Reading hundreds of picture book biographies of remarkable women for The Picture Book Club's "12 Women Who Changed the World" subscription has made me want to shine a spotlight on other remarkable women who, though they don't (yet!) have biographies written about them, inspire me every day.
-YiLing Chen-Josephson, Founder, The Picture Book Club
Q: What do you do?
I am a civil rights lawyer in Louisiana. I work through litigation and legislative advocacy to improve the criminal justice system here--to make it smaller and fairer to the people who go through it.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about doing what you do?
I used to be a public defender. I loved representing individual people but sometimes felt defeated by the idea that I could only help one person at a time (and only in small ways, if at all) work against a system that ignores the humanity of almost everyone who is caught up in it. Now I work on larger cases and can think about ways to fix the entire system. This is not to suggest that success is easy or frequent, but when it happens it feels great. And I still often get to work directly with incarcerated people—some of whom are among the best folks I have met as an adult.
Q: What's something challenging about it?
The downside of working on campaigns that by their definition are styled to help a lot of people at once is, ironically, having to tell most people that you can’t help them. Because of my background representing people directly, I have an instinct to try to fix everyone’s individual legal problems even though my work is supposed to focus on the big picture. It’s difficult to work closely with people who are suffering and whom you wish you could help more.
Q: What is something you’re proud of?
I’m proud that I moved away from New York City, where I grew up, and made a life in the wonderful and weird city of New Orleans. It was a decision I was scared to make because I loved New York and everything I knew was there. If I hadn’t fallen in love with a man who wanted to wander, and encouraged me to, I probably never would have been brave enough to leave and my life would have been far less rich.
Q: Who is someone who inspires you that you know personally?
I have two tremendous sisters. One is a midwife at a hospital in the Bronx who goes on trips around the world by herself and also speaks four languages and has tons of books and cool art hanging on the walls of her apartment. She is, in addition, a deeply loving and wise person. My other sister is a brilliant actress, the funniest person I know, and the most loyal, in addition to being resilient, tender, generous, super smart and tough tough tough. Both of them have made multiple spontaneous trips across the country to help take care of their nephew, my son. I am so grateful to them for how much they love him—and me!
Q: Who is someone who inspires you that you've never met?
I tend to admire successful women lawyers who stand up for causes I believe in, which is probably a predictable answer. Off the top of my head: Sally Yates, Vanita Gupta, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Q: What is something you would like to change about the world?
I wish that we would invest heavily in resources that helped people avoid committing crimes—medical and mental health treatment, job training, education—instead of pouring billions of tax dollars into locking them up once they are accused of doing something wrong.
Q: What’s a picture book you remember as a favorite from your childhood?
The book I remember most vividly is called Dawn of the Seasons by Michel Duchene. It’s out of print now (I’ve looked). It’s a sort of creation story told from the perspective of a “celestial troubadour” named Nan. As he strums his lyre the musical vibrations turn into planets, each representing a season, each teeming with a different representation of nature. The planets waltz around one another and eventually merge to form Earth, “the planet for poets and musicians...all the music of the seasons blended together in one beautiful song.” The illustrations are vibrant, transfixing and transporting and have stayed in my mind such that I tend to see flashes of them whenever I think of winter, spring, summer, fall…
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