While in her third year at the UC Davis School of Law, Dayja Tillman applied for a job with the ACLU of Michigan. In a letter that accompanied her stellar resume, Ms. Tillman, who has lived many places but considers Pontiac home, wrote this: 

“Growing up I encountered many of the institutional issues typically reserved for the Black, Brown, indigent and poor including over-policing, underfunding of schools, lack of adequate medical care and services, and reproductive oppression. These experiences have colored my perspective and ultimately drive my desire to pursue impact litigation and policy. An opportunity to perform this service in the communities I grew up in back in Michigan would allow me to do the exact work I went to law school to do.” 

As part of our Black History Month celebration, we talked with Ms. Tillman, now our West Michigan Legal Fellow. Among other things, she talks about her views of Black history, three songs currently on her playlist, and one book she would recommend others read this month.  

Q: How do you identify?  

A: I identify as Black American. I have no problem and take no offense to being referred to as “African-American” or simply Black. My preference for Black American is mostly due to the fact that I’ve never liked that society/America lumps all Black people under an umbrella, effectively homogenizing us (as it similarly does to other People of Color). There is so much variation and diversity within the African diaspora—in and outside of the United States. Identifying as Black American, I feel, is a way of recognizing the specific experience and cultural aspects of being the descendant of enslaved Africans who were brought to the U.S. and had their heritage, history and culture stripped away, while also explicitly celebrating my connection to the African diaspora as a whole. 

Q: What does Black History Month mean to you?

A: When I was younger, Black History Month was simply the time we talked about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. While I was still young, my mom, siblings and I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where I would spend the majority of my early education. Being in the South, my exposure to Black History, my own history, was terribly limited. It wasn’t until I went off to college that I was exposed to people, resources, discourse and movements that started to fill in the many gaps. I was learning about the Black Power Movement, SNCC, the Black Panthers, and generally the (continued) struggle for Black liberation. Now, Black History Month symbolizes to me the fortitude my community has had, and continues to have, and the recognition of where these efforts have gotten us and how much further there is still to go. 

Q: Why do you think it’s important to uplift Black History Month? 

A: As I mentioned earlier, I barely learned any Black history when I was young. The little I did learn was limited and, in all respects, extremely filtered. I don’t think my experience was unique in any way; many people, Black or otherwise, have a base-level knowledge of “Black History” outside of the partial excerpts textbooks are willing to show. Having and uplifting “Black History Month” gives us all the space to engage with history and discourse that many of us may have little access to or knowledge of. 

I think the tragic result of so many having such little experience with Black History is that there continues to be a disconnect with issues that affect Black people and what caused or exacerbates these issues. Every day, we hear more and more calls from around the country for schools to ban books relating to topics on race, systemic/institutional oppression, slavery, and the like. There are pushes to remove what they are claiming is critical race theory from classrooms despite the fact CRT is not actually taught in K-12 schools, and most people are unfamiliar with what the concept actually entails. 

The result is that we as a country will continue to struggle with how to address the systemic harms that impact Black people, and that will ultimately continue to fall on Black people. Just this month, we have had to againreconcile with the trauma and harm of continuing to kick the can on these issues with the murder of Tyre Nichols at the hands of police. On this point, it’s important to highlight the fact that Black history and the people who make/will make it, do not start and stop being important in February. Black liberation is an ongoing struggle. Black History Month serves as a reminder to us all that we should be engaging in and with this discourse year-round.   

Q: What is the role of organizations like the ACLU of Michigan in challenging issues that impact the Black community?

A: Organizations like the ACLU of Michigan have a lot of resources and influence, two major things that the Black community has historically lacked. Organizations like the ACLU are so-well positioned to tackle systemic issues that are hard to organize around or involve challenges to the government. For instance, issues like cash bail, which results in poor people – a disproportionate number of who are Black – being forced to sit in jail, sometimes for months, even though they’ve been convicted of no crime. Or the state takeover that caused lead contamination of drinking water in Flint, where a majority of the residents are Black. These and other issues are seemingly impossible to tackle without the support of organizations like the ACLU, which are able to force the right people to the table to have productive discourse around these issues. And if that fails, these organizations are better positioned to take these issues to the courts or to the polls, just as the ACLU of Michigan demonstrated this past year with the very successful reproductive rights campaign. Importantly, I think it’s crucial for these organizations to take their cues from the community so that when advocating on specific issues, it is the community’s voice and needs that are uplifted.  

Q: What cases or projects are you working on that you have been particularly proud of as it relates to issues impacting the Black community?  

