Rhonda Magee answers the question:

What is the nicest thing a non-family member has ever done for you?


Well, thank you so much first of all, for inviting me to be in this conversation with you around this particular question. It's a great question and I'm glad you gave it to me in advance so I could think about it a little. As a young girl, I was living in North Carolina first but then Virginia, and by the time I was a teenager I was going to public school and my family,... my mom and dad had divorced. My mom had remarried and my stepfather on the one hand had helped... came along at a time where his being a part of our lives was significant. We moved from North Carolina to Virginia. And in a certain sense we had a little bit more stability. We had access to healthcare for the first time. So I should say I grew up in a relatively impoverished background. My family, like many African American families who live in the South, had for generations tended to be relegated to almost like a caste-like, lower-class status with working-class opportunities — quite limited in terms of roles that my family members had played.

And I think we were all living consciously and unconsciously with some of the legacies of intergenerational trauma, longstanding patterns and structures beyond our individual “can do it” spirit or not — like structures that said certain people weren't able to do certain things. And so that meant for me that the people who raised me would always have their backs up against the wall in some ways. And we hadn't had a lot of opportunities for education, stabilizing access to institutions like regular, reliable healthcare, et cetera. And so when my mom married my stepdad, I was able to experience some of that. My stepdad had been a member of the U.S. military, actually Air Force. And because he had retired in the Air Force, he had access to a regular socialized, frankly healthcare system that otherwise hadn't been available.

So for the first time there were certain things that we were able to do and I was feeling a little bit more comfort, but there was no extra money for... well, for extra things. And so for me, as a young person, the one place where I was able to feel like I could do things and experience more of what other children with more access to resources could experience was in school. It was a public school where if you did well enough, you had the opportunity to shine. And so I was a competitive, strong student, notwithstanding the fact that my parents hadn't had very many opportunities. I was able to do well and to thrive and to feel a sense of my own value under those circumstances.

And so it led me to do a lot of things — participate in the band, become a student leader in our student government. But certain things still cost money. And so there was a time when, despite the fact that I had volunteered a lot and really was one of those students in a little public school, high school community that was president of this and member of that honor society and this and that, different bands, jazz band, and marching band...

And there came a time when there was an opportunity for the students in the band to go on a trip and to experience traveling outside of the state from Virginia to I think it was New York at the time, but we also traveled in a similar way to New Jersey. And I don't remember which one came first. But, at that particular time I remember really having done all I could to try and raise the whatever extra money was required of us — like a family or personal contribution to be able to make the trip. I participated in fundraisers and did whatever I could and just wasn't able to raise all of the money necessary.

I recall having to talk to one of my teachers at that time, my high school math teacher at that time. His name was Mr. Ramsey and he was well aware that many of the students in the class were going to be away during that period. He knew who was in the band, he knew everybody who should've been going away, and he was making accommodations and meeting with each student and saying, "Well, when are you going to do this? How are you going to make sure that happens?" He called me to meet with him and was engaging with me around making alternative plans because he knew I was in the band, and I had to share with him that I actually wasn't going to be going because I didn't have the money. And he just stopped and basically said, "You of all students deserve to be able to go. As hard as you've worked, as much as you contribute, you deserve to go."

And he, out of his own funds, his own personal resources paid to... It brings tears to my eyes just to think of it now... but he just took care of whatever that balance was without blinking an eye. I don't even think he told me he was going to do that in that meeting. He just said, "You deserve to go." And I learned shortly thereafter that I didn't have to worry about that debt anymore and I was definitely going to be going on the trip with my friends. And so it touches me to think back on that. I don't know how this relates, but it happens that he was the only African American male high school teacher that I had. Most of the teachers were of a different background.

And so I don't know how much of his generosity toward me came from a deeper than usual sense of the common sorts of struggles that we navigated to try to make the most of systems that were not designed for our thriving. And I know he wasn't a rich man, but I have come to understand that there were other people and other times when he helped share some of the resources that he had with students like me at that time who were doing the best we could under difficult circumstances and just sometimes need a little bit of extra help.

So I guess the ultimate answer for me when I think about the nicest thing, again, it's hard. I don't think of it as any one… Although I can identify people like Mr. Ramsey and I want to hold him up because I do think personal actions along those lines are so important. And at the same time, I guess I want to also say that I really feel like I owe this huge debt to whatever you might call that thread across human history that is moved to take a stand for justice, to take a stand to help right these kinds of wrongs that we see showing up in this society or that society at this time, in this place, through which members of certain groups are treated less than, are given less opportunities than others.

And so every way in which I think our long human history has ongoingly struggled against the forces of oppression and discrimination in favor of instead opportunity for all to thrive, I have to name that too as part of what comes up for me when I think of the nicest things, the greatest things that anyone's ever done for me.

Rhonda V. Magee (JD/MA, Sociology, University of Virginia) is Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law, a teacher of mindfulness-based stress reduction, and author of The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness

A full-time faculty member at the Jesuit University of San Francisco since 1998, and a full professor since 2004, she has been named Dean’s Circle Research Scholar and has served as co-director of the University’s Center for Teaching Excellence. She teaches Torts, Race, Law and Policy, and courses in Contemplative and Mindful Law and Law Practice. She is a trained and practiced facilitator with an emphasis on mindful communication, having been trained in programs offered by the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine’s Oasis Teacher Training Institute, and the Stanford Graduate School of Business Facilitator Training Program. In April 2015, she was named a Fellow of the Mind and Life Institute.

Rhonda is the author of numerous articles on mindfulness in legal education, including "Educating Lawyers to Meditate?" and "The Way of ColorInsight: Understanding Race and Law Effectively Using Mindfulness-Based ColorInsight Practices." She is a nationally recognized thought and practice leader in the emerging fields of contemplative legal education and law practice, and contemplative teaching in higher education.

Click here to visit Rhonda's website.

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This article appears in: 2020 Catalyst, Issue 6: The Breathwork Summit