Breaking the Mould

I was recently asked to speak at an event for Asian Heritage month on the topic of Breaking the Mould at a high school. Here is an excerpt of some of my thoughts that I shared:

I think that my thoughts are best encapsulated in this quote by Socrates, who said:

The Secret to Change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new!

I have to remind myself of that quote from time to time, to ensure that I am keeping my momentum and energy focused in a positive and nurturing way. 

In terms of breaking the mould, I am going to briefly discuss who I am and some of the ways I have had the opportunity to break the mould:

  1. Who am I? 

Just by virtue of my background, I broke the mould!

My brother and I, when we were younger, came up with the following identifier:

Indo Caribbean Canadian – let’s break that down.  My father was born in India, my mother in Trinidad and I was born here in Canada. 

Growing up – I honestly did not know anyone with that type of background and in each of those respective communities – the South Asian community, as it is known now, and the Trinidadian community, we stood out as being different. 

And when you are younger – instinctively, you want to fit in and not stand out. 

But from a young age, I learned that I could not blend in and this happenstance of birth was always going to make me different.  So you either fight it or embrace it and I chose to embrace it.

And that goes to the first theme I want you to take away from my talk –

embrace your differences.  In fact – celebrate and highlight them!

Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.

Stephen Covey

That is part of what makes me unique.  I have learned to navigate the world with this lens and it helps me see the world in a different way.  What does that mean – it means I bring a different point of view to any table I sit at, because of this foundational background.  And I don’t shy away from it – I can’t.  Just looking at me, you can tell that I have different complexion.

I have been in an era, where authenticity, celebrating our unique view points and finding commonalities has been emphasized and I am proud to be a part of that – but there is still a lot of work to be done and I see a lot of change continuing with your generation moving through.    

I was proud to have had a lot of firsts – the first South Asian/Trinidadian partner at my previous firm, the first female South Asian/ Trinidadian partner at my current firm, the first female president of the South Asian Bar Association.  And I am happy to have been the first but I want the world to reach the point that when you are ready to join whatever profession or vocation you are interested in, you will be breaking the mould with your excellence and for no other reason. 

And yes – I am an idealist, but trust me I am a pragmatist and I see the world for what it is.  But I also see the world for what it could be – and that’s what I focus on! 

This leads me to my next point –

  • Know yourself and define yourself – don’t let other people define you.

You can only break the mould if you are confident in yourself and your abilities.  And that means – putting in the work to develop yourself, your skills so that you can be your best in whatever you pursue. 

When I started thinking about law and pursuing law, and putting this in context, I am speaking about the late 80’s to the 2000’s – I would occasionally hear comments such as lawyers are aggressive and powerful and dynamic – are you?  There were popular television law shows when I was growing up – LA Law, Street Legal that contributed to that view, and there was never a character who looked like me.  #Representation matters!

And the words that were placed to describe me – as a woman and woman of colour – specifically being of South Asian descent are typically – demure, subservient, mild mannered.  But those words did not describe me at all and I was determined to prove people wrong, because in my heart –I knew who I was.  I am a litigator.  An advocate.  I enjoy convincing people to see things from a different point of view and convincing them that my position was the legally sound one.  I knew that from a young age, and I developed my advocacy training in a number of different ways – some purposeful and some by happenstance.  And I think this is important because don’t choose your activities and extra curriculars solely based on what you think will best contribute to your success but also because you enjoy it and want to develop that skill. 

I loved debating and always was a part of any type of debate – that’s pretty obvious for law and litigation.  However, I also loved performing and pursued drama and music (much against my parents’ wishes), which has contributed to me being comfortable in front of an audience and working in a group setting – both important in law.  I have a confession, I have terrible stage fright.  I often, to this day, will shake with nervousness, before starting any type of presentation or oral argument, but then given my training, I am able to harness the nervousness and direct the energy into the work I have to do. 

