Ujima is introducing a young woman who worked for us as an intern. She is now a lawyer. We are familiar with criminal and defense lawyers and lawyers in general that handle many different issues. Paige Duggins-Clay uses her legal career to advocate for equity in education and civil rights that impact our Black Community.
When you were growing up, what did you want to be or do for a job?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a teacher or support public education. With multiple generations of educators and school leaders throughout my family, I learned early and often how important access to equal educational opportunity was to our communities. My mom, who has been a secondary public school teacher since the year I was born, was always bringing me to her classrooms and on field trips, and I would always watch in wonder as she did lessons or coached (basketball and track).
As a really young child, I think I remember telling people that I wanted to be a veterinarian, and for a short while I imagined being a missionary. Needless to say those ideas were quickly discarded. I also always wanted to become a writer, and in many ways, I have achieved that goal.
What drew you to becoming a lawyer? What type of law do you practice currently?
As an African-American woman and the daughter of a teacher, I have a strong passion for social justice and educational equity. Although I began my education intending to become a high school English teacher and soccer coach, each new experience made me more aware of the ways the law can impact education and civil rights. Throughout college, I learned how education interacts with issues such as housing, employment, and criminal justice, and I found that pursuing a career in law would allow me to be an advocate for the less advantaged.
I currently practice a blend of traditional civil rights, litigation, and education law. I provide legal counsel, insight, and analysis on issues such as equal educational opportunity and compliance with anti-discrimination laws. As Chief Legal Analyst at IDRA, I am also responsible for providing litigation support and analysis of cases and court opinions impacting public education. Because my organization has a strong policy, advocacy, and community engagement presence in Texas and throughout the geographic south, I also get to use my legal skills to support policies that advance equal educational opportunity for all kids and communities – such as dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, promoting culturally sustaining schools, and creating more equitable school finance systems.
Finally, although I don’t think this is necessarily a traditional area of law, I also am a certified restorative justice practitioner focusing on utilizing restorative practices as an alternative to adversarial methods of conflict resolution. I am deeply interested in transforming and/or creating legal and social systems that incorporate restorative practices to address harm and heal communities.
How does the type of law you practice impact the Black community?
Interestingly, law has always both limited and promoted equal opportunities for the black community. My legal practice is dedicated to rooting out historical and systemic inequities for all children — including and especially black children. Despite years of progress, we continue to see the same old attempts to undermine and disenfranchise public, community-based schools, which often serve as the heart of black families and communities. I am committed to working creatively and collaboratively to address these systemic issues, including issues that disproportionately impact the black community such as over representation in school discipline referrals and juvenile criminal proceedings; resistance to and even elimination of historically accurate and culturally relevant education programs, books, and curricular materials; and unequal school finance systems that advantage the economically privileged.
What is the current law you are working to change that will make a positive impact on communities? Can you tell us more about educational law?
Education law is a catch-all practice that basically means you understand and advise on the laws and policies relating to the administration of schools. Most people don’t think of this, but public schools are some of the most regulated entities in the country, and there are many, many laws that schools must comply with in order to avoid litigation and scrutiny from the state and federal governments. Education law is typically divided between K-12 and higher education, but many practitioners (myself included) practice both. So, on a typical day, an education lawyer could advise on a civil rights discrimination complaint (such as Title IX), a workplace issue involving an educator, questions about school safety and security, a student discipline issue, a First Amendment question . . . the list goes on. But that’s what makes the practice so exciting – you are constantly learning and working to give the best counsel possible in often fast-paced and ever-changing social, cultural, economic, and political environments.
What is your favorite thing about being a lawyer? What is your not-so-favorite thing?
My favorite thing about being a lawyer is having the knowledge and power to take on individuals and organizations that believe they can stomp on the rights of marginalized communities simply because of their money or influence.
Ujima is happy to re-connect with Paige as she has grown into a wonderful mom, lawyer, and wife. Paige was the only intern Ujima ever had and we are happy we were a part of her journey.