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My Impact: A Conversation with 2008 Fellow Koert Wehberg

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My Impact is a conversation series from Equal Justice Works, using interviews with alumni to shine a light on what’s possible with an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Board Member and 2021 Rural Summer Legal Corps Fellow Vivian Martinez spoke with Koert Wehberg, a 2008 Fellow in the Design Your Own Fellowship program. As a Fellow, Koert was hosted by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

Koert Wehberg has always been interested in disability rights advocacy. As someone who has experienced both visible and invisible disabilities himself, Koert knows how important it is to listen to his clients and ensure that their needs and perspective are heard.

Koert kickstarted his career in disability law while he was in law school by working in the Disability Rights Clinic at the Syracuse University College of Law. “I got to work in a clinic actually working with faculty who had disabilities themselves, and fellow students with disabilities,” said Koert of this experience. “It was really great to see other folks like me.” He later went on to become an Equal Justice Works Fellow at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), where he advocated for disability rights in low-income communities of color.

Throughout his Fellowship, Koert learned the importance of using a community-centered approach to identifying needs, instead of centering his work around preconceptions of his clients. He engaged in frequent dialogue with community members and groups, which helped him identify and focus his work on the highest-priority issues.

“Listen to your clients—listen to what they want,” Koert advised. “The more you know, the better you can advocate.” Through his discussions with the community, he learned that accessible housing—which he hadn’t included in his original project proposal—was a big area of need for his clients.

This focus on community also led Koert to hone his knowledge and experience, by interacting directly with veteran attorneys and fellow young professionals. “It’s great to learn how law is really practiced in the real world, instead of a casebook,” he said. One of the biggest lessons learned? Not everything requires litigation as a response. Instead, some solutions are as easy as making a phone call or filling out the right form.

Though still early in his career, Koert witnessed the value of this community-led approach firsthand. At one large public university in the city, Koert was able to raise awareness for the need to add Braille and assistive technology, without the need for litigation. Elsewhere, at a low-income apartment building, he was able to get ramps installed for a tenant having issues accessing their home. “I think the best part of the Fellowship was actually seeing concrete change… getting barriers removed,” said Koert. “We can actually help somebody and have them be happy. We can’t fix everything, but just to see something [change] really gives you a boost.”

After his Fellowship, Koert continued his work by advocating with Disability Rights Pennsylvania, becoming the Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities in Philadelphia, and eventually taking a position with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Fourteen years after he graduated law school, he is still in the field advocating for disability rights.

When asked how the evolution of his work has made him a better advocate, Koert said that his experiences have made him a more confident lawyer. Additionally, he has learned the value of plain language and teaching others how to advocate for themselves—whether that is bringing up an issue with their landlord, speaking to a local business owner about how they can make their practices more accessible, or attending school district meetings to have their perspective heard.

When going into disability advocacy, there is certainly a lot of work to do. If you are looking to get involved with disability rights advocacy, Koert’s resounding advice is simple: to listen to others. “I have increased my compassion, realism, and knowledge of how the law works,” said Koert, of his experience. “The law is not static—it does change, and you can have an influence on how it’s developed.”

To learn more about Koerts’s work advocating for the rights of disabled people and greater accessibility in his community, watch the full interview here.

Interested in kickstarting your own public interest law career? Visit here to apply for a 2023 Design-Your-Own Fellowship before the September 13, 2022, deadline!

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow