Looking for a Host Organization? We’re here to help.

Applications for the 2023 Design-Your-Own Fellowship are open until 8 p.m. ET on September 13. Visit here for more details about the Fellowship, and to access resources and information about the application process.

The Equal Justice Works Design-Your-Own Fellowship program serves a dual purpose: to jumpstart the careers of aspiring public interest lawyers, and to build crucial capacity at legal services organizations nationwide. Equal Justice Works does not match candidates and their host organizations; instead, both parties collaborate closely to design a project and apply for the Fellowship together. If you are a 2023 Fellowship candidate who does not yet have a host, check out our round-up below for organizations seeking partners. If you are a host organization still seeking prospective Fellows and do not see your solicitation listed here, email us at [email protected] to add or remove your listing.

*Note: this list is not comprehensive, and the postings it shares are subject to change. Please communicate directly with prospective host organizations for up-to-date information on partnership plans. 

  • Death Penalty Information Center | Washington, DC
    • Reporting to the Deputy Director, the fellow will research cutting edge issues in the administration of the death penalty.

  • New York Civil Liberties Union | New York, NY
    • Applicants will be asked to submit ideas for a project proposal relating to civil liberties and civil rights in New York. Proposed projects often combine litigation, advocacy, community outreach, and public education.

  • LatinoJustice PRLDEF | Orlando, FL
    • We are particularly interested in projects that address Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora; reproductive rights and/or gender justice, including LGBTQ rights; economic justice, including education and housing justice; and the intersection of the immigration and criminal legal systems.

  • International Refugee Assistance Project | New York, NY
    • IRAP seeks fellowship proposals that align with the applicants’ interests, but all fellowship proposals in response to this solicitation must provide assistance to individuals seeking safe refuge in the United States. Applicants are particularly encouraged which focus on Afghans seeking lasting safety in the United States and/or assisting those who have recently crossed or seek to cross the U.S./Mexico border.
  • Human Rights First | New York, NY / Los Angeles, CA
    • Human Rights First is primarily interested in projects that will support our efforts in Los Angeles and New York to advance due process and address systemic impediments to access to counsel and fair proceedings in the legal representation and treatment of asylum-seekers during border processes, asylum office interviews, and immigration court hearings.
  • Local Progress | Washington, DC
    • This is an exciting opportunity for recent law school graduates who are eager to build the legal and policy capacity of the Local Progress network, which is comprised of elected officials serving in cities and counties, and on school boards, as well as closely collaborate with these members in working hand-in-hand with impacted communities to win and defend transformational local policy on some of the most pressing issues facing communities today. 
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):
    • LGBTQ & HIV Project | New York, NY
      • The ACLU seeks to sponsor a candidate for an externally funded fellowship that would focus on court challenges to anti-trans laws, including laws barring access to gender-affirming health care; restrictions on use of restrooms, locker rooms, or other sex-segregated facilities; laws barring participation by trans youth on sports teams; and legal rules that label parents or care providers as child abusers if they provide gender-affirming care. We are also open to considering other fellowship proposals in the trans justice space.
    • Center for Liberty | New York, NY
      • The Center for Liberty seeks a fellow to address novel and complex legal questions relevant to defending and advancing the rights encompassed by the Center— reproductive freedom, LGBT rights and the rights of people living with HIV, the rights of people with disabilities, women’s rights, and freedom of religion and belief. We are particularly interested in sponsoring a candidate interested in looking at these issues from the lens of systemic equality.

    • Legal Department | New York, NY
      • Reporting to the National Legal Director, the Fellow will be focused on litigating state constitutional rights claims in state supreme courts. In light of the increasingly hostile federal courts, the ACLU will turn to state supreme courts to develop and safeguard constitutional rights.

    • Criminal Law Reform Project | New York, NY
      • CLRP seeks to sponsor a fellow in the New York office to undertake a project combatting policing harm through state constitutions and creative litigation to support investments in alternatives to police responses.

    • Reproductive Freedom Project | New York, NY
      • Specific job duties…will include legal research, litigation, and policy work to support RFP’s efforts to reimagine the right to reproductive freedom.
    • Women’s Rights Project | New York, NY
      • WRP seeks to host an externally funded Legal Fellow to challenge restrictions on women’s economic and social opportunities caused by forms of blacklisting and other procedures that categorically penalize individuals for prior contact with the housing or family regulation systems, such as having an eviction record or appearing on a state child abuse registry.

    • Immigrants’ Rights Project | San Francisco, CA
      • We are particularly interested in advancing work that will advance farmworkers’ and domestic workers’ rights, including access to minimum wage, overtime, and workers’ compensation, and collective bargaining protections.

    • Capital Punishment Project | New York, NY
      • Partnering With ACLU Affiliates In Death Penalty States, And With Coalition Partners Nationally, The Capital Punishment Project Promotes Both Abolition And Systemic Reform Of The Death Penalty Process

    • Voting Rights Project | New York, NY
      • Proposed projects for the Voting Rights Project should have an impact-litigation focus, but successful projects also frequently include an integrated advocacy approach (weaving in policy advocacy, public education, etc.).

