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“Everybody has their role when it comes to social change”

A conversation with Black Law Students Association President Tyla Swinton
Tyla Swinton

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – When Tyla Swinton took on her role as the president of Penn State Law’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA), there was no way she could have anticipated the coming events that would necessitate strong and vocal leadership.

In light of and in response to the recent killings of George Floyd and many other Black Americans, Swinton and the other members of BLSA helped to catalyze a response from Penn State Law leadership and organized, in partnership with the Student Bar Association (SBA), several community events aimed at amplifying Black voices and providing an avenue for healing, support, and solidarity.

Swinton, a rising 3L at Penn State Law who is originally from Queens, has a perspective that is shaped by many forces, some within her control and some not: by pursuing a J.D., by experiencing racism and bigotry in her own life, by having a family with strong ties to law enforcement, to name a few.

And those forces often overlap and interact. Perhaps it is no surprise that she decided to pursue a career in law considering she grew up in family filled with police officers, including her mother, who served 21 years with the New York Police Department; an aunt who was an NYPD sergeant; uncles who were officers; and grandfathers on both sides who were detectives.

“So I’ve always kind of had that legal aspect in my life and we’ve spent a lot of family dinners together at my grandparents’ house just talking about things like that,” Swinton said.

And while she has found herself in a leadership role at this unique moment in time, she also has to manage the comparatively more routine concerns of any law student—finding and developing expertise in her area of focus within the field of law, juggling coursework and extracurricular activities, and securing a summer internship to help prepare her for the job market following the 2020-2021 school year.

That summer internship? She landed a position thanks to a random Twitter encounter with a woman who works on intellectual property law—Swinton’s area of interest, along with sports law.

“Basically because of the coronavirus my initial internship plans were diminished,” Swinton said, “so I just messaged her and explained my predicament, and I asked her if she needed a legal intern that could work for little or no compensation, I just wanted the experience.”

Taking initiative is a common theme with Swinton, who, in addition to her role as president of BLSA, is the speakers trust chair and SBA newsletter creator and chair; a member of the Law and Equity Committee; and last year served as the first-ever outreach coordinator of the Women’s Law Caucus.

Swinton recently spoke with Penn State Law about her role as BLSA’s president during a time of crisis, what it means to support Black students, and her thoughts on the broader fight for racial justice and equality.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Penn State Law: Take me through that process of getting involved with BLSA and then progressing to where you are now, leading the organization.

Tyla Swinton: My first year I really just took a step back because I was still figuring things out and getting acclimated, so I showed up to all of BLSA’s events to network and get to know people that looked like me in a predominately White law school. I definitely learned from their experiences.

But watching the process of trying to get events done and fundraisers approved, I was thinking there has to be an easier way. So that was kind of in the back of my mind up until the end of my first year when I decided to run for vice president. 

I came up with a three-component plan: visibility, sustainability, and outreach, and I walked all up and down downtown State College and asked restaurants if they did ‘Dine and Donates’ because BLSA is really good at raising money for other charities but that also leaves us with little to nothing. So that was one of the main things I focused on. And just making sure that people knew who we are, what we’re doing and the work that we’re doing around Penn State Law and off campus. 

And then this year I ran for president, not to be the figurehead for the organization, but because I know that after the groundwork that [the previous BLSA president] laid for us last year, we can only go up from here. BLSA has poured so much into me since my first day as a 1L. I’m really excited to be able to give back to BLSA and do even more this year than we did last year, especially our community service initiatives.

PSL: Stepping away from the current time and context, what kind of events and activities does BLSA do generally?

TS: BLSA typically serves our members first before we reach out to the community, which I really like. We have academic workshops for our members where we ask some professors to come in and help with lessons before final exams; we had Professor [Dara] Purvis give a note-taking workshop for the incoming 1Ls so they had a general idea of what they should be doing to prepare for class; we also had a financial literacy event. 

