Teaching Others to Make a Difference“We idealize the law, give it a high sense of purpose,” said Shelaswau Bushnell Crier, who joined the Willamette law faculty as an assistant professor in the fall of 2009. “We have to; we must strive for that ideal of equality and justice.
“That ideal, however, sometimes clashes with reality,” she added. “People play a large part in how the law is carried out. Too often, legal decisions are made in a vacuum or from a paternalistic viewpoint. It is important to examine the goal of any given law and how our prejudices are incorporated into the law and legal interactions.”
A Louisiana native, Crier experienced the realities of prejudice firsthand, growing up in a primarily white neighborhood in Pineville during the 1970s. “I grew up during the time of busing,” she said. “In middle school, I was bused to a black school with the other kids in my neighborhood. During this time, I began to realize the many divisions that existed between blacks and whites.”
For high school, Crier chose to attend a magnet school for black students, and she reveled in the experience. “I had grown up with white kids and had identified with them,” she said. “I wanted to see what the black kids were all about.”
Crier quickly became known as “the smart kid” in school. She was elected to student government as a freshman and named class president her senior year. In addition to being book smart, Crier excelled in music, speech and drama. She even won an award for outstanding original oratory in a statewide competition — although she encountered unexpected prejudice in her regular school competitions. “I was exposed to a different level of racism than I had ever experienced before,” said Crier, who believes the subjective nature of judging affected the debate outcomes.
The experience altered her perspective on the educational system in America and even influenced her choice of a college major. “I chose math because it is not subjective; it is cut and dried, straightforward,” said Crier, who attended Rice University in Houston. “In mathematics, an answer, theorem or postulate is either right or wrong.”
Following her graduation from Rice in 2000, Crier taught seventhand eighth-grade math at a public school in Houston. “I came into the school as a young teacher with a lot of enthusiasm,” she said. “However, I was forced to teach to the state aptitude test — teach testing skills — rather than my core subject. It was very discouraging.”
Crier eventually left teaching to attend law school at Yale University, where she continued to pursue her interest in education. “I decided to go into law so I could have a larger impact on educational policy and bureaucracy,” she said. “Through the law, I can reach more students and teachers than I could sitting in a classroom.”
Although Crier never planned on a career in law, she thrived at Yale. In addition to working on the Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law and Ethics, she was invited to serve on the dean’s committee on racial dynamics, for which she developed an online survey of student experiences. Her work on the committee produced numerous suggestions for improving student mentoring and new strategies for “leveling the playing field” for all students.