Katya Assoé, BLSA Canada Communications Committee member and University of Montreal LLB graduate, sat down with Médgine Gourdet, a civil and commercial litigator at Robinson Sheppard Shapiro, to discuss her law school journey, the creation of the Udem chapter of the BLSA and breaking the glass ceiling.
Q. Please introduce yourself by telling us a little about your law school and career journey, research, and any fun facts.
A. I am a commercial and civil litigation lawyer in a Montreal law firm. I also do some insolvency which is quite interesting. I studied at the University of Montreal in Montreal, QC quite some years ago. I am Hatian and Canadian: I came here in Canada (Quebec) when I was 15 years old.
Fun fact: I have a Dachshund (sausage dog) sleeping next to me. He’s quite possessive and I’m so surprised he hasn’t barked at you yet. I am the second of four black women - I have three sisters in my house[hold].
Q. Can you walk us through the process of putting together that chapter of the BLSA? And what advice would you have for a student who would like to create a similar kind of group/space in an environment not very conducive to such an initiative?
A. We’re going back to 2014-2015 when that happened. I think I was in the middle of second or third year of law school. There weren’t that many black students. One of my best friends, notorious housing lawyer Yorrick Bouyela basically told me “Girl, we have to do something. Everybody’s everywhere and no one’s together”. I remember thinking “let’s just see what we can do.”
At that time, we used to go to McGill a lot because they had a chapter of BLSA and one of my good friends, Stephanie Déborah Jules, was the president of BLSA Canada at the time - so McGill really helped with the idea of building a chapter at UdeM and with how to do it.
The issue came from the Faculty of Law. At the time, it was pre-black people dying and it being seen on live television. The whole concept of having the need of being part of a black community so far off in law school. We faced a lot of resistance because we were trying to disrupt the status quo - being that “ you guys are there, there’s no need for you guys to organize yourselves or be together because you’re creating a ghetto” and that’s the word that was used back then.
When we started the chapter, we were not able to become a student body under the Faculty of Law because they basically said no. We ended up becoming a student body from the student association of the whole University - not specifically under the Faculty of Law.
As time went on, I left the University and continued with my life. I understand that we were finally able to be under the Faculty of Law, but back then that wasn’t even a possibility.
It was the main reason why I was able to finish law school because that group created a space for me to feel safe and exist until I was done with law school.
Q. What advice would you have for a student who would like to create a similar kind of group/space in an environment not very conducive to such an initiative?
A. It’s now taboo to tell people “Stop creating a ghetto at school” which is what we got 6 years ago.
Some people are going to say no because when you’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, you’re creating change and you’re changing the status quo. Understand that people are going to say no, not because your idea is not right or because it’s crazy, but because you’re being disruptive - not even in a bad sense - I think that black people have to be disruptive because that’s how we create space for ourselves to exist in this system that we’ve been living in.
Find your tribe and surround yourself with the people that “get it” because if you try to do it alone, it won’t be sustainable for your mental health.
Q. Why has community involvement always been a priority throughout your career?
A. I want to be to others what I've never found for myself. My experience in law school, during the bar and now as a lawyer: it’s such a lonely journey. I don't know how to say that in any other words… It's just like the feeling of not belonging, the feeling of always being out of place. There has been a feeling of inadequacy that has been part of my entire journey.
So, I keep going back to myself, back in law school, and how it would have changed my journey and how it would have felt if I had had somebody like me telling me that I'm not crazy, telling me that what I’m feeling is valid and that’s it's normal to feel that way. I keep giving back to basically try to be what I haven't had.
I also have a community-based mentality: if I'm winning, you’re winning, we’re winning and everybody is winning - in the words of Issa Rae, we want black people to win, that's it - that's my mentality going into it.
It’s like my duty that I created for myself to be present in the life of the black students. I'm doing this for the black student because I think this is where a lot of people stop. I have met so many people that did not finish law school because of that feeling of inadequacy, that feeling of loneliness and that feeling of not belonging.
One of the main reasons why I stayed and I'm able to speak to you today as a litigator is because I found my tribe of black beautiful souls at the University that even I didn't have to talk to - I could look at them and they would already understand how I felt at that moment and that made me feel seen, that made me feel that I could keep going.
The goal of getting involved is letting the student know that whatever they’re feeling has been felt before. That’s the reason why history exist so you can learn from people before you. If you don't have access to the people before you, you’ll think that you're starting the history yourself and that you’re just so lonely and so small in what you're going through but the more black lawyers we have talking about how it was for them back then, the more we talk about how we feel and how we’re just basically figuring it out day by day, then you don't have to feel alone.
That's the reason why I do what I do because honesty, all the pain, all the emotions, all the ups and down and all the crying is worth it if I'm able to let another black person feel seen by sharing my story.
Q. What do you think prevents women from securing those senior leadership roles? And what will it take, in your opinion, for women to finally break the glass ceiling and establish themselves as leaders in the workplace.
