Transcript for AJ Link

Kelly Bron Johnson: Welcome to season two of the intersections on a spectrum. The intersections on a spectrum podcast is the brainchild of Doug Blecher and Kelly Bron Johnson created to discuss intersectional issues within the autistic community and give visibility to commonly marginalized, repressed, underrepresented, or erased identities and issues.

We aim to introduce you to the people and stories you didn't know about, but needed to hear and hope that by seeing yourself represented in the community, allows you to feel seen.

Doug Blecher: It's exciting to start season two, season one was great. We had a lot of great guests and talked about a lot of really important things.

And, , season two, I think it's you know, only going to get better. So I'm excited to talk with today's guest. AJ LInk . AJ is openly autistic. He received his JD from. George Washington university law school, his studies focused [00:01:00] extensively on disability law, international human rights and space law AJ has been actively involved with disability advocacy in the Washington DC area and nationally within the United States.

AJ is currently pursuing an LLM in space law at the university of Mississippi school of law while also serving. As the inaugural director of the center for aerospace law task force on inclusion, diversity and equity in aerospace and a senior editor of the journal of space law. He works as a research director for just ad Austra project and serves as president and executive director of the national disabled law students association, which he co-founded.

AJ always great to talk to you. Thanks so much for joining us.

AJ Link: Thank you. Y'all so much for having me. I really appreciate it. I'm really excited to be here. [00:02:00]

Doug Blecher: We usually start off and kind of want to learn, um, each of our guests, you know, what are the identities that you identify

AJ Link: So many?

I'm, I'm a black male.

I use he him pronouns. I am a southerner. I'm from Florida. I'm autistic. I'm disabled. I'm neuro-diverse. I like I'm, I'm an American, I it's, it's wild. Right. Um, I, I have a really strong affinity for Florida, which I'm from, I know a lot of people think Florida is like the worst state ever, but I love where I'm from.

Um, yeah.

Kelly Bron Johnson: Nice. I was just in Florida last week for my vacation. Oh, so I'm really happy to have you on the show because I've been following you on LinkedIn. I don't know how long, I think I got connected to you through Doug, but I mean, everybody should follow AJ on [00:03:00] LinkedIn because your posts are amazing.

You're on point, you have so many interesting things to say. Um, and so, yeah, I guess our next, our next question kind of follows with that. Recently I read as a law graduate in which you said, if you're not getting the results you wanted from the bar exam, just know it will be okay. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

In fact, it's the national conference of bar examiners that should be ashamed of itself for still existing at all. So what are some of the problems that you see with the bar exam specifically for those with marginalized identities?

So I think

AJ Link: the first thing we have to do is acknowledge that the bar exam is a gatekeeping mechanism and not in the best way, right?

The bar exam, disproportionately, bars access to the profession for disabled individuals, black individuals, other folks of color, folks who are first generation or low income and or low income. , and it's a tool that exists as the [00:04:00] guise of protecting the public. The data is there that shows where you have other pathways to licensure, whether that be, diploma, licensure, or something else, that malpractice there, isn't a huge difference.

And so for me, the idea that there's this really expensive exam that you have to take after already going through law school and graduating from law school. Um, but even, you know states like California, where you don't necessarily have to go to, to law school. Um, and you can do an apprenticeship. An unnecessary requirement that affects people's mental health.

It affects their quality of life. It affects, what, whether they're not, they think they're qualified to be in the profession. You know, you hear lots of quote, unquote success stories of people passing the bar on the second and third time. And, you know, there are lots of famous folks that you can Google on who have passed the bar on the second or third time, but there's so much anxiety leading up to that.

Right? There's so much preparation. There's so much money invested. I'm one of the people who thinks it's, it's really, really silly that there's a whole cottage industry [00:05:00] of bar prep courses that folks have to take after doing law school for three years. Right? If law school is not preparing you to be a lawyer and you have to invest thousands of dollars after graduating in order to prepare for an exam.

I just don't think that that's that's right. It's not a Testament to one's ability to be a lawyer. Most people who have taken the bar or who pass the bar will tell you that, you know, it's not indicative of your ability to practice law, whatever area of law that is. And I think it's just really useless when you, when you think about the NCBE or NCB X, however you want to use the acronym.

