"If we lived in a just country, we would have lots of people like me right here. Not being humble is to really denigrate and ignore the systematic issue that we have that contributes to me being rare in this space."
Armani Madison is currently a 3L student at Harvard Law School and is Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Civil Rights - Civil Liberties Law Review. He was born in Carbondale, Illinois and grew up in Stockbridge, Georgia with his family. His goal is to work in civil rights litigation, particularly working to serve victims of police misconduct. We sat down with him to discuss his career, goals, and Black representation in ivy league schools.
Tell us a little bit about your background:
From age 10, I had mostly a middle class upbringing. I went to a predominantly Black high school. The students were nice but the educational offerings were less so. The outcomes were not the best for students. I took a lot of AP and honors classes to get what I considered a decent education.
What happened after high school?
I went to Brown University in Rhode Island for undergrad. I majored in political science and history, specifically, the history of the African diaspora. I thought that I was going to University of Georgia, Morehouse, or the University of Alabama. We definitely didn’t have much information given to us about colleges. I think we only had maybe two active guidance counselors. I came across this program called QuestBridge when I went to my counselor’s office for a meeting. Her door had papers posted all over it and for some reason my attention was drawn to this piece of paper which had QuestBridge [written on it]. QuestBridge is a program where low-income high school students can apply to the nation’s top colleges for free. So that was a big deal, because at that point I identified as a low-income student and didn’t have the money to apply to schools I thought were a reach. So that was a big reason why I went to Brown. They flew me out to see it.
I thought this was a real change of pace from Georgia. It was a significant culture shock. I had a heavy Southern accent when I moved up there, less so now. Adjusting to being in this predominantly white, very wealthy space, from being in a lower income, predominately Black background can be jarring in lots of ways. Adjusting academically was a challenge.
Were there any values or philosophies taught in the home that helped you in that transition?
My family and friends were a really big influence. One thing that was always very important to me was to keep some sense of being able to still relate to my community. Even though I had this northern, Ivy League education, still being able to talk to and relate to folks who weren’t from that background [was important].
At certain a point humility has to be something you really have to consciously focus on. Everyone is telling you that you’re very special, especially if you’re Black. Staying grounded was the most important thing for me. Remembering what motivated me to come to this place and remembering the way I wanted to show up for my community has been really important.
What motivated you to be a lawyer?
While I was at Brown, I got heavy into student activism. I was involved in protests all the time. I would go to on campus/ off campus events. I tried a variety of different internships and experiences in changemaking. As I got closer to graduation, I was like, “This is great to do as a student, advocating for change, but what profession will allow me to do this and still sustain myself?” I tried working in nonprofit consulting, education, policy, community organizing.
I realized that one of the major problems plaguing marginalized folks was a lack of meaningful access to invested legal representation. I read a stat that really impacted me that talked about how a huge percentage of marginalized folks had experienced a significant legal issue in that past year. I think it was 70%. Combining my values and the things I advocated for as a student, I realized that I need a law degree to really make an impact in that field.
I came to Harvard wanting to do civil rights litigation. I lived in Baltimore before law school, and I had a chance to see a lot of those issues up front and center, and I wanted to be part of the solution there. That is still my ambition: civil rights work of representing victims of wrongful conviction and police misconduct.
Can you elaborate on your experiences at Harvard Law School?
Harvard Law School is definitely a world class education. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some of the most impactful legal practitioners and scholars in the world. That's really amazing. I came in very intimidated by all that because I don't feel like I was ever a very academic, heady kind of person like other folks who have succeeded here. I was very intimidated by the idea of reading several hundred year old cases. I will say it has been a rigorous education. One thing I didn't really think about that would be here is just how much community there is. It always could or should be larger, but I think there is a pretty decent sized Black community here, a community of color here, and I always felt supported by them.
We also have a lot of opportunities to be involved in clinics which allow us to engage in real world work while we're students. Assuming you meet some specific requirements, you can practice law under the supervision of an attorney. So that’s been really great. Then you have the Civil Liberties Law Review, which is the leading progressive law review in the country. That's a really good experience, giving me the opportunity to think about the law in a way we don’t really do in class, intersecting the law and social justice, which I really wanted to do. There are some issues here and there; there will always be in a predominantly white institution. The law is not always a socially just field of study, but I think I've been pleasantly surprised in many ways.
How do you stay humble?
I have a few thoughts on that. First, my classmates keep me humble. They know a lot more than I do in a lot of ways. But also just maintaining relationships with folks who are not in law school. I recognize a few things: One, even if I know about the law—which I never would know enough—that's just one discipline of thousands of disciplines. A lot of times I'll be talking to folks in my community or post-grad groups who say things that I don’t understand; or I’ll say things that are not that profound. I’ve come to really appreciate this notion of the value of non-traditional education, knowing that doesn't come from what they teach you in the classroom. I've had clients in my clinics who ask a question, and a lot of times I don't know the answer to it. Sometimes it’ll be like, “Well, aren't you the Harvard law student? You're supposed to know right?” And I'm like, “Dang I really don't.” It reminds me that I can have this pedigree, but when it comes to me helping you, I still don't really know. I think the last thing that keeps me humble is that
We have the stats. In these spaces, Black students, especially Black male students, are kind of scarce. But instead of getting excited about that, I think to myself: that's a problem. For me to think I'm something special would be to ignore the fact that I went to a high school of people who I think were smarter than me, but their opportunities just didn't allow them to be in this space.
If we lived in a just country, we would have lots of people like me right here. Not being humble is to really denigrate and ignore the systematic issue that we have that contributes to me being rare in this space. So that should not be celebrated. I really shouldn't be rare in this space. How can I work on fixing that?
What’s next on the horizon for you after you graduate?
I plan on moving to Chicago actually. Concretely, I will probably work for a large law firm for that first year. That should hopefully pay off a lot of my debt. Then going to work for a federal judge in Columbus, Ohio, for a year. And then after that I plan on going back to Chicago or Baltimore to pursue a career in civil rights work.
I used to work in education before law school, even in undergrad. I did a lot of work in mentorship. Even now, I have between one and two calls a week with people from Google friends or LinkedIn who want to learn about law school. And that's always been very important to me. My rule is I always take the call, always take the message. I'll never turn someone down who wants to talk about that stuff. So the legacy that I want to leave is that I want to have some hand in a few handfuls or dozens of Black and brown students who are now achieving in whatever field they’re in. That I could be able to help either directly by providing resources or time or even indirectly, through anything that I do, my story. The idea of being a seed for youth is a really big thing for me. I hope that I play some role in bringing about more successful Black and brown professionals.
What is some advice that you can give so someone who wants to pursue law school?
In education, there's this phenomenon in college access work of under-matching. It goes hand-in-hand with imposter’s syndrome where students of color apply or end up going to institutions that with their credentials, they would be able to get into more resourced schools. But they've either talked themselves out of it, or they’ve been told that’s not for them. So they under-match; they go to less competitive schools, so to speak. And I think the same thing goes with law school. It’s easy for us to talk ourselves out of it, to say, “I’m not the kind of student who goes to those schools, they wouldn't accept me, my X score isn’t good enough, whatever.” I always tell students, no matter what, apply. It’s always anecdotal, but I know someone who got a second look. If you have the resources, always apply. Even for me, although my testing scores were good, my GPA compared to the other students who graduated from Brown and applied to law school, my GPA was on the low side. I looked at it originally and was like, “Dang, I really messed up in undergrad.” But it worked out because I applied. I always tell students, if you have the resources or can get them together, always put yourself out there.