Auriel R. Kirkland was teaching elementary school children in Memphis, Tennessee, when she watched the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was shot and killed by police Officer Darren Wilson.
Three months later, she watched in amazement as a teacher in Cleveland, Ohio, stood to give the eulogy for Tamir Rice, who also was fatally shot in an encounter with police. At age 12, Tamir was only slightly older than the students with whom Kirkland worked for four years as a teacher and later the dean of culture at Whitney Achievement, a Memphis city school where 96 percent of the students are African American.
“I loved my students, but I didn’t think I had that strength,” Kirkland said. “And I didn’t think I could tell my students: ‘Stand up, tuck in your shirt, do your best’ in school, and that would do it for these students. I was emboldened to advocate for minority students, mine and around the world, to make sure they could grow up and become active citizens.”
Kirkland asked herself: What could she do beyond the classroom to stand up for her students — and others? For her, the answer was a law degree, with which she aims to forge a career that combines policy and advocacy on behalf of students who live in poverty.
“I have diversified. I am still an educator, but I see I can make a difference in the legal world,” said Kirkland, 28, a second-year student at Washington University School of Law, where she sits on the executive board of the Black Law Students Association. She also is a school board member at St. Louis College Prep and teaches constitutional law and juvenile justice as a fellow at Northwest Academy of Law magnet school in north St. Louis.
A native of Tallahassee, Florida, Kirkland earned a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications at the University of Florida — when she thought sports journalism and ESPN were her future — and a master’s in education at Christian Brothers University in Memphis. While teaching in that city, she said she witnessed — and fumed at — “trickle-down” policies enacted by ill-informed decision-makers.
“How can you do state exams on computers when students don’t have computers in the home and the school does not have a fully functioning computer lab?” she said. “I want to have a seat at the table so I can bring those experiences to people who don’t. That’s part of my law school journey — to figure out how I can provide that perspective.”
Kirkland interned last summer at the Legal Resources Centre in South Africa, and she obtained Rule 13 certification to work as an extern with CASA of St. Louis Voices for Children. This summer, she will intern with the Southern Poverty Law Center in New Orleans, working with a children’s rights practice group.
“When I was a little girl, my mother told me, ‘You’re very talkative, very persuasive; you’re going to be a lawyer.’ But I had to do some self-searching between undergrad and teaching to get there,” Kirkland said.
“I’m inspired by community lawyering, inspiring people to pick up their power so they can affect and shape their communities. I want to combine my passion for educating and helping other people — it may be a niche I have to create for myself.”