Serena Witherspoon

The Project

Serena (she/her/hers) will work to support incarcerated people with innocence claims as they navigate California’s parole process.

Since 1989, there have been 236 exonerations on the basis of wrongful convictions in California alone. Today, we have the benefit of years of research that has informed us as to which criminal procedure practices carry a high risk of error and can no longer be used to secure a criminal conviction. However, this information provides no retroactive benefit to correct the miscarriage of justice experienced by many people who remain in prison despite those exact practices being used to convict them in years past.

Although an incarcerated person’s plausible innocence claim is not supposed to be grounds for denying a parole request, under the current California parole process there is no framework that the parole board can look to in determining exactly how plausible innocence is established. The parole process needs a framework that can reliably establish when an innocence claim is plausible. Innocent people deserve every opportunity to secure justice.

Serena’s work in the parole process motivates her commitment to improving incarcerated people’s opportunities to advocate for their release.

Fellowship Plans 

During her Fellowship, Serena will represent people with plausible innocence claims who are eligible for release under California’s parole process. In collaboration with criminal procedure experts, she will design a framework that provides factors that establish when an innocence claim is plausible. Ultimately, she will design a training based on her findings to present to the Parole Board so that it has better tools to make determinations regarding innocence claims.

I have had the pleasure of getting to know and working with a man who has been incarcerated for 45 years for a crime he has always maintained he did not commit. He deserves a meaningful opportunity to fight for his freedom. Every incarcerated person does.

Serena Witherspoon /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Chelsea engages in targeted legal responses to due-to-process violations at the Arizona-Mexico border. She works by offering direct representation and by creating and implementing a volunteer program to support asylum-seekers through the increasingly critical initial interview stage.

Chelsea’s project seeks to increase the ability of migrants fleeing persecution and arriving at the southern Arizona border to access the protection afforded to them under U.S. immigration laws. Because U.S. border policies constrict the grounds on which migrants fleeing persecution can obtain protection in the U.S. and minimize migrants’ opportunities to tell their story, the role of legal service providers along the border is now more pivotal than ever. While access to process (to even requesting asylum) and access to counsel have always been tenuous, recent border policies under the guise of the pandemic have made it nearly impossible for people fleeing persecution to enter the U.S. for access to safety and protection. Chelsea’s project supports the Florence Project’s Border Action Team in providing asylum seekers with accurate, updated information to understand the nuances of the asylum process and current border policies. Chelsea’s project also addresses the various procedural components at the border that frequently operate to deprive migrants of a chance to tell their stories.

Chelsea carries with her the experiences of her grandmother (a Holocaust survivor) and her mother-in-law (a Maya former asylee) as she works to provide similar opportunities for others fleeing persecution.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

During the first year of the Fellowship, Chelsea has:

  • Successfully advocated with the Florence Project’s Border Action Team for over 2,000 asylum seekers to be excepted from the CDC Order under Title 42 (which has kept the border closed since March 2020) and processed into the U.S. by presenting at the Nogales Port of Entry between March-August 2021.
  • Represented a family who was removed in absentia under the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) policy in appealing their case at the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) level.
  • Worked with the Florence Project’s Border Action Team to successfully help two mothers who had just given birth and who were facing family separation from their medically vulnerable U.S. citizen newborns. Prevented them from being expelled back to Mexico under the Title 42 CDC Order, and instead, remain with their newborns in the U.S. and continue their asylum cases.

Next Steps

In the next year, Chelsea plans to:

  • Pursue creative avenues to help asylum seekers stuck at the Arizona-Mexico border access the asylum process in light of restrictive border policies such as, but not limited to, Title 42.
  • Continue local, regional, and national advocacy and continue coalition building.
  • Provide direct representation on at least one asylum merits case.

Media

The Biden administration tries again to end 'Remain in Mexico'

Migrants in Nogales seek entry through exemption as pandemic-era restrictions drag on

Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project Carrillo Family Feature

Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project Chelsea Feature

Without the asylum process, I would not have the loving and remarkable family that I am blessed to have today.

Chelsea Sachau /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Jessica aims to support tribal communities and child welfare systems to prevent, identify, and address the commercial sexual exploitation of native youth in California through legal advocacy, education, and collaboration.

