Phoenix Rice-Johnson

The Project

Phoenix (she/her/hers) provides civil-legal reentry support to victims of domestic violence and other trauma survivors who are released from incarceration due to a reduced sentence under New York’s recently enacted Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act.

Approximately half of people released from prison in New York State end up in homeless shelters. Many formerly incarcerated individuals face housing and employment discrimination due to their criminal records, which exacerbates their challenges with homelessness and unemployment. And individuals leaving prison often lack any government ID, which makes obtaining benefits like food stamps and social security disability insurance nearly impossible. Phoenix aims to support survivors of domestic violence navigate these challenges by providing them with legal reentry support.

Fellowship Plans

Phoenix aims to support survivors of domestic violence with their reentry needs so that they can reunite with their communities, avoid reincarceration, and end the cycle of trauma and criminalization that affects so many. Her Fellowship involves three components: providing direct civil legal services to individual clients (e.g. assisting clients in appealing denials of government benefits); drafting a guide on best practices for trauma-informed lawyering and reentry support for survivors of trauma; and building relationships with other reentry organizations to better connect clients to the services they need.

My sister has been directly impacted by the dual harms of domestic violence and incarceration. Witnessing her struggle and her strength is what inspired me to support other individuals navigating the reentry process.

Phoenix Rice-Johnson /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Audrey is advocating for gender-based violence survivors by expanding the Sanctuary for Families EMPOWER Center, making it the first Medical-Legal Partnership in New York City to provide family law representation to survivors of sex and labor trafficking.

Estimates for the population of human trafficking survivors in New York City are in the thousands, yet only 338 cases were reported and confirmed in 2020. One of the biggest reasons for this disparity is that survivors fear that, by coming forward, they may risk violent retaliation from their abusers and losing custody of their children. New York’s child welfare system disproportionately separates Black, immigrant, and low-income families, and often penalizes survivors who find themselves particularly vulnerable to ongoing abuse. Being able to access an interdisciplinary team of anti-trafficking attorneys, social workers, and medical providers who can address essential family law issues is critical in supporting trafficking survivors.

When survivors don’t have access to advocates to help them protect themselves and their children, it sends a clear message: their experiences are not important enough for representation. Survivors deserve safety, to remain together as a family, and holistic support to achieve their goals.

Audrey’s social work background in advocating for survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking has motivated her to continue combating gender-based violence through direct legal services.

Fellowship Plans

As a Fellow, Audrey will combat gender-based violence by providing representation through direct services, training to expand the network of legal support available, and policy advocacy to address institutional discrimination against BIPOC survivors in the removal and termination of parental rights processes. This project will also include family reunification for formerly incarcerated survivors and resources for collateral civil legal services related to surviving abuse.

I believe that every survivor deserves to be safe, free of abuse, and empowered to make decisions for themselves and their families. Our legal system can and must do more to pursue true gender, racial, and economic equity for survivors by uplifting and listening to their needs.

Audrey J. Hertzberg /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Zoraima (she/her/hers/ella) works to protect the right to abortion and ensure meaningful access, particularly for poor people, people of color, and those living in rural areas, using innovative legal strategies.

In December 2021, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which presents a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and threatens to upend over 50 years of precedent protecting every pregnant person’s right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy before viability. The stakes are extremely high: If Roe v. Wade falls, abortion will likely be banned in half of the country. But even if Roe v. Wade is upheld in any capacity, hostile state legislatures will continue to push abortion care further out of reach, especially for poor people, people of color, those living in rural areas, and other marginalized communities who already struggle to navigate a complex web of restrictions.

Fellowship Plans

Zoraima’s project will use impact litigation, advocacy, and coalition building to protect the right to abortion and ensure those seeking abortion care have meaningful access to care, regardless of income or geographic location. Zoraima will craft and execute litigation and advocacy strategies based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Jackson Women’s Health Organization and challenge novel abortion restrictions passed in current and future state legislative sessions.

She will also help navigate barriers to abortion access, with an emphasis on barriers to accessing and providing care across state borders. Zoraima’s project will focus on building and strengthening coalitions throughout the reproductive rights, health, and justice movements to develop community-driven tools and guidance for patients, healthcare professionals, abortion funds, and practical support networks that seek or provide abortion care and support across state borders.

As someone who has exercised my constitutional right to abortion, I am dedicated to using my legal education and career to advocate for everyone’s right to decide whether, when, or how to parent.

