law; subversive lawyering


Almost everyone who reads these words is an institutional insider in some form. Those of us who aspire toward transformation, liberation, and resistance from our institutional settings are forced to confront Audre Lorde’s striking admonition that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” For some, finding themselves in the master’s house is a spur towards purism—a rejection of institutional power in search of a “pure” remove from which to critique it. For others, it is a dispiriting check on their aspirations and an invitation to sullen fatalism. This Essay questions whether we are bound to the hard consequences of purism or whether there are avenues within our institutional infrastructure that allow us to pursue change with radical pragmatism. Canvassing my own historical work on the struggle against slavery in the 1850s, I advance the beginning of an answer: it may be that it is impossible to revolutionize the institutions we work in as insiders, but it is possible for institutional actors to hold deliberative space within their institutions for transformational and radical imagination. By deliberative space, I mean space held open for conversation, democracy, and participatory deliberation. None of us, alone, can imagine our way out of the master’s house. But together, by stepping back and making space, we may be able to open a commons in the master’s house where we listen, dream, and challenge each other.