It's based in a state that allows for diploma licensure, it's currently led by, uh, an individual who's never taken the bar and was admitted to practice through diploma licensure. And so I think it's really just an entity that exists to, to bar people from the profession. And, you know, that's something that I'm just not down


Kelly Bron Johnson: That's a big, it's a, it's a big, like you said, it's a cottage industry [00:06:00] almost that comes up of just taking the bar exam. I'm actually doing a degree at Vermont law school right now and every week they have a, community mental health group and this week topic is about exam pressure, you know, and the amount of pressure that this puts on people.

It's, it's not something that anybody should take lightly. And the fact that you said we're spending so much money to go into this school and take these classes, but then to be under this horribly immense pressure, that only is there to kind of gatekeep and keep you out. It doesn't make any sense.

AJ Link: I mean, yeah, it's, it's totally frustrating.

Like when you talk about the aspect of highest high-stakes testing, whether that's the LSATto get into law school, you think about the bar, right? Some people don't take exams well. You know, I talked about it before, like, the, the couple hours the bar is, you know, its totality, doesn't reflect, you know, the future career that you could have practicing law, right?

Whatever area of law it is, you know, and oftentimes people who are taking the bar test on areas of law that they've never studied. Um, you know, unless they've done the [00:07:00] prep course, in areas of law, they'll never practice quite frankly, you know, there are people who will do transactions and big law and things like that who are quizzed on criminal law and criminal procedure, things like that, just because right there, you know, trust in the states is often on a, on a bar exam.

And, you know, they're, that's a very niche area of law that a lot of people won't practice out of makes it's just horrendous.

Doug Blecher: Kelly mentioned earlier following you on LinkedIn, you're also on Twitter and definitely recommend people find you on there as well. And recently I saw a tweet from you in which you said a cool thing about being black in the U S is that the vast majority of this country is alleged heroes that are celebrated in the mainstream were total racists.

And you're just supposed to accept that. Like, it doesn't mean it. When, when you think about, a hero or heroes, what are some of the qualities that come to mind for you? And [00:08:00] what should be thought of as heroic?

AJ Link: So personally, I don't think we should necessarily have heroes or I don't think we should hold up individuals as.

People we should aim to be like, or to Revere. I think everyone has flaws. And I think we should look at the admirable actions of individuals. Right? I think that's, a much better way of kind of examining our history. We can take the good actions of folks. We can acknowledge the bad actions and we can say.

These are great actions, but we don't necessarily have to hold up the character. Right? Like the founding fathers, most of whom, you know, the vast majority of whom, were, were extremely racist and, and, you know, even slaveholders. When you think about folks like Abraham Lincoln, who a lot of folks consider one of the greatest presidents ever.

While he may have freed some slaves in part with the emancipation proclamation. He was also a white supremacist [00:09:00] who thought black people were less than. Right. When you think even about folks like Martin Luther king Jr. who is an amazing, you know, a phenomenal person in our history and it has done great things in our country.

We have to acknowledge that he was a womanizer and that he did have, you know, sexist and misogynistic tendencies. Right. I think we need to be able to accept the flaws of people and not necessarily hold them up as people who are, can escape our criticism. And I think, you know, that the tweet where I was talking about, it's kind of in this moment where we're arguing about the history of the United States and what is, and isn't racist.

And if we were founded as a racist country, but I think for a lot of white Americans, they don't realize that all the people that, that they love and Revere for a lot of black people, there's, you know, that's that, there's that bit of frustration and anger and resentment that these people were. Blatantly racist.

Like, it's not like we're inferring that they're writing say it. [00:10:00] They said it in their own words. And we you know, for a large horse farm history, we were just supposed to accept that George Washington was the most, you know, amazing general and president ever. Meanwhile, he was, he was racist and own slaves.

Like he, he enslaved other human beings and we were just supposed to take that and acknowledge it and, you know, like make accepted almost.

Kelly Bron Johnson: I think its a problem in a sense of making people, the heroes for perhaps the wrong things. And it's not, you know, it's not, not to like, not celebrate certain successes. Like, just give an example, you know, Rihanna was just named the national hero Barbados, which recently became a Republic. Whooo. That's my, my citizenship is from Barbados.

