Just about a year ago, Jackie texted me.
“Hey Cuz. Hope you are well. Can you give me a call this evening…”
Anytime someone sends a text asking you to call, that’s a bad sign. It foreshadows something texts can’t handle. “Damn,” I thought.
“Cousin,” she’d called me that since she and Pete got married in 1987; since his last name is Williams, folks assumed I was family. After all, Williams is a pretty unique name for Black folks…that was a joke that never got old. Even now, as I anticipated the worst.
“I have cancer.” OK. I thought, maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe it’s treatable. Maybe they caught it early. Maybe…
But it was bad. Stage four was that last part I care to recall. I wanted to rise to the occasion and be the comforting, wise friend Jackie always had been to me, but I couldn’t stop crying. We said our good byes, with me struggling to find some way to make sense of what just happened.
It was thirty years exactly from the time we met. I was a first-year law student at Harvard, at a Black Law Students’ Association orientation program. Jackie was a third-year. She spotted me from across the room, immediately pegging me as being from DC because of my hair. In 1985, all the fly Black DC girls had precision-cut relaxed hair (short, feathered, and immobile). We hit it off right away, us being homegirls and all. I quickly went under her wing, embracing her wisdom about clerkships (do it), Terry v. Ohio (be ready for that one in criminal law class), and the best soul food in Boston (Bob, the Chef’s).
Our friendship grew over the years. Jackie inspired me. For one, she always knew her calling and never strayed. Social justice. As one friend said, “cut her and she’d bleed the Inc. fund,” referring to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, just one of the public interest organizations that benefited from her dedication and brilliance. I had the joy of working with her to plan workshops as part of national conference on Black women and the law. When I joined the faculty at Cincinnati Law, she helped me get funding to convene folks to strategize about women of color using the law for social change. She went on to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she absolutely soared.
The NAACP LDF tribute explains:
Berrien oversaw the agency’s 53 offices in the United States and Puerto Rico, including approximately 2,200 employees, and an annual budget of more than $360 million. Berrien also worked steadfastly to strengthen the enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act through agency guidance, litigation, and advocacy. The agency’s major achievements during Berrien’s term included adopting the-first ever regulations implementing the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act; developing and implementing a new strategic plan and the agency’s first Strategic Enforcement Plan; reducing inventory of unresolved discrimination charges by approximately 20 percent; and recovering a record amount of monetary relief for discrimination plaintiffs through administrative enforcement. Also, under Berrien’s leadership, the EEOC won the largest award under the American with Disabilities Act and largest award in the agency’s history—$240 million for the class of intellectually disabled men in EEOC v. Hill Country Farms.
In addition to that, she was the kind of boss who knew people’s names, asked about their families; the kind of friend who sent cards when your voice didn’t sound quite right.
During her time at the EEOC’s helm, Jackie spoke at Cincinnati Law under the auspices of the Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. I remember her sitting in the law school’s Crow’s Nest with Chief Operating Officer, Claudia Withers. Ever generous with her time and spirit, Jackie advised students to recognize the mentors around them. She was telling them to build a community of support at a time when many law students see one another as competition.
Among her many areas of expertise was growing community. As I remember the day I got that terrible text, I am grateful that I was part of Jackie’s loving circle. I miss my cousin, but commit to working on social justice to further her legacy.