Being There When People Are Vulnerable: Reflections on Keith Aoki

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Written by Hari Osofsky

I just spent the weekend in Oregon at a beautiful memorial event for Keith Aoki. The University of Oregon School of Law and Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, where he was to have been a visiting scholar this fall, hosted a wonderful symposium in which we reflected upon Keith’s intellectual legacy followed by a more personal remembrance of Keith and a Garden Weasel (Keith’s band) performance.

I found being there both good and hard. While it would be difficult to overstate the intellectual debt that I owe Keith and I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on the tremendous insights of his written work and on his scholarly legacy, what I value most about Keith and miss most about him was his capacity to be there for me and others when they are most vulnerable. He had this unique capacity to lift people up and make people find the best inside themselves, and a knack for knowing when they needed it most. Keith was there for me during my hardest moments over the last several years, as a friend and mentor, and I would not be where or who I am without him. People told story after story about that experience of Keith.

This summer and fall has been the first time that I have tried to help people in the academy in their moments of vulnerability (transitions into and within institutions, tenure and promotion, difficult situations, etc.) without Keith’s wisdom illuminating my path. It’s been sad and lonely, and what’s gotten me through is trying to find the place from which Keith was there for others and rehearing in my head what he would say. What helped me most this past weekend, surrounded by old and new friends who were better for having had Keith in their life, was feeling the way in which his loving kindness, embrace of hard reality, and unique artistic, intellectual capacity continues to touch the world through the way he changed those who were lucky enough to have had him be there for them.

In that vein, and knowing that our legal academic institutions are in the throes of hiring and tenure processes this fall, I want to share a thought from that Saturday night personal discussion about vulnerability. One of the things that makes people so vulnerable as they go through the legal academy is that there is a sense in which our colleagues are not just judging our work, but judging us. In each of our institutions, right now, there are students, staff, and faculty who feel vulnerable, who feel like they cannot be public about their vulnerability for fear of being judged, and who feel lonely and afraid. It is hard to reach out when you feel that way. And the world tends to surround us with support and affirmation more easily in our less vulnerable moments. Keith knew that and was always there to lend a hand.

Especially for those of us lucky enough to be in faculty positions with the security of tenure, I hope that we can honor Keith’s memory in part by channeling his capacity to support people in vulnerability. Sometimes in our rush to judge excellence, we forget to believe in people in ways that allow them to reach their potential and, in the process, leave deep scars. I know from Keith that we can simultaneously demand excellence and help people get there. For every tenure denial, there are countless people who are made unnecessarily to feel afraid and inadequate before they pass through that ring of fire upon which so much hinges. I hear new stories every week from many different institutions around the country and I have lived my own version of that vulnerability at several points in my pre-tenure career.

I am so grateful to have had Keith in those moments and for the efforts on personal, faculty, and national levels by so many who I won’t name out of respect for confidentiality—Keith playfully called that group “ninjas” with all of that word’s complex connotations—to create a culture and rules around decency and respect. I hope that over time we, in the broadest definition of our community, get better at nurturing the people around us and finding the best in them like Keith did, to pay forward that gift he gave so generously and freely.

Cross-posted on Environmental Law Prof Blog and IntLawGrrls.