Heather McKinney

The Project

Heather addressed the gap in civil legal services for victims of elder abuse and exploitation, with a special emphasis on serving rural communities.

The primary issues of focus were physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, financial exploitation, multiple forms of abuse, cognitive impairment, and physical disability. Heather’s project created an organized, community-based response aimed at protecting the elder population from scams, exploitation, and other legal issues facing that community.

Heather’s advocacy interest in protecting the elder population springs from her personal, familial experience assisting older family members as well as from her prior career experience. Heather began her professional career advising clients, including seniors, as an investment professional where she saw firsthand the devastating impact of financial exploitation on seniors. Heather worked as a solo practicing attorney, providing legal hospice services to seniors and terminally ill clients. Then later, as an attorney in private practice at a large law firm, she found her true passion was working on the firm’s various pro bono opportunities. She is grateful to make her career’s mission to provide high-quality legal services to low-income individuals in the vulnerable senior population.

Fellowship Project

Heather’s project was designed to provide high-quality legal advice and representation to victims of elder abuse and exploitation; enforce victims’ rights; address wide-ranging civil legal issues such as financial exploitation, housing, protection orders, guardianship, and public benefits; and make referrals to other supportive services.


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The Project

Emily’s Fellowship served to advance gender-based asylum law through direct representation and impact litigation.

Women and girls around the world are victims of various forms of gender-based violence in countries that offer impunity to the perpetrators. Survivors of gender-based persecution—be it female genital mutilation, honor killings, abduction and rape by gangs, or violence at the hands of intimate partners—seek refuge in the United States, but current law does not recognize that the gendered nature of their harm warrants asylum. Because the U.S. government seems bent on eliminating the grounds for gender-based asylum, there is an urgent need to expand representation for these women and girls in their asylum claims and to push asylum law to recognize gender-based persecution.

Emily made a commitment to dedicate her career fighting for the safety of the tens of thousands of women who are victims of domestic abuse in countries that offer them no hope of protection or justice. While working as the COO of Akola Project – a non-profit that empowers women to realize and walk in their own agency as change makers – Emily learned that the most marginalized women are typically migrants. Her passion for serving immigrant and refugee women was cemented as she worked to adapt Akola’s model to best impact this population.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship program, Emily:

  • Filled a gap in services through direct representation of gender-based asylum seekers at USCIS, immigration courts, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, as well as legal aid to pro se clients in Migrant Protection Protocol proceedings
  • Provided direct immigration representation to 24 clients, as well as brief services and advice to over 150 additional individuals
  • Contributed to impact litigation efforts through amicus campaigns and coordinated appeals efforts to advance gender-based asylum law
  • Partnered with advocates on the ground in Matamoros, Mexico to build new initiatives that brought valuable legal aid support to asylum seekers stuck outside the U.S. border
  • Drafted a stock amicus brief to the Board of Immigration Appeals arguing for gender-based asylum through the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies’ technical assistance program
  • Conducted 25 training sessions for pro bono attorneys and other partners
  • Collaborated with 11 groups and attended over 80 coalition meetings to expand the impact and reach of the project

Next Steps

Emily will stay on at Human Rights Initiative of North Texas to continue and expand pro bono representation of asylum seekers.


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The Inspiration

The Inspiration