Thank you, Chakir Underdown, for having me on your podcast. Like I said at the end--you can't get rid of me now! Looking forward to future collaborations especially thinking more about accessibility in law schools for people with psychiatric disabilities. I feel like my answer to your question was inadequate. While I wouldn't urge anyone to disclose in what could be a hostile environment, I would say to law students with psychiatric disabilities that you are not alone! That you are enough. To let go of the rat race for unattainable perfection that law school embodies. What the legal system really needs are people like you to be your authentic selves & to push the boundaries of inclusion! Sí se puede! 🔥
COLORBLIND: MEET YOU AT THE CORNER OF INTERSECTIONALITY - A CHAT WITH KATHERINE PEREZ
August 6, 2017
Chakir Underwood: Good evening to all of our listeners, you are on with Kinky Summer and I am here with Katherine Perez. How are you?
Katherine Perez: Hello! I'm great! How are you doing?
Chakir: I'm well. Katherine is one of our AAPD Paul G. Hearne Award winners and you won along with Ola. Can you tell me what you did to win the award?
Katherine: Sure. So, earlier this year, I was incredibly honored to attend the American Association of People with Disabilities Annual Gala and to receive the Paul G. Hearne Leadership Award, which they honor for emerging leaders in the Disability Rights Movement. So, I guess I'm an "emerging leader" in the Disability Rights Movement! And, like I've told you before, I felt when I got it, it was so pre-mature, because I had just started, I was just six months in to the co-founding of the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities. Well, and also a lifetime of dedication to people with disabilities. But, just six months into this organization. I was not well-known within this disability rights community. And, I remember entering the gala--it was so beautiful--all the leaders within the rights movement. Like 500 people, everyone dressed up, people like Judy Heumann were there! So, I walk in and I'm just a nobody. And, then they present the award, and it was so beautiful and so honoring the way they did it. And then, I go up. I give my speech. I think I cried through the whole speech because I was just so--it was an incredible moment for me. And, when I came down from the podium from the speech, people basically formed a line in front of me. I went from being nobody in the room to now everyone knew who I was and knew about the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities. I networked that day, and the networking hasn't stopped. So, even though I felt like it was pre-mature, because we hadn't done that much work yet, the award was a motivating factor for me to keep going. And, since then, I feel like every week now, I have been connecting with different people in the rights movement and creating collaborations and coalitions with other people. So, now we ourselves are becoming a powerhouse, the coalition, and it's doing really good things.
Chakir: Can you explain to me what is the Coalition?
Katherine: Sure. I am one of the co-founders, but one of many of just phenomenal people. I gathered together people within my realm. As you know, I'm a law school graduate and currently a PhD candidate, so a lot of our co-founders are either in academia, are attorneys, are directors of programs, they themselves have started non-profits. I would say that 90% of us--we have maybe like one ally--but most of us identify as Disabled Latinxs. I myself identify as a Disabled Latina. And, we're very proud of that. It's both lead by and for this identity group. And, essentially what we have done is we have all found each other! We are a national coalition. We have people from Northern California all the way down to Florida and Puerto Rico, New York, Chicago, people in the South. And, essentially, these Disabled Latinxs who have been working within our community have sort of felt isolated in the work that they are doing. They are either in a Latinx organization or a disability organization, or they have started their own, and they feel like they are in their own silo working on the project at the intersection of disability and Latinidad. And so we have all just basically found each other--all leaders in our communities. It's like someone said at our second conference, when we finally met each other face to face, that it felt like coming home and we didn't even realize that we were away from home this long. So, really the first thing that the coalition does is it has brought together all these incredible leaders in the Disabled Latinx Movement, to support each other and build off the synergy, and to spread what we now call our "Disabled Latinx Movement." The second part is reaching out to our community. We all have similar experiences and similar goal of united the disability community and the Latinx community. We all have the same experience of people in the Latinx community not doing enough outreach to people with disabilities, and then in the disability community, there is always more call for diversity, more diverse leadership, and more people to identify with the cause. So, we're there on the grassroots level trying to get those who have disabilities but don't really know about the Disability Rights Movement, or don't identify as Disabled, don't really know about their rights, to join the movement. We are an identity org. We obviously take political stances. So, we get more people involved in disability rights and disability justice.
