By Rebecca Beyer
Rakim Brooks was a first-year student at Yale Law School when he learned about a case that made him “despondent.” He had gone to law school in part to improve the lives of working-class families like his own. But in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, a 1972 case in which parents in low-income areas challenged Texas’ use of local property taxes for supplementary revenues for schools, five U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled that there is no fundamental right to education in the Constitution. Four justices disagreed and dissented, but they were powerless to change the outcome.
“It wasn’t that the arguments weren’t present,” he recalls. “It was that there weren’t the number of justices necessary to arrive at the outcome.”
Making the kind of change he wanted to see in the world, Brooks realized, would take more than a well-crafted legal argument; it also required the tools to build effective organizations.
As a joint J.D./MBA student, Brooks would combine legal training with coursework on organizational behavior and financial management, among other topics. Today, he applies both sets of skills as president of the Alliance for Justice (AFJ), a progressive organization that, in seeking to confirm “highly qualified, fair-minded, and diverse federal judges,” addresses what Brooks saw as the problem in the Rodriguez case.
AFJ was founded in 1979 by Nan Aron, an attorney and activist. Brooks, who previously worked as a policy advisor at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, as an associate at a major law firm, and as a senior strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union, is the only person besides Aron to lead the organization. He was helping direct the search for a new president as a board member when he was asked to apply for the job. He was happy at the ACLU, he says, but some of his mentors encouraged him to make the move.
“They said it’s not often the case that a young, Black, queer man is offered an opportunity to lead a legacy institution of some size,” he recalls.
Brooks, who is 36, landed the job in the fall of 2021 and hit the ground running. In his first few months, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement, and AFJ was one of several organizations promoting Black women—including Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was ultimately appointed—as potential nominees. More recently, Brooks has helped direct an advertising campaign urging Justice Clarence Thomas to resign over alleged ethical violations.
“Alliance for Justice was founded to confront the conservative takeover of our courts and culture,” he explains. “We have always been at the forefront of trying to make sure the judges who are appointed reflect our view of the Constitution.”
Brooks grew up in New York City, where he lived in public housing with his mother and grandmother. He attended the Bronx High School of Science and planned to study applied math when he arrived at Brown University but decided instead to study history, theory, and politics in the Department of Africana Studies after meeting the then-chair, Barrymore Anthony Bogues.
“Black studies as a topic wasn’t readily interrogated at any other point in my education,” he says. “I felt alive.”
After Brown, Brooks studied at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and then worked as a fellow at Dēmos and as a policy advisor at the Treasury Department. The latter experience led him to first consider a joint J.D./MBA degree.
“We’d sit down at the table and there would be finance people, political folks, communications and public affairs people, lawyers,” he recalls. “One person would be talking about basis points and another person would be talking about statutes, and I decided it was important to be able to move between those things.”
At SOM, Brooks particularly enjoyed Professor Heidi Brooks’ course on interpersonal dynamics. He also loved working on teams in pursuit of a shared goal.
“People ask me the difference between law school and business school,” he says. “At the law school, an idea is born and then attacked relentlessly to see whether it can withstand scrutiny. In business school, an idea is born and supported and nurtured.”
At AFJ, Brooks says, “it immediately became apparent that I had learned one of the most important lessons at SOM: how to manage an institution”
He analyzed the organization’s finances, conducted an employee satisfaction survey, checked in on investments, and drew from the late Professor Sharon Oster’s strategies for nonprofit management.
“I’m taking an institution that’s been run by one person for 40 years and trying to rethink its future,” he says.
Brooks also has turned his attention externally. In addition to helping elevate diverse judicial candidates, AFJ supports more than 150 progressive nonprofits and foundations in advancing their own causes. Brooks has strengthened those relationships and partnered with another nonprofit to provide members with training and technical guidance.
“Every step I’m taking will, I hope, make AFJ a 100-year institution,” he says. “When I’m old and gray, I hope I’ve done some things that make this a consequential organization that deserves to still be around.”
In that work, Brooks regularly relies on what he learned at SOM. He has also returned to Yale to help Brooks teach Interpersonal Dynamics, and recently helped bring the course to Yale Law School.
“Every year I find myself leaning more and more into the SOM community,” he says. “In some ways, I almost feel like I didn’t get enough.”