A. I think there's an issue in the roles that we want women to aspire to. We have to redefine those roles. It’s like you have to be a certain type of person to be in that role - you literally have to be molded into the role instead of the role being molded to fit you!à.
I think there has to be some kind of movement of redefining what a leader, specifically in the law profession, is. If you're talking about law firms, you become a lawyer and then you become a partner, that's like the highest you can do in terms of your hierarchy. A partner has to be a certain kind of way and the way of leading is mainly based on masculine energy when we have both masculine and feminine energy. There must be a redefinition of the role because there's not one way to lead – there are so many ways to lead.
The other thing is, nobody has time to die for a job that’s going to replace you five seconds after you die. That’s one thing people have to understand: I am a millennial and I’m not going to kill myself for anybody. I am striving to be happy, blessed and highly moisturized so that’s just how I see it.
I have a lot of capacity, I have a lot of talents and gifts and I am willing to put that to the service of whatever your company is, but I'm not going to compromise my values as a human just to fit a role, so that's why I think a lot of women just be like “deuces”.
The other thing also is that sometimes you try to be at the table, but they don't want you there, so you end up building your own table. There have been so many positive movements for women, specifically black women, throughout time. We've been doing the work, we've been applying to high value positions, we have been getting feedback, surrounding ourselves with the right people, getting mentors, etc., but at some point, the issue in terms of why people don't get access to this role is if you don’t create any inclusion we have to go and build our own stuff.
I see a lot of women leave and do their own thing and succeed at it. Why? Because companies just don't create a space that allows their greatness. We are multifaceted, we’re not just one-dimensional so I think there has to be a dialogue because it's like we're talking and no one’s hearing us and then either way we're going to happen it could be for our service or for your company, you get to decide.
Q. What will it take, in your opinion, for women to finally break the glass ceiling and establish themselves as leaders in the workplace.
A. I think black women have been breaking the glass ceiling one by one. They have been paving the way for women like me and like yourself.
If I were to give some tips on how to keep breaking the glass ceiling, the first thing is: nobody is coming to save you and there's no prince charming ring - that's a scam, you should sue Hollywood. You have to take accountability for your life and you have to take accountability for your career because it's yours basically to get right.
The first thing is to make a plan: what do you want? What are your goals? What do you need for them to happen? What skill set do you need? What kind of qualifications do you need for those goals to happen? You have to figure it out. There's not one way to figure it out. There's no right way to do this, but you have to decide what you want, and you have to go for it.
Then, in terms of drafting your plan and getting all the skills and qualifications you need, you also have to believe enough in yourself to apply for those high positions. I see many women have many degrees that are just sitting there and they're not applying because they still feel not qualified. You have to apply for those high rolls and if you're surrounded by the right people, if not white Jesus by the right people. If you are surrounded by the right people, like when I said find your tribe : your tribe is going to tell you that you're tripping, they're going to hold you accountable and you're going to have to keep going with them.
Finally find mentors and allies that are in spaces where you want to be and that can create a road for you to get there.
All in all: leveraging your relationships, finding you tribe and drafting a plan and finding the skills and qualifications required for you to access those roles. I think that is the way black women can continue breaking the steel ceiling because it’s not glass at this point.
Q. I’d love to give you the final word to say anything to those listening, particular students. The floor is yours to speak directly to them, whether that means giving advice or highlighting a quote.
Define who you are and live your truth because that's one way to love your blackness and loving your blackness is the best political way to fight against racism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.
A. You know bell hooks died yesterday and that was really sad. If people don't know who she is, she is the author of All About Love. That book has drafted the black woman I am today, so I really wanted in my interview to underline how it is a big loss for black woman the fact that she died and also how she has basically crafted the lives of so many black women.
One of quote is from Salvation: Black People and Love :
“Often black folks striving to succeed may feel bombarded and conflicted when expectations from black peers and family differ from those of the predominately white world they work in. These individuals may construct a false self to get ahead in both these worlds. This produces inner conflict which undermines self-esteem. Importantly, the time has come for black people to courageously claim our right to personal integrity and refuse to don a false self for anyone. In the long run, individuals who self-betray by always masking and pretending end up suffering. Their mental and physical health is wrecked in the process.”
If there's one thing, I can leave you with after hearing this is that I have tried so many times to become gentle, whiter version of the extraordinary woman that I am and I have suffered a great loss trying to fit the mold that society created for myself and then I ended up finding for my mental health that there's not one way to practice.
I am assertive, which doesn't mean I'm aggressive. I am kind, which doesn't mean I am weak, and I am confident, which is not a flaw either. Define who you are and live your truth because that's one way to love your blackness and loving your blackness is the best political way to fight against racism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.
I want to tell everybody that wants to reach out to me, I’m quite there and available so you can find me on LinkedIn and it’ll be my pleasure to share with you snippets of whatever it is that you're going through and help navigate you through it.