A drum major for justice is a leader who breaks down barriers that restrict access to justice and creates new inroads to freedom. Attorney Melanie Bates is a drum major for justice who has committed her life’s work to effecting social change. Bates is a Policy & Communications Associate with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of the Nation’s Capital. Early in her life, Bates recognized the important leadership role of lawyers and decided to unleash the transformative power within her hands to create change. Her dream was to become a lawyer in order to ensure that every person, regardless of socioeconomic status, has equal access to quality legal representation. Each day, she makes her dream a reality through her exercise of leadership and service in the community.
Melanie Bates provides 3 leadership lessons for becoming a drum major for justice:
1) Make a commitment to effect change
The emergence of the pipeline to prison and impact of mass incarceration are evidence of a National crisis. The United States of America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world with over 2 million people in prison and 65 million people with a criminal record. Bates has made a commitment to dismantle this pipeline. She believes that poverty, lack of education, and other social issues should not feed the pipeline to prison. Instead, other alternatives should be available which support access to education, social mobility and community development. Through her consistent advocacy, she seeks to eradicate the factors that force many low-income people to become a part of this tangled web of mass incarceration and the legal system more broadly.
Bates recognizes that in response to social injustices, there is a beckoning call for leaders to take a stand for justice. Bates defines leadership as taking charge to effectuate change. “Leaders empower those who support them. They provide the necessary resources and support to achieve a common goal. Leadership takes patience, humbleness, and a willingness to keep fighting – no matter what,” according to Bates. This definition of leadership focuses on the power to influence the lives of others and challenges lawyers to exercise this power by advancing social change.
2) Take risks by being authentic
Bates’ leadership philosophy is inspired by a quote from a fellow colleague who participated in the 2014 New Leaders Council Institute, District of Columbia Chapter. “Great leaders take risks to share who they are, and in doing so, make a more meaningful connection with the people who support them.” These words gave Bates the courage to share her personal story without reservation. Bates believes that when a leader exemplifies this type of authenticity they are able to develop a deep connection with those who support them. Bates stated: “trust and confidence emerges when you connect with others, making it easier to accomplish your shared purpose.” This is a model of participatory leadership by which each person plays a vital role in advancing a shared vision of justice.
3) Model the way
Leadership is evidenced by action. Bates gives very practical advice and simple steps for exercising leadership. The first step is to get involved in the issues you are passionate about. Volunteer to be a part of a service project or join a professional association. Remember, it is tempting to wait to be asked before getting involved however leadership requires initiative and engagement.
Another key step is seeking opportunities to develop your leadership skills. Bates supports young female lawyers in developing their leadership skills. She currently serves as President of the Greater Washington Area Chapter, Women Lawyers Division, National Bar Association (GWAC). GWAC is the premier organization for African-American women attorneys in the District of Columbia. They provide educational programs, conduct community service projects, and hold networking events, among a host of other things. Bates wisely stated: “being active in a bar association is an excellent way to become involved in your local legal community, as well as develop your leadership skills.”
We are the ones, we have been waiting for. Attorney Melanie Bates challenges each us to take action and leave the world a better place than how you found it. Changing the world may seem like an impossible feat however her advice is simple- start where you are. “Help someone. Hold the door. Give someone a ride. Buy someone lunch. Represent a litigant pro bono. No matter how small the task, a collective effort will make a tremendous impact on the lives of others.”
The views expressed here are Melanie Bates’ own.
Dr. Artika R. Tyner is an assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas College of Education, Leadership, and Counseling.