Zerlina Maxwell ’13: Gaining Influence in the Political Conversation
Zerlina Maxwell has wanted to go to law school for as long as she can remember. And as a part-time student at Rutgers School of Law–Newark, she has not been disappointed in the experience.
But that doesn’t mean that she actually wants to practice law after receiving a J.D. in May 2013. Her work on the first Obama presidential campaign combined with the evolution of social media revealed career opportunities that were unknowable to the young Maxwell. Politics-obsessed since her childhood in Millburn, New Jersey, Maxwell has decided that while a legal education is to her advantage, what she has most enjoyed about law school suggests a different career path from what she had envisioned even just a few years ago.
|Zerlina Maxwell in one of her appearances as a commentator on Fox News.
Maxwell graduated from Tufts University with a B.A. in international relations then enrolled in the Fairleigh Dickinson University Paralegal Studies Program. She worked for several years, including during much of her time as a law student, as a litigation paralegal at firms in New York and New Jersey. She chose Rutgers–Newark “because it was close to home, had a stellar reputation, and was the most diverse law school in the country.”
After her first year at Rutgers, Maxwell took a brief leave of absence to help the Obama campaign as a field organizer in Virginia. The experience made her want to remain involved in politics and blogging gave her a platform to share her opinions on political, race and gender issues.
She then made a very conscious effort to break into Twitter, the successful achievement of which was recognized by BuzzFeed’s naming her one of “Nineteen People Who Forced Their Way Into the Political Conversation Through Twitter.”
In 2011 the U.S. State Department invited Maxwell to speak via digital video conference with students in the West Bank about using social media as a means for change. In 2012 Maxwell, who today has more than 16,000 followers, was identified by the New York Times as “A Twitter Voice to Follow” and as one of “Salon’s Twitter 50” during the presidential election.
Currently she writes for the New York Daily News, feministing.com, the Grio.com, and Ebony.com on such topics as national politics, candidates, domestic violence, sexual assault, victim-blaming, and gender inequality. Huffington Post reported that her recent series of animated GIFs for feministing.com, titled “How to deal with a mansplainer starring Hillary Clinton” and posted in response to the Benghazai hearings, went viral.
Maxwell also is a frequent guest and fill-in host on Sirius XM Left’s “Make It Plain With Mark Thompson” and has been a commentator on Fox News and MSNBC. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, JET Magazine, the American Prospect, Black Enterprise, and on CNN.com, the Huffington Post, the Root.com, Salon.com, and RawStory.com. Her entrepreneurial spirit and progressive voice have been honed by leadership training programs for which she was selected by the New Leaders Council and the Women’s Media Center.
Maxwell credits law school with sharpening her analytical skills and making her a better writer. “A lot of the feedback I receive on my writing emphasizes my ability to make a strong and logical argument that has a reader agreeing with me by the end of the piece. Law school,” said Maxwell, “has also made me a better political commentator for radio and television because I have no fear. Debating Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly is nothing compared to being cold called as a 1L and the Socratic method.”
Asked whether she finds it difficult to switch from her blogging and social media efforts to the type of writing that law school demands, she said: “No, it’s not much of a challenge for me. I think it’s because writing is writing is writing and while law school and journalism are very different in terms of styles and structure, the exercise of writing and getting your thoughts out is one in the same.” In fact, she added, “I think since I started writing for a living, writing in law school became easier for me.”
Her favorite law school class? It’s one she’s taking this current semester – Race, Gender and Tort Law Seminar with Professor Twila Perry. “I’m a public feminist,” she explained, “so the subject matter is very similar to what I write about and also to the discussions I have with my friends and colleagues.”
Her favorite writer? Hard to pick just one “because there are so many people right now doing great work,” she said. Among those tops on her list are Greg Sargent, who writes the Plum Line blog for the Washington Post, and Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic, along with several colleagues in the feminist blogosphere. “I make sure to read a lot of perspectives,” she added, “and don't usually always agree with everything one author writes.”
As for life after law school, Maxwell has a very specific vision: “In five years, I would love to have my own television show. I want to be a thought leader that helps to shape public opinion and change the collective conversations we have about the issues I care about, including violence against women and gender and racial inequality. I would also like to have written a book about my life from 2007-2013 because it was full of ups and downs that can certainly inform someone else’s journey.”