In a season of reflection and renewal, what can the past reveal about how we engage with our present?

Recently, I was asked to describe our work at PFJ through the lens of personal experience, and in the course of trying to do so, I found myself doing the difficult work of confronting my own past, and my own experience of privilege in the legal system.


In a season of reflection and renewal, what can the past reveal about how we engage with our present?
Emily Galvin Almanza
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In the Jewish faith, there is a concept of t’shuvah, which is often translated as repentance, but more properly signifies return. In a faith that recognizes a capacity to atone--to atone to God with confession, repentance, and a plan never to repeat the transgression, or to atone to one’s fellow humans by making restitution for the wrong--the expectation that as humans we fail, and, having failed, bear the capacity to learn from that experience and improve is implicit. (Maimonides feels like an abolitionist in this regard, affirming that justice and reckoning, of course, are less about punishment and more about making things right.) To have this chance is a privilege. But in order to bring about that improvement, we must return to our path, and learn from it. 


Recently, I was asked to describe our work at PFJ through the lens of personal experience, and in the course of trying to do so, I found myself doing the difficult work of confronting my own past, and my own experience of privilege in the legal system. In explaining why I practice law the way I do, and engaging in the difficult t’shuvah of examining how I came to be so deeply invested in fighting against the racist inequity of this system, I had to confront how much I had benefited from the privilege of whiteness, education, opportunity. When I was at my lowest, the same systemic bias that has harmed millions acted to protect me, and valued my future potential over my present transgressions. 


Returning to think about the stark contrast between the justice of privilege and the justice of inequity, though, can and must illuminate a path forward. A path in which we are called upon to ensure that every single person entangled in the law is given the same opportunity to succeed--and the same careful concern for their prospects--that I was once given.


Today, on Yom Kippur, it felt right to share this as my own t’shuvah. To reflect on how my own experience of privilege under the law serves as a mandate to fight for everyone to be afforded the same chance I was once given--a return to their lives, their families, and opportunity. I hope you will join me in breaking down what has been built, and building something better.  

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