So, yes, I'm very happy and it's not to say that Rihanna shouldn't be celebrated. You know, she, single handedly went and bought ventilators for the hospitalsin Barbados at the beginning of the pandemic. And so it's not to say, Hey, you know, she shouldn't be doing that. She shouldn't be celebrated, but what has [00:11:00] led in the society that needed Rianna to buy ventilators?

What happened in the government that, you know, the government, wasn't the one who was getting ventilators, you know? And so again, it's not, it's not to say that, you know, you're not doing good things. There's, it's it's she did what she could as one person but it shouldn't be on her to save a country and to save for people.

Right. So it's, it's always an interesting, I guess, dichotomy, we're looking at the individual and we're looking at, at the things that they do. And then what, we're, what we're making into heroics and, what should be on that one person, you know, it's too much pressure . So another issue we were talking about is, how people don't look, are into the background of things they're not researching what things actually mean.

So you talked about on Twitter about terms like woke and critical race theory, um, where people don't seem to understand the background behind these, these concepts. So what do you think is important for people to. [00:12:00] About these things?

AJ Link: I hope that they've been co-opted from black spaces and have been mutilated, and I don't know, changed beyond recognition and are now used to attack, black movements, black ideas.

And I think. You know, the co-option, I don't know if that's proper conjugation of that of, language has a long history. Right. When you talk about. Conservative or reactionary movements, co-opting language like you, you see things like reverse racism. Like the, one of the new terms right now is Neo racism, which is like a wild concept.

But you hear these things like my body, my choice for, you know, an anti-vax movement when that kind of developed out of progressive politics and, you know, abortion rights and abortion advocates. I [00:13:00] think we allow the manipulation of language. Like when you think about Christopher Rufo and critical race theory and how he's openly admitted that he didn't care what it actually was.

He just used it as a linguistic tool to kind of attack a wide variety of diversity and inclusion teachings and academic teachings and things like that. We have to, we have to stand up and acknowledge the power of language and we have to fight when it gets manipulated. I think, I think it's really important to be like, Hey, what do you mean by that?

Like when you hear people using woke and, a flippant or derisive way, like ask them, what do you mean specifically by woke teaching or woke policies? Like what do you actually mean? What are you trying to connote? By using that particular word to describe a group of people or an idea. And I think a lot of times, [00:14:00] especially in the age of the internet and kind of just.

Slinging shit across the internet. People are just ready to accept that thing. Right. And the broader kind of, I guess, social conversation, we're often willing to accept language that we shouldn't be using. Right. I think at least from a progressive perspective, We have to fight that, right? We have to say, no, you can't just co-op and manipulate language and it's okay.

And we're still committed to, you need to have the conversation we need to make you define your ideas and not hide behind the veneer of co-opted language.

Kelly Bron Johnson: And, you know, going into intersectionality, you know, say her name it was another, another term that got co-opted as well. You know, it was specifically for black women or violence against black women and it suddenly everybody started using it, like it was just supposed to be for, for anybody.

AJ Link: I [00:15:00] think, you know, with, Brittany Babbitt, I think that's, that's her name. When she, she died on. And the insurrection, right? That kind of language of say her name, which was about, you know, black women who, I black femmes and black trans women who were killed or murdered with little discussion.

Right. That's kind of where that originates from. And, you know, you have this, this insurrectionist white woman and kind of, you know, the movement co-opted that for her

Doug Blecher: AJ you were talking about the power of language, I'm just wondering what do you think about like social media's role in all of this?

Because in some ways we might be reading more than ever you know, you know, so just how do you see social media and the language, you know, so much language that we see on there and in the role of all this?

AJ Link: So you caught me at a pretty interesting time. I am pretty [00:16:00] anti-social media right now. I think it was last week.

Maybe two weeks ago, I tweeted out how it's like, I can't wait until, you know, I'm not like, this kind of independent, independent entity where like people have to find me on the internet in order for me to get gigs and make money and things like that. I can't wait til I can kind of just step back from it.