But knowing myself and defining myself has not been without its bumps.  When I went to law school at Western Law, then known as the University of Western Ontario, I actually shortened my name to Sue so that it was easier for people to say.  And I absolutely hated it.  No disrespect to anyone named Sue, because especially in Law, it is the perfect name!!! But it was not my name.  And so one lesson I learned in Law School was to stay true to me.  Be my authentic self.

And the name issue has remained throughout my tenure in law.  When I got married, my husband has a very short South Asian last name and many at work and within our respective communities for tradition, encouraged me to just take on my husband’s last name.  And I did, but I also kept my maiden name and hyphenated it –TAKE THAT!  Now I had gone and made it harder.  And I was ok with that and was prepared for that push back for a period of time, until it just became accepted.  Because with time, you come to realize that eventually, anything can become the norm and accepted.  I’ll give you an example – I love listening to all of the amazing and diverse names of reporters on television and radio – and that was not my experience growing up. 

So change happens – remind yourself of that when you are in doubt. 

And as a funny anecdote, television law shows changed also.  When I started law school, this fun law show started with its title character being a slim outspoken woman who was constantly under estimated and I felt a kinship to her – the show was Ally McBeal and in fact – my friends started calling me a play on the title character’s name, as a result!

Another time – my knowledge of who I was tested was when I was applying to law firms.  “Advice” that I was given, was to remove my nose ring because firms were inherently conservative work places.  And I thought about it but by that point and having come to terms with my name, I decided that if a firm did not want me because of my nose ring, then it was not the proper environment for me. I knew me.   

And as I have continued my journey in the profession of law, I have found my stride.  I am comfortable being my full self.  I don’t hide the fact that I am a mother of 3, and have a life outside of the office.  Most of my friends, are people who I have known since I was 6 years old and none of them are lawyers.  I proudly celebrate my heritage and culture and take pride educating others on it. 

It has taken time but I have learned that in order for you to be truly happy, it is a cliché, but you have to be true to yourself because by being you, and fully accepting yourself, will you then know how to find success and what that means for you.  

My last point:

  • To Break the mould – be surrounded by a great support system

 When I started to pursue law, even from the law school level, there were very few people who looked like me and I knew all of the people who looked different as we found solidarity with each other.   We provided support and cheers, even from afar as we started practicing.

Part of me being able to break the mould was having a great support system.  When I first started law, there were not many South Asian or Trinidadian lawyers.  So, I found lawyers, who did not look like me and came from totally different backgrounds, but were great at what they did and I adopted them as my mentors.  We did not have mentorship when I started Law but my instincts steered me to find amazing people and learn from them, and as a result, they became invested in me, and want to help me succeed because they saw something in me.  They gave me the inside track and view and I figured out what worked for me and what did not.

Golfing – hard no.  Going for long nights of drinking on a continuous basis – not for me.  Writing articles about cases of interest – that worked for me.  Presenting (after I conquered the butterflies) – that worked for me.  Taking clients to exhibits, the spa, nice meals – all what worked for me. 

And as time rolled on, I found a community within the South Asian Bar Association which was established a couple of years after I got called to the Bar.  And I joined their Executive, and eventually became the President.  At the very first gala – we fit into a private dining room at a restaurant.  At the last pre-pandemic gala, the gala was at capacity at the Liberty Grand and the event was sold out.  And many times, when I stumble, need direction, consolation, or inspiration, I turn to my circle.  And they help me move forward.  I have been very careful about who is afforded my confidences and although I have many acquaintances and friends, the true friends and mentors I can count on my hands.  And they are the ones who are angry with me when I have experienced a wrong or injustice and they are the ones who lift me up and celebrate me and vice versa.  And in my opinion, having that circle of people (family, friends, mentors) around you, gives you the support and foundation and confidence to know that you are capable of breaking whatever mould, whatever stereotype, whatever perception is imposed on you. 

And so I go back to the words of Socrates:

The Secret to Change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new!

I look forward to your new and all the change that you will bring – I am excited for your futures!

But that’s just one Diva’s view.

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