    • Disability Rights Program | San Francisco, CA
      • DRP has many projects, ideas, and requests for assistance that could be strengthened or undertaken only with the addition of a fellow, including: guardianship, policing and mental health, and voting.
Photo of Henderson Huihui
Photo of Henderson Huihui

By Henderson Huihui, a 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation.

Native Hawaiians, similar to other indigenous peoples in the United States, have endured a history of colonization and the dispossession of ancestral lands. In the 1920s, it was clear that the loss of land had a significant negative impact on all indicators of health and wellbeing for native Hawaiians. This loss of land pushed Native Hawaiians into crowded tenements, disrupted their ability to practice subsistence living traditionally necessary for survival, and triggered a diaspora of Hawaiian out of Hawai’i. These conditions contributed to a staggering decline in the Hawaiian population, as well as the number of Hawaiians living in Hawai’i. Western population estimates of Native Hawaiians prior to Western contact in 1778 range from hundreds of thousands up to 1 million. By 1920, the number of Native Hawaiians dropped to 23,700—literally, more than a nine-fold decimation.

In 1921, the federal government enacted the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (HHCA) in response to the alarming decline in the native Hawaiian population. The HHCA set aside certain areas of land, held in trust by the federal government, to rehabilitate the native Hawaiian people by returning them to the land. The HHCA provides for long-term residential, agricultural, and pastoral homestead leases to eligible native Hawaiians. As a condition of statehood, the administration of the homestead program was transferred to the State of Hawaii. The loss of ancestral lands still impacts native Hawaiians today. Recent census estimates show that the Native Hawaiian population is on a steady rebound, with more than 600,000 Americans identifying as Hawaiian or part Hawaiian, however, only about half of those people live in Hawai’i. The flow of Hawaiians out of Hawaiian ancestral lands continues to be a concern, threatening the strength of Hawaiian cultural practice and identity for many who cannot afford housing here.

The loss of ancestral lands still impacts native Hawaiians today.

The inspiration for my Equal Justice Works Fellowship comes from my experience growing up in the Waimānalo Hawaiian homestead. As a Native Hawaiian, my family faced many of the same challenges that others in the broader Native Hawaiian community face, some of which are rooted in Hawai’i’s troubled past of colonization. A Hawaiian homestead can provide an ‘ohana (family) with stability for generations. Having benefitted from the homestead program, I feel that it is now my kuleana (responsibility) to help families retain their homestead leases.

Having benefitted from the homestead program, I feel that it is now my kuleana (responsibility) to help families retain their homestead leases.

The focus of my Fellowship is to provide comprehensive outreach and advocacy for beneficiaries of the HHCA. Issues facing homestead families range from successorship of a homestead lease, a lack of internet access, environmental impacts and access to water, and lease cancelation. These issues may affect the generational stability provided by a homestead and put families at risk of houselessness or being forced to live outside of Hawaii to avoid the high cost of living. Through the Fellowship, I work to empower Native Hawaiian beneficiaries to retain and proactively manage their family homesteads by providing educational materials, direct legal services, and advocacy.

Through this Fellowship, I’ve been given the opportunity to take a deep dive into a rather niche and nuanced area of law. While it’s been challenging to navigate complex legal theories and approaches, as some homestead issues go beyond traditional landlord-tenant questions and into the fiduciary duties of the State of Hawaii and administrative rule making processes, working for my community has been very rewarding.

Every opportunity to serve a member of my community, in cases big and small, whether through brief services or through full representation, has been the highest honor.

Every opportunity to serve a member of my community, in cases big and small, whether through brief services or through full representation, has been the highest honor. Those served through this Fellowship face a frustrating and confusing system. When they have someone advocating for them, their voice is finally being heard. Being that voice has been the proudest moments of the Fellowship. My hope is to continue working in this area of law to help advance the rights and protections of Hawaiian homestead families as the Fellowship has highlighted systematic and administrative shortfalls of the Hawaiian Home Lands trust program and the common need for homesteader education.

We’re proud of the work Henderson is doing to advocate on behalf of Hawaiian homestead families. To learn more information about his Fellowship, visit here.

84 public interest lawyers will spend the next two years advancing access to justice with underserved communities across the United States.

The 2022 class of Fellows received sponsorship from 81 law firms, corporations, private foundations, and individual donors.

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 10, 2022—Equal Justice Works, the nation’s largest facilitator of opportunities in public interest law, today named its 2022 class of Equal Justice Works Fellows. Each of the 84 law school graduates, in collaboration with a legal services organization, has designed a two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowship project to address the unmet legal needs of the community they will serve.

“The highlight of the year is when we announce the class of 84 passionate public service leaders who will bring their entrepreneurial ideas and energy to communities that face injustice,” said David Stern, executive director at Equal Justice Works. “Chosen from hundreds of compelling applications, these talented new lawyers are destined to make an impact during their Fellowships and throughout their careers.”

Each year, Equal Justice Works selects a class of public interest lawyers who have designed unique projects in partnership with legal services organizations. These projects are funded by law firms, corporations, private foundations, and individual supporters.