I think social media has been so amazing for organizing and for advocacy and for meeting you folks, like that's how I met y'all right. Is through social media and, you know, finding homes and spaces where you belong and meaningful relationships and friendships and, you know, but also it's just so much nonsense, right?

It's it's even when you try to filter your timelines and your content, you're still. Getting the opinions of folks who like, for me, I'm, I'm seeing the opinions of folks who I've known my whole life, like who I grew up with. And all of a sudden they're saying [00:17:00] just these completely wild things. And it's like, am I, am I better off for knowing this is who you are?

You know, maybe because now I see, you know, the true person you are, but you know, that affects how I interact with those people. If even if I even interact with them at all right. I've like, there's, there are lots of people who I no longer communicate with. Right because their views are just so abhorrent or, you know, I've had lots of people, unfriend unfollow block me, you know, for, for disagreeing with them or for challenging them on, on beliefs.

And it's just. I I'm definitely at the point right now where I think social media does more harm than good for society. I can acknowledge that social media does a lot of good for a lot of people. Lost, lost friendships and relationships have been found. Right being able to resource information, like I've learned so much from social media, right?

[00:18:00] Like. Meeting other advocates and spaces, other activists, other organizers, getting their knowledge and, and becoming better myself. But then, you know, there's just so many horrible things. I don't know. It's it's and it spread so rapidly. Right? I know there's so much information about how Facebook and YouTube algorithm work to radicalize people.

And it's like, I don't know, man. I, I don't know. It's really daunting to think about. And that's where I am. When I think about it too much, almost I'm trying to kind of reel back, without kind of completely deleting things. Cause I still have to have a presence on the internet so people can find me.

Doug Blecher: Now I mentioned in the introduction that you, uh, work with, Jus Ad Austra, what role do you play in fulfilling their mission in shaping human rights in space for the benefits of humanity?[00:19:00]

AJ Link: So I think

my role in the project and the movement is to make our concerns, our thoughts, our writings, our, our kind of positions on the law, known to the wider public and populous. I think, you know, I have. I do podcasts. Sometimes I talk about the project on webinars and do presentations and go to conferences.

And you know, when I'm not bogged down with kind of the other responsibilities of life, I, I do put out a little bit of writing and literature, but I think what the project is centered at is getting the conversation surrounding space to a point where we acknowledged that. Humanity existing in space at this particular junction seems inevitable.

Right. But what type of environment are we going to create? Are we going to allow all the horrible things and [00:20:00] horrible systems of oppression that we're still fighting here on earth to manifest in more grotesque ways in outer space? Or are we going to fight. To make a better future. Right? A lot of the conversation around space and people in space right now is dominated by, Musk, Bezos.

I forget, rich Branson, and like those aren't the only people in the space sector. There companies. Aren't the only companies there are there various perspectives. We also need to elevate perspectives that are often left out. We need to include more voices like indigenous voices, global, global south voices.

I think through for me, my job has kind of evolved from doing research and writing to be a space communicator, having conversations with folks who are maybe not super in tune with what's going on in the industry and the aerospace sector in general, [00:21:00] and, elevating and highlighting the voices that are there that are fighting for a better future and a better world.

Right there, there are so many people who have helped me learn and grow, right. And their work has made me better. And I think. Elevating and highlighting those voices and using the small platforms that I do have to kind of create space for them is really important. So I think that's kind of my job as, as a space communicator.

Kelly Bron Johnson: Have either of, you seen the movie Voyagers, it just came out recently. It's with Johnny Depp's daughter. I watched it on the plane on my way to Florida, but it's, it's really interesting because they take kids and they raised them in isolation because the point is that they are going to go and say what really saved the earth, but they know that they have to leave the earth.

And, they're going to travel to another planet with these children and it's going to take 86 years. So they raised the children in isolation without them, so that they wouldn't ever miss earth.[00:22:00] And then they put them on the shuttle and they put them on this voyage for 86 years. And they're going to be.

On the shuttle. And it's not them. That's going to see the new planet. It's actually their grandchildren, the next generation after them was going to see, the new planet when they land. Totally interesting, very interesting premise. And it tackles some of those things at the sense of like, what are we taking with us?

And this idea that when they raised children in isolation, that they would eliminate some of these issues like racism and things like that and violence. But I'm not gonna. Ruined the whole movie. You haven't seen the movie, you can see what happens, basically with, with the first generation of the children.