Zoraima Pelaez /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Zuhra’s (she/her/hers) project will focus on creating a community-informed response to the legal and social service needs of displaced Afghans in Georgia.

Nearly 80,000 Afghan nationals were evacuated into the United States in August 2021 after the rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Many Afghan arrivals need to pursue asylum and demonstrate a credible fear of persecution by the Taliban to remain safely in the U.S. As such, there is an increased need for asylum attorneys in a state that is already struggling to meet the needs of vulnerable immigrants. This fellowship will complement and expand upon the work of GAIN’s flagship Asylum program to create a community-informed response to the legal and social service needs of displaced Afghans in Georgia.

Zuhra’s upbringing in Clarkston, Georgia, a largely immigrant community, gave her an appreciation for diversity, respect for immigrant families, and motivation to advocate for human rights.

Fellowship Plans

The primary objective of this project is to provide wraparound legal and social services to displaced Afghans who do not qualify for support through the traditional resettlement process. Zuhra will provide legal advocacy and representation for displaced Afghans, with a special focus on women and girls. She will also work to bridge immigrant and refugee-serving agencies to facilitate social service support for recent Afghan arrivals. Additionally, Zuhra will create a peer-to-peer Afghan support network, composed of Afghan community members and friends of Afghans.

My heart aches for the people of Afghanistan, who have endured unimaginable turmoil for decades. As an Afghan American woman, I am honored to serve this community by assisting them in obtaining stability in the United States.

Zuhra Aziz /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Jenna (she/her/hers) will work to combat family separation and surveillance through the child welfare system (“the new Jane Crow”) by improving parent representation through policy advocacy and community education.

The child welfare system has become for Black women what the criminal legal system is for Black men—an invasive institution that monitors and punishes them for socio-economic factors beyond their control. In New York, nearly 18,000 children live with strangers in foster care. Most were removed due to circumstances that have more to do with poverty than bad parenting—like insecure housing, poor nutrition, or lack of childcare.

Racial disparities in the foster system are stark: Black children make up less than 15% of New York’s population but comprise nearly 57% of its foster youth. Black and brown parents face uphill battles in child protective services (CPS) cases, confronting bias, fewer resources, and greater odds of having a past conviction. They are further disadvantaged by the state’s failure to require parent representation or information about their rights during the CPS investigation phase. However, new models of early and holistic parent representation have been proven to help keep families safely together. These best practices must be urgently institutionalized to support families throughout the state. 

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Jenna will advocate for statewide policy reforms to provide parents with early and holistic representation in child welfare cases. She will also conduct community outreach and education to support parents with information and resources to more effectively navigate potential CPS interactions. Additionally, Jenna will work with health care providers to reduce the volume of CPS cases that originate as a result of unnecessary drug testing and reporting. 

Family separation through the child welfare system cuts to the heart of intersectional inequality; I believe combatting the system’s disproportionate harms is an integral part of the struggle for racial, gender, and economic justice.

Jenna Lauter /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Alison (Ali) empowered and educated immigrant mothers by providing them holistic direct representation and developing a coalition to bring them sustained attention and assistance.

More than 50,000 Chicago households include a family member who is undocumented. Nationally, only 37 percent of all immigrants secure legal representation in their removal cases. Immigrant mothers who are in removal proceedings are at risk of being separated from their children and are often suffering the emotional consequences that come with it like anxiety, depression, and guilt. These women need access to legal counsel that will help them navigate their immigration status and provide particularized attention to legal questions resulting from their status as mothers. Ali’s project provided a new model of representation to ensure we recognize the immigrant mother’s plight.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship, Allison:

  • Conducted immigration intakes at community partner legal clinics for over 300 community members
  • Provided holistic representation for 50 community members in affirmative and defensive immigration applications for relief
  • Created and presented a training for community organizers on submitting requests for prosecutorial discretion
  • Participated in removal defense campaigns with activist partners seeking protection for their community members

Next Steps

Ali will continue to work at Beyond Legal Aid as a Staff Attorney. She looks forward to continuing her work and relationships with local activist and community partners.

Media

Exelon's Inaugural Fellow to Spend Two Years Helping Immigrant Mothers

Alison Heinen, 3L, Named 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow

My goal is to help immigrant mothers maintain the dignity that is so often stripped away in immigration detention and throughout the removal defense process.

Alison Siczek /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Inspiration

The Inspiration

The Inspiration