Black History Month is really jam-packed for us, we had an event every Friday; we did an elementary school reading at Corl Street Elementary School, where a few of our members went in and read books that had to do with Black history to the students from ages 7 to 12, I believe, which was really fun. We had a whole bunch of panels; one of them in particular had some Penn State Law BLSA alums come back and talk about their experiences being in the field now, particularly being a Black lawyer in various fields and dealing with imposter syndrome. We also had a first ever “Shadowing Day” where Black Penn State undergraduate students were able to get a taste of law school.

So, we try to do a little bit of everything—professional, academic, and fun stuff too. We make sure that we have BLSA bonding events at least once a month.

PSL: Jumping back to the current context, and in light of and in response to the recent killings of Black Americans, tell me about the events and activities that BLSA organized.

TS: BLSA partnered with the Student Bar Association [SBA] to do a series of events on June 4

The first was a vigil in the morning, just honoring all of the Black lives recently lost. It was a cameras-off vigil with a slideshow of all the victims—it was overwhelming.

Then we had our panel in the early evening, which is what I was most excited about even though it was a very, very heavy week. We were really trying to figure out—we only had like 72 hours to plan all of it, which was hectic, but we realized that we needed to optimize the time that we had now while the issue was at the forefront of everyone’s minds, to get it done and highlight the importance of this discussion.

So the panel had my mom, who is retired NYPD, and [SBA President] Kelsi Robinson’s sister, who is a police officer for San Diego PD. The two of them gave the ‘officer perspective,’ which was really interesting because they are both Black women in a predominately White field that is constantly under scrutiny. And then we had three BLSA members as panelists to give their perspective as law students at this time, what that means to them. And we had a few faculty members as well jump in and give their advice as to how to be better allies to our students. 

Our last event for the day was a Netflix watch party to watch the documentary 13th. So we had some really high numbers [of attendees], actually, which was nice to see, just knowing that the people that we go to school with are really interested in learning more, being more supportive.

PSL: Do you feel like these events were successful in what you hoped to achieve?

TS: I do feel like the events were a success. We got overwhelmingly positive feedback from professors and students, even an alum who logged on to hear the conversation, who were really excited about it and mostly just really eager to learn more and do research on their own, which was the main goal. I try to explain to people, without being too short, that being a Black person in America and constantly having to deal with trauma and then on top of that having to teach someone about your trauma without triggering yourself is extremely difficult. And it’s a responsibility that we shouldn’t have to carry all the time, so hearing that response from our attendees was fantastic.

PSL: Regarding allyship, when is it appropriate to expend energy on helping allies versus focusing energy on yourself?

TS: The ‘appropriate time’ depends on the person. Black people share the same trauma, but we all grieve and heal differently. For me, I took several days focusing the little energy I could muster on myself before expending energy on helping allies.

During our ‘Say Their Names’ panel, [Penn State Law] Professor [Katrice] Copeland said it best, essentially that being an ally requires you to let your Black peers, friends, loved ones, etcetera, not respond to your outreach. We all need time to process information ourselves and just be.

It was tiring, but I think as a Black community we’re used to sort of pushing down our emotions for a brief second in order to explain issues to others. 

PSL: What kind of support is meaningful to you?

TS: I think of this whole process as kind of like when you’re mourning the loss of someone you love, because even though none of us know the recent victims personally, we’re all still grieving and mourning, so I try to look at it like that. So when people ask how I need support, I think to myself, you know, if I was experiencing the loss of a loved one what would I want someone to do? Which is just to check in, even though you probably already know the answer.

Another thing is not sharing traumatic videos on your social media—it’s super, super triggering. I’ll never forget the first time that I saw the video of Ahmaud [Arbery], I was literally just scrolling aimlessly and all of a sudden it was there and it was devastating. That’s probably one of the murders that has hit me the hardest, his and Breonna [Taylor]’s for sure. 