So yeah, but let, let's look at like making space for marginalized identities. And, and do you want to talk about that and see what's, you know I don't want to ask what the importance of that is, but how, how do we make more space for these marginalized identities and. Physically making space.

And in general, it's also a kind of a interesting way to look at it. [00:23:00]

AJ Link: Yeah. I think a lot of the work that folks are doing right now is forcing marginalized communities into spaces. They might not necessarily want to be in, in order to be, to be considered diverse and inclusive, or what we should be doing is.

Building a world where folks have access to the spaces they want to be in and protection in the spaces that they hold dear from outsiders. Right. And for me, I think I hold a lot of privileges. And like, especially when you think about me being you know, CIS hetero. And a male, right?

That's male privilege, cis privilege. That's straight privilege. Right. And as someone who has a small platform, but who, who has a platform, right. People, if they don't listen to me, like they at least see what I have to [00:24:00] say. And I think for me, it's all about elevating other people. Right. Creating that space for them to voice their concerns.

I think as an, as an advocate, something that I've learned is not to talk over people and their stories. I think there's a space for me to speak up for people who don't feel comfortable speaking out for themselves and to take the stories that, they, they give to me and to protect those stories and elevate them.

But first and foremost, it's my job to use my privilege, to create a space for them to speak up for themselves because they know their experience better than I do. Right. I am an autistic individual who identifies as disabled, but my experience with disability is not the same as someone who maybe has Ms or dyslexia or.

Some type of physical disability, right? I can talk about accessibility all I want, but my experience [00:25:00] and my, my life is, is limited in terms. What the world has put on me in terms of it's ableism and disability phobia. Right. And so my job is to say, Hey, there are other people you should talk to. There are other experts, there are people who know way more than me.

And please let me know if you would like me to put you in contact with them because I will. And, and so when you talk about creating space for marginalized identities, I think we all as advocates need to do a better job. And I'm reading this book it's called hood feminism. I don't want to misquote it, but it comes down to you.

Can't tell someone else's story better than they can. Right. And so what am I doing as a straight cisgender male to elevate the stories of trans women of color who face, you know, alarming rates of violence. Murder. Right. What am I doing to make sure that those folks are [00:26:00] recognized and that we're including them in our conversations?

It's, I think it's something that's important and something that we kind of need to talk about more when we throw around words like intersectionality and, you know, being intersectional, which is, you know, people like to say it, but you know, what are you doing? To acknowledge your own privileges in that intersection and elevating voices who are more marginalized than you and giving them space and platforms.

Doug Blecher: Now AJ, you were talking earlier about a lot of the terrible things that happen here on earth. What I was wondering, like in terms of space, like, what are some things that you think like are, or are there some things that can be done to make it less likely that some of those things like sexism, racism, misogyny, all those types of.

Are less likely to happen in space.

AJ Link: I think [00:27:00] acknowledgement is a huge part here in this country, we struggled to acknowledge where racism and misogyny exist. Right. We we struggled to acknowledge that transphobia is a thing and not just a difference of opinion. We struggle to acknowledge that ableism. Isn't just society working as it should, but it's an intentional attempt to deny access to disabled folks.

Right. And when we talk about space and the opportunity. We have the opportunity and space to design, like quite literally design new spaces for folks. And when we're doing that, are we doing it with the intention of being as accessible and inclusive as possible? Are we designing? Not just physical spaces, but our mindset.

When we talk about who belongs in space, Are we being as inclusive as possible. Like there's a movement to have more disabled folks in space. But is there a movement to include [00:28:00] more marginalized folks? Is there a movement to make sure that we have state actors and private actors from global south countries and African countries, and sharing the benefits of space with those folks?

I think it's, it's, it's a really daunting task because it's not just the folks who are against. Equality and equity, but it's also the folks who are comfortable in the current system who are passive in their support of those systems. Like we, we need more people to be actively fighting for an equitable future.

And I think you see this, you know, I talk about the U S law cause that's where I live. But like you see this a lot in social justice movements here for the us. It's not just the folks who are. Alright, actively fighting to keep up systems of oppression but it's also the folks who are comfortable in the systems of oppression who aren't harmed by them who aren't doing the [00:29:00] work to make things better for everyone else.