Chakir: That's amazing! As you look at yourself as someone who has intersecting identity groups to which you belong, how have you been able to navigate that throughout your life, as a woman, as a Latina woman, I know you're under "woman of color", and you're disabled as well. How does that all flow together for you as you were growing up? Was something pushed to the forefront more than others?
Katherine: Yeah. Yeah! I love the way you just framed that right now. How did that flow together? And, it didn't. I think my identity felt really fractured. And, up until recently, like I said, up until recently, we just had our second annual conference at the Ed Roberts Center in Berkeley, California, just a couple of months ago, and meeting up with other Disabled Latinxs really was the first time I found my people who had these intersecting identities who got it. Otherwise, I felt like I was either existing in a disability space or I was existing in a Latinx space, right? And, both spaces didn't understand my other identity. So, my own identity formation has been an evolution. I have mental disability. So, when I was younger, I thought of it more as a diagnosis, it was a health thing, something I took meds for and went to therapy for. If I could find a cure for it, that would be great. It wasn't about being part of the community, or being part of the culture, or identifying as Disabled even. I identified more as being "mentally ill" and now I say mental disability because I identify with a disability community. My sister has intellectual disability, and she's a year younger than me. She was the one who got me into disability justice because she was more... what we have is like I have is more the "non-apparent" disability and she has the more "apparent" disability, so she was in the disability community from a very young age. So, my sense of disability justice was really raised through her. So, again with this idea of the evolution of identity, my disability identity really wasn't firm until my adulthood years, recently, when I felt like I could really claim it. And, meeting these people who are Disabled Latinxs was really the first time where I've felt like a community who really understands what it was like to live within the intersection of Latinidad and disability.
Chakir: Well, I definitely understand that! So, you mention that you are a law school graduate, and now you're a PhD candidate. I mean law school is tough, let's just put that out there!
Chakir: (Laughter). Tough is one word to describe law school.
Katherine: (Laughter). You know that!
Chakir: Yes! So, what propelled you to just say "you know what? Let me just go get this PhD, too"?
Katherine: Right. (Laughter.) So ridiculous. But, you know if I were to go back I would do it again. I'm having the time of my life. When I went into law school, I wanted to be a disability rights attorney. And, I still do. And, I probably will when I graduate next year, I will maybe practice for a few years before I go into academia or policy. But, when I went to UCLA Law, in the three years that I was there, they never offered a Disability Law course. I started a Disability Law Society at UCLA, and we held a conference, and that's when I sort of did the research on who are the critical disability legal scholars out there. And, there's very few. Mighty, but few! And, I was in the Critical Race Studies program at UCLA Law, with some of the most foremost scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw, Devon Carbado, Jyoti Nanda, etcetera. And, I just loved what they were doing critiquing the law through a Critical Race Studies perspective, and I thought "we need to do this in disability." Not only do I want to practice within disability rights law, I want to critique it, and I want to push the boundaries of it, and I want to help it evolve into better policy. And, because I didn't have that foundation... again, I never even took a disability law course. I looked up programs for what that would be like. And, I found this program at UIC, which is where I am at now. I think it's the only PhD program in Disability Studies in the nation. It's a phenomenal program, and I am starting my fifth year there. And, I am so happy that I am. And, now I am actually doing the work of merging Critical Disability Studies perspectives into the law, and then hopefully will be pushing boundaries as a Critical Disability Legal Scholar.
Chakir: That's quite amazing. I applaud you for taking on another academic school.
Chakir: I mean seriously, it's a level of discipline that many people would shy away from in a heart-beat.
Chakir: I mean the amount of reading that you do in law school, you know it's just like "I'm done!" I remember, 2L summer, I finished, and I am like "I don't even want to read a magazine." Now you're sitting here saying "I'm going to dive into a dissertation!"
Katherine: Exactly. Yea, I think what I told you before when we talked about this, I think I probably have the same level of work, maybe even more, but at least now it's all focused on my dissertation, and what I love to read and what I love to write about. So, you know, I don't have a contract class that I have to worry about! (Laughter.) That I'm not necessarily interested in. So, you know, even though it's a lot of work, it's my passion. I'm living my passion. So, I'm incredibly lucky.
