Jun. 19, 2020
An interview with: Dylan Nicole de Kervor of the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice
A conversation with a civil rights attorney about how she navigated intersecting traumas and gifts of growing up in Berkeley and Oakland, then decided to pursue a career with federal government in D.C.
Mallika Kaur: Let's begin where it began for you: You grew up not far from where you went to law school. And you did a dual degree at UC Berkeley. Can you speak to those decisions?
Dylan de Kervor: Yes, I grew up in Oakland and Berkeley. And because of my background I knew that I wanted to probably advocate for unpopular causes. On behalf of and with people who were disenfranchised. And you know I wanted people to listen to me. So I figured I needed a law degree, but I also wanted to be able to approach the work in a thoughtful and meaningful way. So I was thinking, my law degree for the teeth. The Social Work degree for the heart!
One of my fears had always been that I would get all this education and then I would actually just like turn into an elitist. I wanted to go to school somewhere where I felt connected to the community in a very real and authentic way.
I grew up in a neighborhood where kids from my private school couldn't come play but by the time I got to law school our classmates parents were buying them houses in my neighborhood, which there was no way local folks could afford.
MK: Are you comfortable sharing what intersections of identities you found yourself at, as you began to navigate law school?
DdK: So my mom is of Irish descent and my dad is an Armenian descent and you know I think Armenians as a people have a complicated relationship with race... we have fought for our whiteness in the court! And so, I identify as biracial, but I also am very white-presenting and so recognize that that is the way that I move through the world and that I have a responsibility to be an advocate. But I do think that coming from a history of genocide, and knowing my father's family's story, is part of what drives my desire for justice. That still resonate today, you know, indigenous people and black people, knowing what this country has done.
And then I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood. Where I developed my understanding on racial justice issues. Like I was bussed from the Berkeley flats to the Berkeley Hills as part of the city's intentional desegregation program. Experiencing that at such a young age was very impactful.
Then I also identify as a child of a single mom with a disability. And I have a niece with a disability. So I think that I carry that with me wherever I go. And then I also grew up in a really low income household. In college, I cleaned people's apartments, and I also know what it feels like to have the lights cut off because the bill wasn't paid on time.
MK: And then how did you experience the world of law school?
DdK: Well, I found the first year of law school to be difficult. It was the reckoning with the history of this nation and the way that some people still react to it, that was difficult for me. People have said vile things, you read vile opinions. And then other students can say really offensive stuff. Like in my crim class I can still remember a horrible question about what qualifies as rape...
But still, I felt that I could find, you know, the heart in the law. And a lot of that was in the community that I developed when I was there, my classmates, the different student organizations, be it the gender journal or the young people I taught every semester at juvenile hall. I'd go to juvie and sometimes I'd meet young people from my neighborhood. So I tried to find ways and create space in law school to stay true to my purpose.
MK: Thinking again about traumas you were exposed to growing up, and things that you carry with you, were there particular areas of law that you knew you would never pursue?
DdK: I knew I would never do corporate law. Because I wasn't willing to go into a ton of debt to not do work that I believed in passionately. But I also knew I think from early on that I wasn't going to be able to do direct services because I think my heart would just break 1,000 times a day. I wanted to do policy or impact litigation, and on issues of juvenile justice. But I graduated in 2009, and there were few such jobs.
MK: But you did end up in a place that you found very meaningful: the federal government. A little bit before we were talking about genocides and systemic issues. So could you share what it was like transitioning to directly work for the government?
DdK: At the school of social welfare, I heard about the Presidential Management Fellowship program. I got a call from the Office for Civil Rights at Health and Human Services. You know, I'm a little embarrassed to say I didn't really know that each federal agency had a civil rights office. And so when they said, you know, do you want to work on race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability discrimination, etcetera, and I was like, yeah, of course I do!
I was really fortunate within the first year of being at OCR. The Affordable Care Act had passed and included a non-discrimination provision. And the civil rights office was tasked with writing the regulations, and I got to join the team. And we were in this new territory. It was the first time sex discrimination had ever been prohibited in health care, and so an exciting time to be in federal service. I continue to believe that being able to enforce our nation's civil rights laws is a tremendous honor and responsibility.
MK: How do you define trauma-centeredness that account for all the human costs of interactions in fraught environments that may even lack the kind of community of care you described earlier?
DdK: Yes, that's exactly how it feels like trauma-informed lawyering is such a different way of looking at things. Because I feel like lawyers really like to say things in absolutes. But people don't operate in those structures; human emotion doesn't operate that way. And so, you know, I remember being in a class and the professor saying that kids don't have a racial identity and it's like well as a white person maybe you can say that, but for people of color that is not the case. When I think of trauma-informed care, I think the baseline is recognizing that somebody might have a different experience than you.
From a civil rights lawyer's perspective, it is acknowledging that once they've experienced the trauma of the type of discrimination that you are investigating or prosecuting, that shapes their behavior. And also that it might not be the only trauma that they've experienced and so just being very thoughtful and intentional about what your interactions look like.
MK: What do you do to take care of yourself?
DdK: A lot of my friends are social justice minded folks and they help me stay grounded. And I cannot stress enough how amazing my office is, my team. Two out of three of my managers are women of color. You can be your authentic self, true self.
Then I also try to find meaningful projects that I can engage with, sometimes outside of work. I still volunteer with the name and gender change clinic at our local LGBT health center.
Then I read a lot. Even in law school, I would read a chapter at least of a fiction book every night before bed. I kept that tradition. And I like to garden.