Centuries of eradication, erasure, and assimilation-based policies sought to separate and destabilize native families. As a result, a deep mistrust between native communities and local, state, and federal governments developed. These policies have resulted in native youth facing higher than average rates of addiction, suicide, health disparities, and low academic achievement. One of the most pernicious remnants of this systematic oppression is the ongoing commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) of native youth.

Despite legal and policy changes across the state, recognizing that CSE is an issue of child abuse, little has been done to address this issue among native youth. Jessica is working collaboratively with government agencies, community-based organizations, and tribal communities to ensure Native youth have access to culturally appropriate legal services supports.

Jessica’s experiences as a parentified minor and first-generation woman of color drive her to advocate for youth and other vulnerable populations.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

During the first year of the Fellowship, Jessica has:

  • Worked as part of a state-wide coalition to advance legislation (AB 124) to address the criminalization of survivors of human trafficking.
  • Continued developing relationships with key governmental and community stakeholders.
  • Deepened understanding of issues affecting Native youth and trained team on the Indian Child Welfare Act.
  • Engaged Native and community-based partners in drafting guidance and recommendations on addressing the needs of Native youth who have been commercially sexually exploited.

Next Steps

In the next six months, Jessica plans to:

  • Continue building her team’s knowledge and understanding of issues affecting Native American youth.
  • Develop desk guide for child welfare workers and Native-serving organizations to provide background and guidance on addressing the needs of Native youth who were trafficked.
  • Continue developing and deepening relationships with tribal, community, and government partners.
  • Identify opportunities to center youth voices and leadership in her work.
  • Work in partnership with Native-serving organizations and survivors to better serve Native youth.

Collaboration between tribal communities and local governments is essential to effectively address the needs of CSE tribal youth. Bearing witness to survivors’ lived experiences and using these experiences to drive policy is a crucial step in addressing this pressing issue.

Jessica Valadez /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Jeremy provided mediation and conflict coaching services for Asian American and Pacific Islander seniors and adults with disabilities.

San Francisco’s senior population has almost doubled to 200,000 in the past decade. Over half of the senior population is low-income, and over half of the senior population identify as Asian and Pacific Islander (API). This spike has led to an increased need for Elder Law services, including elder abuse cases. Because elder abuse cases are often between an elder and someone the elder is dependent on, such as a family member or caregiver, aggressive legal action or litigation-based strategies often fail to meet the client’s non-legal goals, such as wanting to maintain good family relations. This risk is compounded for API seniors, as cultural beliefs include valuing self-sacrifice for the sake of group stability and fear of bringing shame upon the family, further discourage API seniors from seeking help.

Fellowship Plan

During his two-year Fellowship, Jeremy:

  • Provided full representation for over 60 seniors and adults with disabilities, including conflict coaching, representation in elder abuse restraining order hearings, and advocating using mediation-inspired tactics.
  • Began a partnership with the UC Hastings Mediation Clinic to mediate cases involving seniors and adults with disabilities.
  • Created a conflict coaching toolkit, including a supplemental questionnaire to identify cases that might be suitable for mediation, and provided basic training for APILO’s legal staff, the API Elder Abuse Task Force, and community partners
  • Conducted 30 trainings and presentations on anti-Asian hate incidents, elder law, elder abuse, elder consumer fraud, and mediation to seniors, service providers, and community organizations, reaching over 700 individuals.

Next Steps

Following his fellowship, Jeremy has stayed on with Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach as a staff attorney, where he continues to work with seniors and adults with disabilities in the San Francisco Bay Area. His caseload includes elder abuse and elder abuse restraining order cases, as well as mediation and conflict coaching cases.

Media

California battles an AAPI elder abuse problem

The Inspiration

The Inspiration

The Inspiration

The Project

Florence focused on helping Asian Americans modify their loans, stay foreclosure proceedings, pursue foreclosure scams, and defend against unlawful detainers filed against tenants. Because Florence can speak Cantonese, Florence was responsible for reaching out to the entire Cantonese-speaking region of Southern California.

As a Chinese American who was fortunate enough to become a lawyer, it's my duty to give back by helping those less fortunate.

Florence Yu /
2010 Equal Justice Works Fellow