Chakir: That's wonderful. So, what is your ultimate goal when you finish this PhD, you know, you have this coalition, you have your credentials... what is next for Katherine?
Katherine: So, like I said, the AAPD Paul G. Hearne Award thrust me into the leadership of the Disability Rights Movement. And, for me the future of the disability rights movement is intersectional, necessarily intersectional. So, whatever I do, I feel committed as a disability advocate and activist, not only as a scholar but as an activist. So, now we're about a year into our coalition, and we're now applying for our 501(c)(3) status. So, hopefully when I graduate, by then, we will have that status, and I will take on a big role as either the ED or a board of director position on the coalition. And, it will just continue grow, and I have so many ideas about how we can expand it. And also, like I said, because I'm going into 7 or 8 years in academia, I think I'm probably going to be ready to practice law or do something in the policy realm just to get out of the ivory tower and my head out of the books, and sort of fight the fight with all these incredible disability rights leaders who I have made connections with over the years. I'll still be part of the community, just fighting from a different office!
Chakir: Yeah, that's totally fine. It's a more natural progression than many people think. You can shift from academia and come out swinging. And, also the level of education and breadth of knowledge that you have is really powerful especially if you want to get into policy work, so that's phenomenal.
Katherine: Thank you.
Chakir: Oh, you're welcome! Just give me a teensy bit, you know you told me that you deal with mental disability. And, so can you tell me, especially as a woman of color, how does that affect your day-to-day? I can imagine with all you do, you probably have had people walk up to you and say, "oh my gosh, how do you do it? how do find time?"
Chakir: "How do you blanace it?" Trust me--I've heard all of it!
Katherine: Yup. You know!
Chakir: So, how do you deal with it?
Katherine: Well, yea. I think you and I have, again, have talked about activist fatigue. It's kind of ironic that I'm in this line of work because some of my body/mind experiences with mental disability is that I get really fatigued, you know, coming out. Intentionally. And, I intentionally put myself out there that I have mental disability when I do podcasts like this, when I'm writing an article, when I'm speaking in front of a class, or giving a lecture, etcetera. So, you know, I still feel the stigma. The stigma is very real, right? So, even just coming out continually as an activist can just take a toll on me. And, just, yeah, I think, people with mental disabilities, when you think about accommodations, I think a lot of the accommodations that we need have to do with time that just aren't really conducive to this "go-go-go", capitalist structure that we have. There is a lot of burn-out, and we need time to process, and deal with emotions and over-stimulation, etcetera. And, like I was telling you, and we were talking about this before. I feel like I have been able to deal with it really well because I'm in this bubble right now. As I keep saying, I met this community, I found this home of other Disabled Latinxs, so I have an incredible group of colleagues who are now some of my dearest friends, who get it! So, when I need to take a break, when I need to check out, you know...if I need to have strange hours, work at 4 in the morning, because that's when I'm being most productive, you know, these people get it! They are there to support me, and they are not there to judge. And, I like to feel like I'm there for them as well, in that way.
Chakir: So, before the coalition came together, did you have those points of solidarity as well, were there other coping strategies that you had employed, especially during law school?
Katherine: No, you know what's interesting? I did have a lot of methods of coping. Because, you know, I have had mental disability since I was a child, from my earliest memories. So, you get really good at coping. But, you also get really good at passing. So, during law school, you know, again this notion of time, and being flexible with time, and being accommodating with time, is just not something that happens in law school at all. It's go-go-go, it's competitive, it's very structured. So, you know, I kind of just grit and didn't have this home of Disabled Latinxs that I have now. You just go through it, and your body takes a toll and your mind takes a toll. Law school has a ... not just law school, many structures... but, law school has a far way to go before it can be accommodating to people with disabilities not just mental disabilities. You know, you kind of just grit and bear it. So, now, again, coming out as having mental disability and finding a home and doing the work within the rights community, I think I've been able to be my more authentic self and be more productive. You know, all these wonderful people that I know who are Disabled Latinxs or just people with disabilities are incredibly brilliant, and have great ideas, and can add to the workplace, etcetera, if we could just think of creative ways to accommodate them to be part of these systems, to be part of the workplace. We have so much to bring. You know, I think that outside of this bubble that I'm in, we have a lot of work to do.
