MEETING Kim Keenan wasn't at all like I imagined. Prior to the interview I had read that she was an accomplished, award-winning lawyer who held one of the top jobs in the American civil rights movement.
That, I confess, led me to a subconscious stereotype — a stuffy, chip-on-the-shoulder type, eager to impress with academic brilliance.
But I was proven wrong, and as though reading my mind, she later explained.
"The funny part is that most people, when they meet me, don't assume that I'm a lawyer... because I try to connect with those people. I'm not trying to teach them about law or let them know I'm a lawyer. I'm trying to connect with them, because we never know what thing we might be able to get together and do later and if I'm busy (focusing on professions/careers), it takes away from the humanity.
"My mother always said 'you shouldn't have to tell people what you do, you shouldn't have to read a résumé, you shouldn't have to know that somebody called you super for you to be super' and to me, that's a good compliment," she said.
From the minute she breezed onto the patio of the café at the Spanish Court Hotel and greeted us — almost in a sing-song voice — to the minute US Embassy officials whisked her off to another engagement, Keenan came across as a good-natured, humorous, gregarious, easy-going, yet grounded woman.
She and her IT specialist husband Joseph Blackburne were in Jamaica as guests of the US Embassy as part of its International Information Programme, which arranges for American experts to engage with foreign audiences on a diverse range of issues each year. The focus this year is advocacy.
Keenan is the general counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the civil rights organisation founded in 1909 with the express mandate of promoting equality of rights on political, educational, social, and economic fronts and eliminating race-based discrimination.
She's the youngest person to have held the post and only the second woman, after Angela Ciccolo. The personal and professional significance of these aren't lost on her.
"Imagine someone calls you up and tells you that they want to offer you the job of the first black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall! If you're a woman, you're like, 'I don't know', but then you realise that you have all these things to offer, and so this is a dream job. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to put my hands on civil rights and the future, the direction of the organisation," she told the Jamaica Observer Thursday afternoon.
Thurgood Marshall — the first black justice of the US Supreme Court, serving from 1967 to 1991 — is Keenan's predecessor at the NAACP, by some 40 years. As intimidating as that might sound, however, Keenan says she hardly focuses on it.
"I do feel pressure," she admits. "I feel pressured to make sure that I'm the best that I can be and I'm always trying to be better, and that I'm encouraging my team to do the best that they can do and also to get more from them... You can always get more from a lawyer once they're highly motivated," she said.
"But what balances it off is, you have so much to do; there is so much work to do that you don't have time to be worried about history; you just have to roll up your sleeves and jump in... The work is so big, and you have so much to do, you don't have time to be intimidated," she said.
She uses the history to her advantage, all the while trying to put her stamp on the role.
"I do have a benefit that they didn't have: I get to read their history, and imagine reading about Thurgood Marshall facing 'people are saying you're not doing it fast enough, or people are saying you're doing it too fast'. I get that now. And so to know that you're encountering the same kind of challenges that he encountered, it's reaffirming actually. It really lets me see that I must be in the right place... "I'm in the company of great people. I stand very much on their shoulders (so) it's very important for me to get it right," she said.
"I think what I'm trying to bring to it... is that I try to be more strategic in the types of lawsuits filed and cases taken on. I really think that you should try to put your own stamp on whatever you do, but I do have the shadow of that great history at my heels," she added.
The graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and the University of Virginia School of Law is on sabbatical from the George Washington University Law Centre where she teaches pre-trial and trial advocacy as part of the senior adjunct faculty.
Before joining the NAACP in 2011, she was principal of Keenan Firm in Washington, DC, which she ran without associates. She is a former president of both the National Bar Association and the District of Columbia Bar.
Keenan has been awarded and recognised by a long list of legal and other bodies over the years, among them the Women's Bar Association, which named her Woman Lawyer of the Year in 2007, and the American Bar Association, which named her Legal Rebel in 2010.
The Washingtonian called her Top Lawyer for 2009, and she was Washington, DC's Super Lawyer from 2007-2010.