Right. And so when you talk about space, because we still have so much to learn and so much to grow into in terms of where we go in space, how we travel, where we travel, how long we're going to be there, where we decide to make our, our potential homes. We have, we have the opportunity to have these conversations before we design these places and be systems and these cultures and society, right.

We are all living in societies that we didn't have the opportunity to input on. But in space, we have the opportunity to potentially design more equitable and accessible spaces. And that's kind of what I try to do.

Kelly Bron Johnson: All right. So we've, we've spoken a little bit about where to find you, where can listeners find out more about you easily? So we know Twitter and LinkedIn is anywhere else?

AJ Link: Yeah, you

can check out [00:30:00] my Instagram. I do a lot of info dumping on Instagram, where folks can find information. If you want to contact me directly, you can find me on LinkedIn and

send me an email. You can also check out, the national disabled law students assocation at, some of the events and some of the advocacy efforts that we've done there. And you can check out, it's J U a S a D a S T R Yeah, but on my Twitter and LinkedIn, all those links are there and, you know, I'm happy to chat with whoever I think part of accessibility, is being able to openly communicate without kind of violating your own personal boundaries.

But I try to be as accessible as possible as folks who have questions and are there to troll me.

Kelly Bron Johnson: Excellent. Thank youso much

Doug Blecher: AJ you said something earlier that I think is so true is that nobody can tell my story better than I can. So, you know, in [00:31:00] thinking about, this podcast, what types of stories do you think would be important for us to highlight?

AJ Link: That's, that's a really difficult question because everyone's story is unique, right? Like I'm a black male who is diagnosed as autistic, but you know, my story is completely unique to me and not everyone else. Right. I think there are a lot of folks in the disabled community with such unique stories and viewpoints, right?

Like I think, you know, as autistic folks, not all, not everyone on the spectrum identifies as neuro diverse or neurodivergent. So maybe there's an autistic person who doesn't view themselves as neuro-diverse right. Some, there are some neurodiverse folks who don't view themselves as disabled. Right. And I think every story should get out platform.

In my opinion. I know that sounds wild. And it probably isn't correct because some people have some terrible ideas. but I think it's just important to [00:32:00] highlight the diversity right. I mean, there, there are so many different ways to be autistic in the world. You know, like I've never been, abused and traumatized by ABA therapy, right?

I'm sure there are lots of autistic folks who would like to speak out on that. I've never personally been victimized by. Autism speaks or, you know, kind of a horrible ideas that they've kind of put into the mainstream, but maybe someone else has, right. Maybe someone else has been forced to, to, you know, finding a cure, you know, their circle telling them that they can cure to their autism.

I don't know. Like there there's, there's so many different things to highlight. It's I don't know. We can't give a platform to everyone, but maybe we should find a way to, if that's even possible. I know that's like really esoteric. So.

Well, I can say that, um, I'm really pleased that we're able to see what a season two, like the fact that we found so many interesting, autistic people in the first place, that came out of this [00:33:00] idea of saying, Hey, we need to give people a voice.

We need to amplify the voices that are already there. There are so many people doing such good work. And they're just not getting recognized, you know? I hope that's what this is doing. We haven't had a shortage of guests yet, so as long as people want to share their stories, you know, we've been able to try and give them a small, tiny little platform.

What we have started.

That's so amazing. Like the fact that you have enough folks willing to come on and speak about their experiences for season two is amazing. And like I said, at the beginning, I'm super honored and I know I talked about platforming other folks, \ and I didn't really mention anyone by name in this particular episode.

And that's, cause I didn't get permission, but if folks would like me to connect them with anyone, in terms of space, disability, autism, uh, just let me know. I will ask for permission to connect you to those

Doug Blecher: that's awesome. Well, AJ as always, it's great to talk with you and thanks so much for sharing your time and knowledge with us.[00:34:00]

AJ Link:

Thank you all so much for having me. I don't know if I shared anything that was super knowledgeable, but I, I really appreciate y'all taking the time to have me on, and I hope you all have great days and safe travels with whatever you're working on.