And again, not expecting to be educated by me. I’m always willing to give people resources, but at the same time I still need time to, you know, process my emotions. Finding the resources yourself is so necessary, especially in the Penn State Law community—we’re all law students, we’re all adults. The resources to be a better ally are out there, it’s just a matter of looking for them and taking the time to really sit down and ask yourself, ‘What about Black history or what about racial relations do I really need and want to learn in order to be a better person?’

PSL: Is there anything that stands out to you as particularly frustrating in terms of the way various issues—whether it be protests, the killings themselves, or wider issues of racial justice and equality—are framed in the media?

TS: In regards to the protests, I actually went to a protest [near Lansing, Michigan] with my boyfriend and it was a completely different experience being in the midst of it compared to how the media chooses to frame it. The media has recently been portraying the protesters as looters and really violent, but from what we experienced, the Black protesters out there were not doing any of that, they were literally just chanting names and taking care of one another. There was [at the protest near Lansing] a lot of tear gas and a lot of pepper spray, and we saw people giving each other milk to pour on their faces, or bottles of water, or snacks, or basic aid. 

And other protesters that were out there, the ones who I would say are ‘performative allies,’ were the ones that were really inciting the police and throwing things at the police. But then they kind of scurry away because they don’t want to be the ones to blame, but the people who are left standing in the line of fire are people who look like me. 

There were a lot of young kids out there, too, and that anxiousness that I felt watching them run away from tear gas right in the line of the National Guard—and what do you do, you know? What can you do? It was terrifying. There were even snipers on roofs of buildings. It was also frustrating to have this much police force at a relatively peaceful protest because two weeks prior, there was a Trump rally in the same location and none of these extremes were taken.

Other frustrating things, like I mentioned, are performative allies. So, people who just post on Blackout Tuesday, people posting a black square, just to make themselves feel better and to prove to their inner circles that they are not racist, but then that’s all you see. And hearing excuses like, ‘I don’t know what to say,’ or, you know, ‘I’m uncomfortable with this,’ is also frustrating because those aren’t good reasons to be complicit. If you’re frustrated, just imagine how I feel, or the person in your circle who happens to be Black, feels. And like I said, the resources are always out there for us to be better allies. If you don’t know what to say, there is something [in the resources available] that you can post that says it for you. So, those are definitely the most frustrating things that I’ve experienced so far.

PSL: Would you be willing to talk to me a little bit more about your experience at Penn State Law? Have you found support here? Resources? What has your experience been?

TS: Before we even planned the [June 4] events, we were trying to figure out how to address the administration [of Penn State Law] because we had all been sitting and waiting for a response from admin showing some kind of support. I did not feel supported by Penn State Law at first because things were so silent. And I think initially when we deal with trauma like this, especially for someone who isn’t Black and is just witnessing it from the outside looking in and doesn’t know what to say, the automatic reaction is to stay quiet. But again, we hear time and time again, ‘Silence is violence,’ ‘Silence is compliance.’ 

It’s important to use your voice, especially if you’re someone in power, to say, ‘Hey, this is wrong, and even though I’ll never experience what you’re experiencing, just know that I stand with you, and I support you, and I’m in solidarity with you.’ So I drafted a letter to the student body and I also drafted a letter to Dean [Hari] Osofsky and Dean Purvis asking for them to be more communicative with the student body about what was happening and to let Black students know that we’re safe here and that we’re supported here. And it’s more than just the contributions we make on Penn State Law’s campus because, when we leave, any of our names could be changed with the victims, which is scary to say but it’s true because it doesn’t matter who we are, they see our [Black] faces first.

Since then, the support has been tremendous. Especially after our events on June 4, students have posted resources themselves on the law school groups on Facebook, students are more active about sharing important information—and not triggering information—on social media, from what I’ve seen. I’ve received text messages from colleagues who I barely speak to that said, ‘I stand with BLSA, I support BLSA, I support you, and thank you for writing that letter, it really required me to do some introspection of myself.’ So that has definitely been helpful.