The Legal Rebel is among her favourite to date.
"I was nominated to be a legal rebel because I don't do it the way other people do it," she said. "I'm not a cookie-cutter lawyer. I'm trying to help people in a big way. I became a lawyer because I thought laws helped people, made life better, gave them opportunity, and I try to use law that way every chance I get; and I don't see what can't be done, I see what can be done. A lot of times that makes you different from others."
The awards, she said, have come because she's competitive and loves to win, but moreso because she's collaborative.
"My mother was a social worker and my father was very competitive, so I like to win, but I like other people to feel like they won with me, and I think [that] combination of skills serves me well," she said. That, plus the fact that "I work really hard".
"I think that's why people have recognised (me), but the awards just make you wanna do more, or wanna do better, or wanna find another way to spread that in another way because I do think collaboration is the key to so many things, and that there are so many ways we could collaborate but we're so busy talking about what they can't do, what they didn't do, what they don't do, what they don't like that they can't get to the good that they could do," Keenan said.
"I try to demystify law for every person. I treat every client like they're the most special client and I try to do the very best job that I can for them. I can tell you that representing type 'A' civil rights people will make you an even better lawyer, because they don't look at things the same ways as everybody else, and they really believe that you can make a way out of no way. So you then have to adjust your advice to say, 'okay, you may not be able to make it the way you came with, but I got another way'. So you have to run faster and jump higher... When I was bar president I would always say you have to do it bigger, better and faster, so I'm always trying to do that," she said.
Asked about the gains made by the association — once led by Martin Luther King Jr who delivered the famous 'I have a dream' speech regarding racism in America — and whether it was time to shed 'coloured' from its name, Keenan replied with an emphatic "No".
"People who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Our history is very much a part of who we are and why we are, and I hope that we never shed our name. My mother always said when you change your name nobody knows who you are anymore," she said.
"The history reminds us that we will always have work to do. We will always have a torch to bear so that generations that follow remember that they have work to do 'cause we stand on their shoulders, we owe them. People went through a lot so that I could have the opportunities that I have now, they went through a lot so that those who come after me can have it even better," she added.
As for racism, she said though much has been achieved, there was much more to accomplish.
"I think we've come a long way. There are no 'free coloured only' signs and no 'full white only' signs, but there is a way to go. I think people have the misimpression that if you have a president who is black that you've accomplished everything, but that's not really true. There are people out in the world who are treated differently because of their colour, and it's more subtle in this day and age, but it does happen and I think that for us, the major focus has been about evening the playing ground — the educational opportunities, economic opportunities, making sure the criminal justice system doesn't see colour. And underneath all of that are voting rights; they are at the core of it all," Keenan said.
"I don't think racism in America is anything like what it was, but I do think that there is [more complete] work to be done, and when we work on these areas — voting, education, economics, criminal justice — we move us closer to the reality of a place where people are judged by the content of their character and not by the colour of their skin." she argued.
The NAACP has championed and won several groundbreaking civil rights cases in its 104-year history, among them Murray v. Pearson (1936), which challenged the federal government's "separate but equal" doctrine. Most recently, in March this year, the Maryland House of Delegates repealed the death penalty with a vote of 82 to 56.
Also among its successes, the NAACP counts the removal of the question of criminal history from employment applications for state positions in California, the capping of interest rates on short-term payday loans targeting low-income communities in Ohio, and New York's repeal of the drug laws that sent thousands to prison for low-level offences.
"What a humbling honour it is to be able to work with people who are in the trenches and communities, getting people out to vote, people who might have never voted before, or encouraging young people who just got the right to vote and don't realise how many people bled and died for us just to have that right free of intimidation.
"It's just an amazing, incredible once-in-a-life opportunity to give back to the history and culture that have made me have the opportunities that I have and I'm very humbled by that," she said.
When she's not busy preparing depositions and protecting the NAACP's brand, this master of multitasking, as Keenan has been described, loves going to the ocean, which she does at least five times a year to rejuvenate.