Eight months ago, I returned to the United States after completing a Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship at the Anti-Corruption Bureau of Malawi. I now live in Richmond, Virginia and serve as a federal judicial law clerk to Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. I am thankful for the Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship; my experience working with the government of Malawi has enriched and informed my experience with the federal judiciary.
But when I first heard of the Fulbright Scholars program, I had assumed that the program wasn’t open for people like me. I was a senior at Yale College when I first heard about the Fulbright Program from friends who were applying. But I noticed that my classmates who were applying were mostly wealthy and white. I am an African-American first generation college student from a lower income background. I did not see people from my own background going abroad and I did not see the value of the Fulbright Program. What was the point of spending a year abroad if it didn’t directly lead to a job? After college I pursued my JD at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.
It was after I received my law degree, while I was working as an associate at a large corporate law firm based in San Francisco, California that I heard about the Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship from a friend I met via LinkedIn. He told me that the Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship is designed for early to mid-career professionals and required at least two years work experience and either a J.D. or a master’s degree. I had a gap year between my upcoming federal trial court clerkship and my federal appellate court clerkship. I decided to throw my hat in the ring and apply for a Fulbright placement in Malawi, despite never having set foot on the African continent.
The ten months I spent in Malawi flew by and constituted one of the most formative seasons of my life for three reasons. First, I was able to make a unique contribution as a Fulbright Fellow because I was neither wealthy nor white. The diplomatic community and the international aid and development community are still overwhelmingly white and privileged spaces. As a black first-generation professional Fulbright Public Policy Fellow, I rebutted the neocolonial narrative that it is only white and wealthy individuals who enter into black and brown spaces as a benevolent hand. I showed people that blackness could also represent giving versus merely receiving. My presence complicated narratives of dependency and helped local communities begin to see themselves as empowered and not resigned into cycles of victimization because of their racial background. Representation matters. Through my experience working in Malawi I returned to America with a newfound resolve to use my voice, often the only black voice, in spaces of privilege and power, to continue to disrupt these same narratives that are circulated on a domestic front. My time in Malawi demonstrated to me the unity and diversity of the black experience across the diaspora in a way that provides me with a nuanced cultural lens that will make me a better lawyer and civic leader.
Second of all, even though the Fulbright Fellowship has not (yet) led to a job, it has given me more than I could have asked or imagined. I came back from Malawi with a host of friends who I keep in touch with on a daily basis. I formed personal and professional relationships with Malawians and other expatriates who represent extensive and powerful networks. Moreover, I now have self-confidence that I can be in dramatically different environments both professionally and socially and rise to the occasion and succeed. A vocational or degree program could not have given me the tools that I picked up during my ten months in Malawi. I know that I will be a better lawyer and engaged citizen because of the experience that I had abroad. I am grateful to be numbered among those who have been equipped, trained, and launched through the Fulbright Program and excited to see those who come after me and the impact they will have on the world.
Finally, my time in Malawi inspired me to work to strengthen our governmental institutions domestically. The impact that the United States as a cultural and political force has in Malawi cannot be overstated. My Malawian friends throw Frozen themed birthday parties for their children. Malawian dance clubs play hip-hop music from New York artists. United States political developments were daily discussions at my workplace. The United States has an incredible amount of influence on places like Malawi and our actions are closely observed and often times mimicked. Noticing this dynamic encouraged me to come back to the United States and continue to work to strength our domestic institutions. If America’s presence in the world is going to cause ripples of influence, I want to help ensure that what we are spreading represents the best that our country has to offer. For example, Malawi has rampant issues with corruption, including in their judiciary. This motivated me to come back and work for the federal judiciary as a law clerk and support my judge as he makes decisions upholding the democratic ideals that our Constitution enshrines. I realized that it is not my job to change places like Malawi. My hope is that I can contribute to setting ablaze an ideal for justice in the United States that Malawians can see and borrow to set the lampstands of their own institutions on fire for their own countrymen. America is a deep well that many draw upon and through my work as a judicial law clerk I am hoping to make the water as clear as possible for those who drink from it.
Fulbright to Malawi