Alexis Hawkins was a student at Ballou High School in Southeast Washington, D.C. until she was 15-years-old. After participating in a brawl with over 20 girls from feuding neighbourhoods, Hawkins was expelled. Although a good student academically, she grew up in a rough area, Congress Park, and spent years in the foster care system due to an unstable home life. Her friends from her neighbourhood were her refuge and they bonded together, protecting each other - right, wrong, or indifferent.
Edwin Buckner, a D.C. police officer assigned to Ballou at the time, bonded with Hawkins; he spoke about her tumultuous time as a teenager.
“Congress Park girls were known to fight - and Alexis was a fighter. She was also an A student and never bothered anyone. But she would not back down from a fight if it involved her neighbourhood,” Buckner told The Washington Post.
“We band together for protection. We fight out of loyalty and friendship, right or wrong. The result is just more trauma that goes unaddressed...It saddens me because...some of my friends have been the victims of homicide. A lot of us are living in poverty and come from homes that are not always supportive,” Hawkins explained.
After her expulsion, she was out of school for six months before finishing her education. She enrolled in the Woodland Job Corps Center in Laurel, Maryland, eventually earning her GED. She would go on to attend Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, majoring in criminal justice. When she finished her undergraduate degree, Hawkins went on to attend Howard Law School. Now, 13 years after getting expelled, Hawkins has graduated with her law degree.
“I just had to keep believing in myself, stay focused and not give up on my goals,” Hawkins said.
The 28-year-old credits her transformation to a trip she took during the summer of 2008 with the Peaceaholics, an anti-violence group based in D.C. co-founded by Ronald Moten and Jahar Abraham. The trip was a week-long civil rights tour held in the south, attended by girls from rival neighborhoods in Southeast D.C. During the journey, the girls were taken to historical sites and had the opportunity to meet civil rights activists. One activist, Annie Lee Cooper, who Hawkins was introduced to in Selma, Alabama, left an impression. Cooper told the girls about a time in 1965 where she waited hours to register to vote, being prodded in the neck with a billy club and ordered to leave by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark. Cooper punched the sheriff in the face, and he fell to the ground.
“That touched me because I’m a fighter. I have a warrior spirit, too. Annie Cooper made me realize that I was fighting the wrong people. I was fighting people who looked like me, Black girls who came from the same community, who had gone through the same hardships. She made me understand that I should be using my mind, my energy to fight racism and dismantle systems of oppression that create underserved neighbourhoods and school-to-prison pipelines,” Hawkins said.
Throughout her journey, the teen continued to receive support from adults like Moten, Abraham, and Buckner. When she graduated from college, Buckner even rented a limousine and took her to Ballou’s prom to experience the one she never got to attend.
"I would tell her all the time, ‘You are a survivor. You can overcome any obstacle,’" said Buckner.
Hawkins spent time as a legal assistant at the D.C. Superior Court before being encouraged to pursue law school by Judge Sherri Beatty-Arthur.
“I wanted Alexis to know that I was cheering for her. I wanted her to imagine a world where Black women cheered for each other and did not get manipulated into fighting one another. I wanted her to know that I would help her, and all I asked in return was for her to do the same for someone else,” Beatty-Arthur said.
Now Hawkins is preparing for her bar exam, hoping to land a job as a clerk at the D.C Superior Court and work her way up to become a public defender and ultimately a judge. Her mission is to fight systemic racism from the inside out and help other Black girls find their way, just like others helped her.
“Although my accomplishments are rare for where I came from, I will work to make sure that is not the case for long. I want girls like me to have even more opportunities than I had, even more support, and I will always be reaching back, giving back, and pulling them forward,” Hawkins said.
Congratulations Alexis! You are an inspiration.
Photo Courtesy of Courtland Milloy/The Washington Post
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