Great opportunities to help others seldom come, but small ones surround us every day.” – Sally Koch
You can’t help noticing Cortez S. Bradley. The man dresses exquisitely, as if he just stepped out of a Brooks Brothers ad. More accurately, a Brooks Brothers ad where the model is rocking the corporate suit with a perfect touch of vivid color.
When he smiles, the world glows. You immediately feel the warm, earnest and humble human being he is. As you can imagine, everyone loves him.
It was an unimaginably long and challenging road he walked to get to his life today.
Cortez was born in Detroit, Michigan. The gritty, hard, no easy place, Detroit. When he was two years old his Mother, who struggled with mental illness, was hospitalized for long term, extensive treatment. Cortez and his two older brothers were placed in the care of their aunt, their grandmother’s sister, who acted as a foster parent, until their grandmother was able to adopt them. Cortez’s grandmother passed away shortly after gaining custody and his other aunt, his mother’s younger sister, began raising Cortez and his two brothers.
Slowly, as the years went by, Cortez saw his friends, his brother, and other members of his family fall victim to the streets.
Much has been written about grit. The “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality that runs deep in the American philosophy. Many of us have a grandparent or great grandparent who did just that, becoming the standard of leadership in our family. (My paternal grandmother lived in a tent in the mountains of Colorado for two years during the Depression, taking in miner’s laundry to make money - after she lost her baby daughter on the overseas journey to America.)
It is easy to believe everyone has the ability to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” which overlooks that much has changed since the days of our forebears. And the structural and complex inequities stacked against certain communities, especially young black men in the inner city. I have serious doubts about my ability to match my grandmother’s grit.
But Cortez has more than just grit. He has insight and the ability to think precisely about what he wants his future to be. Those two qualities propelled him in high school. After meeting with an advisor who visited Cortez’ high school, Cortez applied, and was admitted into Grand Valley State University. He was admitted through a program called Freshman Academy, which allowed him to move on campus earlier than the other students. Cortez wasted no time moving to West Michigan, which is just about the complete opposite of Detroit.
Cortez couldn’t enjoy the lighthearted college experience many undergrads have. He had advisors he could speak with about school related issues, but he was alone and had to be entirely self supporting. He applied himself to his studies, worked, and began navigating both the unfamiliar, conservative West Michigan culture and the white collar professional class culture.
Reflecting his deep capacity for insight and humility, he admits there were painful lessons. Some of which still haunt him.
Using his ability to think seriously about his future, he applied and was accepted to Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. He attended evening classes, showing up in impeccable business attire, coming directly from his full time work at Lake Michigan Credit Union. He always had that smile on his face, even when bone weary – because he was happy to be one day closer to achieving his goal.
Cortez graduated from law school shortly after serving an externship for a law firm in Georgia. Sadly, he wasn’t able to get his school sponsored graduation picture taken because he couldn’t afford to travel back to Michigan. Whatever spare funds he had were used to pay for his bar prep course.
Cortez sat for the bar while working for a collections law firm. While awaiting bar results, the coronavirus caught him. In typical Cortez fashion, he used it as an opportunity to think deeply about life:
“I realized that life is short. I decided I wanted to spend my life helping people. Though I was grateful for the job I had, I wasn’t helping people. And I didn’t want to do that job anymore if it wasn’t helping people.”
Shortly thereafter, Cortez was offered a position as a Judicial Law Clerk with Michigan Circuit Court Judge Qiana Denise Lillard. He took a pay cut to take the job, knowing it will help him be a better lawyer. One who helps people.
Cortez is a comfort in our troubled times. His love and respect for humanity is inspiring and hopeful:
“I try to stay positive. I have had a lot of help from people who don’t look like me or believe the same things I do. I try to make sure I am doing the right things and do what I can to make my part of the world a better place to be.”
In the end Cortez’ journey is not just a feel-good story that tritely reaffirms our romantic notions about grit and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. No one deserves to take a victory lap more than Cortez – yet he doesn’t. He recognizes the support he received from others and believes in doing his part to make the world a better place to be. Not one whiff of an "I pulled myself up and everyone else can too" attitude there.
Why did Cortez make it out while his brother, other relatives and friends did not?
“I’m not sure what I have that they didn’t. That’s something I’ve always thought about because we all grew up in the same neighborhood, had the same friends, went to the same schools, and sometimes got in trouble together. I think I knew when to say when, because I’ve always been the type of person to think long term."
I would add that he also has a belief that he is worthy of success and can manage anxiety well – two things that, if they are lacking, can often undermine one's efforts to succeed.
Small opportunities to help others surround us every day. The opportunity to help someone see their future. To believe in them when they can’t. The opportunity to assure someone that anxiety is a part of being human and to share your coping mechanisms with them.
The opportunity to extend a helping hand.
You may change a life.
You can cheer on Cortez as he tackles the bar exam again. He was really close the last time. You can do so at email@example.com.