingram and violinist Diane Monroe.

Ingram’s keynote address, lasting just over an hour and more than solely a speech, was infused with dancing and signing with Monroe’s covers of “Amazing Grace” and other songs on violin.

The speech itself focused on social change in both the worlds of law and art, and the ways in which the words “change” and “transformation” have become corrupted.

“I am suspect to transformation in law and in art,” said Ingram, as she began to recount anecdotes from her career in law and draw parallels from the history of the United States. Ingram spoke of legal transformation as something finite, and as something that would not prevent a situation from devolving into something equally bad, or worse, than what it originally was. Over 50 years since the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, schools are still racially segregated, according to Ingram.

“Why do I feel that legally induced transformations rarely go as far as they need to and rarely last as long as they should?” she asked.

Drawing on her experience at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia in the 1980s, Ingram spoke of representing a class of 300 African American men in employment discrimination claims against the union that represented ironworkers.

Her clients had been denied larger salaries, long-term jobs and other privileges that were awarded to white workers. Ingram got the union to open apprenticeship spots to minorities and made sure they got long-term jobs and lump sum monetary payments. The change did not prevail for long, however, and soon all the benefits that the workers had won were gone. After the contract ended, many of the workers were thrust into poverty and legal binds prevented another class action lawsuit from being brought on the union. It has become common for contracts to include clauses that require any legal issues to be dealt with in private arbitration rather than in court, according to Ingram.

Ingram also spoke about the adversarial climate of law as a deterrent to real and lasting values involved in social change, as well as a move towards privatization in law that often bar Americans from having their “day in court.” In Ingram’s experience, the adversarial nature of law often values winning as a primary objective and meaningful social change as a coincidental byproduct.

“I sometimes found that the legally achievable outcomes were not well matched to what my clients felt were the primary interests and objectives,” she said as she introduced an anecdote about one of her past clients for the purposes of her. Her client was able to use the law to his personal advantage in order to enact change. “It took me a while to realize what [her client] really wanted was not the standard currency in legal cases. Much more than money, he wanted to be seen and acknowledged as a hard working loyal employee,” said Ingram. When her client won a monetary settlement in the case, he donated it all back to the hospital, where it was used to promote care and comfort of patients.

The keynote address was not entirely a speech, but also performances by Ingram that occurred as she changed themes in her speech. The different dances happened in the introduction, and three other times throughout the speech as Monroe performed “Amazing Grace.” After the Q&A that followed the speech concluded, the audience met Ingram and Monroe with a standing ovation. Though Ingram’s performance and speech mark the keynote events of the Weeklong Festival of Social Justice, the festival still has many events planned to run through Sunday, Feb. 7.

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