Dean Osofsky has also been extremely receptive since we’ve voiced our concerns. She listened to us and is now taking active steps to be a better source of support for Black students.

PSL: Stepping back and thinking about U.S. society, do you think things are different this time, do you think things are changing? Or do you see this as just part of the same cycle that has been happening?

TS: That’s hard. I will say, at first, just hearing Ahmaud, Breonna, and George back-to-back made me very pessimistic, especially because time and time again we’ve seen that, yes the officers are arrested, but there are no convictions, which is where qualified immunity comes in and why it’s such a frustrating, frustrating part of learning about the law. It’s like you’re reading about this thing that has been instilled in legislation for years and it feels like it’s not going to change. 

On the other hand, I’m more optimistic in the fact that a lot of the people that are out here protesting and leading things and trying to make impactful change have been people who I’ve gone to school with or have interacted with. So that gives me hope for the future, that there are incredible leaders at Penn State Law and outside that are really doing good work and are on the ground, making things happen. 

I really hope it’s not a cycle. I think whether George Floyd’s murderers get convicted is going to be the main telling of whether things are actually going to shift and change. And also the bill that’s up right now to end qualified immunity, I think that would definitely be a shifting moment for history. 
I guess I think of it both ways. I try not to be super pessimistic, but it’s hard after repeatedly you see the same thing happen and how saddening it is after a while, especially being a law student and wanting to go out into the world and make a difference, and at the end of the day you feel like maybe things won’t change. But I will say that the work that we’re doing with BLSA right now is giving me a little more hope for the future, for sure, just based on the impact that we had on Penn State Law in a matter of a week, or in the case of the letter we sent out, in a matter of 24 hours.

PSL: Tell me more about your family members who were on the police force. Does that make some conversations more difficult to have with your family or does it enrich the conversation to have that experience?

TS: My mom is retired, she did 21-and-a-half years on the force. I’ll definitely say it’s enlightening. My family is super close and we have very organic conversations about anything. So I will say that it’s been pretty enriching to hear their stories. Even at the panel, my mom told a story about her childhood that I hadn’t heard yet, so I’m appreciative to hear those things. 

My entire family, pretty much—in addition to my mom, my aunt Lisa is a retired NYPD sergeant, my grandfathers on both sides of my family were detectives, my uncle was a detective. So I’ve always kind of had that legal aspect in my life, and we spent a lot of family dinners together at my grandparents’ house just talking about things like that. 

Recently, my mom has expressed her frustration with the police force, because it seems like the more things change, the more things stay the same, to her. Which is hard, especially since when my mom was on the force, when my aunt was on the force, they tried to hold bad officers accountable, but being a Black woman in that field, it was hard to even be heard or acknowledged most of the time. So, I definitely like to hear their perspectives and I also feel like I get a better understanding of what really happens in police departments.

PSL: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you feel is really important or want to say?

TS: I think the biggest thing is that we all need to be open to learning, especially about ourselves. No one likes to be called a racist, but we all have to acknowledge that a majority of people do have implicit bias within them and that’s something that needs to be acknowledged and addressed in order to make impactful change for others and be a catalyst for that change. So that we won’t have to experience this anymore, our kids won’t have to experience it, and so on. Everybody needs to be open and not on the defensive when it comes to looking within ourselves and asking, ‘Am I contributing to this issue?’ 

For those who are benefactors of white privilege, or just privilege in general in society, they need to ask themselves how they can turn that privilege into helping other people who do not have that same benefit. 

And one other thing I wanted to say is that everybody has their role when it comes to social change, it’s just a matter of finding what your role is. So whether that’s educating people, or ‘checking’ your family members or friends that make very insensitive or racist comments, or if it’s being a police officer on the front lines and making sure that you’re holding your counterparts accountable, I think we all have an important role to play, we just need to figure out what our roles are.

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