Chakir: I definitely agree with you. And, there's so much that can be said for those who help you to feel empowered and that you are able to embody all of yourself, because when that happens, you can bring all of yourself to your work product.
Chakir: It is a phenomenal change. Is there anything you might be able to say as words of advice for law students who are facing psychiatric disabilities and what we can do? Should we do more to come out publicly? Are there things that we can try to demand? Or, working more with the faculty and staff? Anything like that?
Katherine: For law students? Yea, I'm kind of weary about... You know, here I am, I'm very out and proud about having a mental disability. But, I said, I'm very conscious that the stigma is real, and that the consequences of claiming a mental disability are very real outside of this bubble that I keep talking about. You know, and within academia it's still stigmatized. So, it's a really tricky question, Chakir! You know, in law school, I wasn't.. I didn't really come out to my professors like in the way I do now. And, I would never push upon someone who doesn't feel comfortable to come out, to come out, because it can be a very unsafe environment for people to do so. So, for those who are coming out, it's really great, and they are doing the groundwork. But, I think, we really need, the activist really need to push to transform law school to be a more accommodating place. And, you know, I wouldn't make a broad announcement that all law students with psychiatric disabilities should be out and free, because that could be dangerous for a lot of people.
Chakir: Definitely. Well, we hope that the stigma especially can be broken down and that can help to enrich the law school environment, and other, of course, practices, academia, other degree tracks as well, from the professional, to the graduate, undergraduate, certificate programs, what have you...
Katherine: And, yea, you know, people are doing lots of great things to break down the stigma and barriers. You were telling me the other day that on the last American Bar Association magazine, or whatever it was, was talking about alcoholism. Which was like, it's great that they are talking about it (laughter), but it's like hello!, we've had this problem within our profession for so long, so we're finally just talking about it.
Chakir: Oh yeah.
Katherine: I think of people like Dior Vargas. She's someone who is in our coalition, she's one of the co-founders. She has this really phenomenal project around breaking the stigma around mental disability, mental illness, so she's just doing phenomenal work. So, you know, people are doing a lot of great things, and I think things are changing, and we have a lot of work left to do, but I am hopeful about the future.
Chakir: Thank you. Thank you, I do appreciate that. Well, I think my final question just to close out with all of this. We have discussed a lot of topics all interrelated here. What would be one thing that you would be able to change, right now, you would be able to change with a snap of a finger, what would it be?
Katherine: Well, my sister just popped into my head, because she's having a hard time right now. My sister has intellectual disability, and she's an adult right now. I just wish that there were more options for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as adults. She has like this one program that she gets through Medicaid...right? And so, I guess, if anything... (laughter)... I could just snap and get this healthcare bill off the table completely and figure all that out and save Medicaid. But, to be even more specific is not only have the healthcare that we are fighting for, but to have even more options. Right? So, again I go back to people like my sister, we're fighting for basic Medicaid services, but ultimately what we want are more options, more options... So, just not one program that she goes to one day program where they are walking through malls all day, or whatever they are doing. You know, my sister, just like everyone else, wants to have a job, wants to move out and live on her own, wants to have a family, wants to date. She has all these needs and all these desires that everyone else has. So, if we could create a society, if I could snap my fingers and create a society where it was the standard where we have more options for people with disabilities and not just us fighting for just to save our Medicaid at this point, that's what I would snap my finger and do.
Chakir: I think that's beautiful. And, I would hope that in our lifetime that we get to see that society, or at least see tangible indicators of a formation of that society. I think that is a dream that many of us do share. So, thank you so much for your work, your wisdom... for you work, it's amazing, Katherine.
Katherine: (Laughter). Oh, thank you! You're so kind. And, to you as well!
Chakir: (Laughter). Thank you! I look forward to seeing more of what you're going to bring to the table. I definitely look forward to connecting with your coalition and seeing more of what they are going to do. More conferences! Here's to getting your non-profit certification. And, all the best wishes to you on finishing your PhD.
(Music fades in).
Katherine: Likewise, and to you in law school. I mean, you can't get rid of me now! You and I are connected, so...
Katherine: I am excited for our collaborations going forward!
Chakir: Thank you so much! So, today we are signing off with Katherine Perez with Kinky Summer. I am Chakir Underground... we will chat soon.