A: The one I’m most proud of so far has been a challenge to a proposed city ordinance that would have had a disproportionate impact on Black residents. The proposed ordinance would have specifically outlawed panhandling in the downtown area as well as sitting, sleeping, or lying in the public right of way. In essence, the ordinance looked to criminalize homelessness as it specifically targeted areas and activities frequented by people living without homes. In Grand Rapids, Black people are overrepresented in the homeless population, so this bill would have disproportionately impacted houseless Black residents. In challenging the ordinance, I drafted a letter and made public comment to the City Commissioners about the unconstitutionality of the proposal. As of now, the proposal is defunct, and the city had stated it has no intention to move forward now. 


Q: What do you think is the role/importance of Black lawyers?

A: Growing up, I wanted to be a lawyer because I wanted access to the tools and resources my family often needed, but didn’t get, in many of the situations we found ourselves. Despite this, though I met a few amazing attorneys during undergrad, I did not meet a single Black attorney until I went to law school. While I read about many in the news or in articles, such as Pauli Murray and Constance Baker Motley, and watched many fictional ones on TV (looking at you, Annalise Keating), I did not meet my first Black attorney until stepping foot on my law school campus; it was soon after that that I met my first Black judge. Truly, the lack of Black lawyers in my personal life made it really difficult to discern what my place or role in the legal field could be. At times, it made me unsure if law was even a space for me. 

Above all, the lack of Black attorneys was troubling to me because there was, and is, no shortage of injustices affecting the Black community. Even though there are a plethora of lawyers and advocates who tackle systems that harm Black people, the role of Black attorneys is significant in these dynamics. I believe it’s important for communities to have self-determination and should have space to lead the charge against issues. Black attorneys have the benefit of a dual perspective: we are not just attorneys; we are still very much Black people and will continue to be impacted by issues impacting the Black community. This particular experience, I think, is invaluable for addressing the specific needs of many communities, but specifically, the Black community. 

Q: Any movies that you would recommend for people who want to learn more about Black History? 

A: I think if you want to learn more about Black History, there are many, many films, shows, books, etc. I could recommend that you likely wouldn’t find at school. My first recommendation for someone getting started would be The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. It’s where I really started my own journey of self-reflection and learning what is and how to challenge anti-Blackness. Much of the footage includes powerful clips and testimony from figures who were long hidden from the public eye, including Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton, and Angela Davis, whose footage includes an interview she did while in prison. The issues the film highlights are heavily foundational in current Black movements for liberation today.  

Q: What music are you currently listening to? 

A: My music taste tends to be all over the place, but when I find a song I like, I play it to death. At the moment, if I had to pick three I have on repeat they’d be Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit”, “Free Mind” by The Phenomenal Tems and “Titi Me Pregunto” by Bad Bunny.  Personally, I think Tems may be one of the best voices of my generation and she has single handedly made Afrobeats one of my favorite genres to listen to. If you’ve never heard of it, Afrobeat’s is a now-popular genre that hails from West Africa and mixes rap, R&B, electro, and dancehall sounds. 

Q: Any books you would recommend people read this month? 

A: There are so many books I want to recommend, but I think it makes more sense to name some authors here because you cannot go wrong on where you start: Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture), bell hooks, Audrey Lorde, W.E.B. Dubois (specifically, The Souls of Black Folks), Beverly Daniel Tatum, and Toni Morrison, just to name a few. By the time you get through even some of their work, you will have compiled a second list all on your own! Right now, I’m reading Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism by Carmichael. It consists of a collection of speeches and articles he shared throughout his years as a freedom fighter. It’s really compelling, especially if you, like me, had never been blessed with hearing him speak before. 

Q: What do you hope to do over the next few years in your fellowship? 

A: There is so much happening in Michigan, it’s one of the many reasons why I was excited to be back and working here. The ACLU of Michigan also seems to have its hand on the pulse of what’s happening in Michigan, which is similarly exciting. Over the next few years, I’m hoping to continue to work on issues that harm all of our communities, but with specific emphasis on Black communities. Issues such as anti-CRT legislation, book bans, housing, police brutality and mass incarceration continue to be significant points of harm for many people, so I’ll be actively looking for ways to mitigate that harm from my position. 

Q: Any quotes or mottos that you like/have? 

A: There’s an African Proverb I just recently learned, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I actually learned this quote about two weeks ago. I was lucky enough to get an invite to the West Michigan Urban League’s Annual MLK Day of Service Breakfast. It was a phenomenal event that specifically highlighted the work many organizations around West Michigan are doing for and in the West Michigan Black Community. The impact of the proverb was significant because when I first heard it, I was in a room full of Black people and allies who were all gathered on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday at seven o’clock in the morning for the purpose of uplifting the community through acts of service. It really stood out to me how much the folks in that space were able to achieve, particularly on behalf of Black people, because they made a collective commitment to do it together.