Selected from 385 applications, the 2022 class of Equal Justice Works Fellows includes graduates from 45 law schools who will work at 76 legal services organizations across 20 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Among this year’s 81 sponsors are 31 leading law firms recognized in the Am Law 200 and 25 Fortune 500 corporations.

“Improving access to healthcare is a core component of Abbott’s sustainability plan and ties with our broader mission to help people live their fullest, healthiest lives,” said Hubert Allen, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary, Abbott. “We are deeply honored to be a sponsor of the 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellowship program and support this vital work.”

Equal Justice Works Fellows in the 2022 class have created projects to address a wide range of legal issues. Examples of these projects include:

  • Nicole Camargo Almeida (she/her/hers), a graduate of the Northwestern University School of Law, will be hosted at Legal Action Chicago, where she will provide direct legal representation to low-income immigrants in Illinois seeking healthcare benefits. Nicole’s Fellowship is sponsored by Abbott.
  • Ian Gustafson (he/him/his) will be hosted by the Mississippi Center for Justice, where he will advocate for the clearing of criminal records, restoration of driving privileges, and reinstatement of voting rights on behalf of people formerly incarcerated in southern Mississippi. Ian, a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, is cosponsored by Walmart, Inc. and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.
  • Jemimah Kamau (she/her/hers), a graduate of University of Washington School of Law, will be hosted by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, where she will help respond to the growing legal and social services needs of Black immigrants in a culturally responsive and linguistically competent manner. Jemimah’s Fellowship is sponsored by The Lorenzini Family Foundation.
  • Zoraima Pelaez (she/her/ella) will work 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 with her host organization, the American Civil Liberties Union. Zoraima, a graduate of University of Texas School of Law, is sponsored by Robyn Lipton and Bruce Kuhlik.
  • Michael Smith (they/them/theirs) will provide legal advocacy for individual survivors of gun violence through a new medical-legal partnership between the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Community Violence Intervention Program. Michael, a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, will be hosted by Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. Michael’s Fellowship is sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP.

We are deeply honored to be a sponsor of the 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellowship program and support this vital work.

Hubert Allen /
Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of Abbott

Over the past three decades, Equal Justice Works has awarded more than 2,300 postgraduate fellowships to public service leaders committed to ensuring equal access to justice for underserved communities. Our Fellowship programs are designed to effect change in communities and throughout our country by mobilizing Fellows to work on key issue areas such as disaster resilience, affordable and safe housing, and crime victims’ rights, as well as through the opportunity for a Fellow to work with a legal services organization to design and implement a unique project in response to a specific or emerging need. On average, 85% of Equal Justice Works Fellows remain in public service positions, continuing to help fulfill our nation’s promise of equal justice for all.

Click here for a full list of the 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellows, host organizations, and sponsors.

###

About Equal Justice Works
Equal Justice Works is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for lawyers to transform their passion for equal justice into a lifelong commitment to public service. As the nation’s largest facilitator of opportunities in public interest law, Equal Justice Works brings together an extensive network of law students, lawyers, nonprofit legal aid organizations, and supporters to promote public service and inspire a lifelong commitment to equal justice.

Contact
Heena Patel
Marketing and Communications Director
Email: [email protected]

Photo of Nafisa Ahmed
Photo of Nafisa Ahmed

Nafisa Ahmed, a 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Cooley LLP and Uber Technologies Inc., recently spoke with us about working with AMEMSA (Arab Middle Eastern Muslim South Asian) domestic violence survivors in the greater Los Angeles area. 

What inspired you to pursue a career focused on advocating for AMEMSA (Arab Middle Eastern Muslim South Asian) survivors of domestic violence?

I am AMEMSA and wanted to be able to use my education to uplift my community. I witnessed the struggles that AMEMSA domestic violence survivors face getting out of relationships and wanted to workshop solutions to help them. It’s also an area of law that plays to my strengths and excites me. It’s never boring!

I witnessed the struggles that AMEMSA domestic violence survivors face getting out of relationships and wanted to workshop solutions to help them.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the legal landscape, increasing the demand for civil legal aid across the country. How did the pandemic affect your work and the clients you serve?

Essentially, since the start of the pandemic, funding and availability for legal aid family law services has decreased in Los Angeles County while the demand has increased. For a period of time, one of the main resources for self-represented litigants in Los Angeles, the Self-Help Centers at the Courthouses were not operating in the same capacity that they were pre-pandemic.

Many legal aid organizations across Los Angeles that provide family law services are currently understaffed. My host organization has become one of the few where domestic violence survivors can get family law legal aid without having to wait three months. That meant that I took on a larger case load and a larger array of clients to meet the need.

My organization has become one of the few where domestic violence survivors can get family law legal aid without having to wait three months.

Survivors of domestic violence often have a multitude of legal problems associated with their abusive experience. What are some of the legal needs expressed by your clients and what areas of the law are you providing legal assistance?

Survivors often need assistance in housing rights, immigration, family law, and victim advocacy to name a few. My organization assists with immigration and family law services. I primarily work on family law issues which includes restraining orders, divorces, child custody, and support.

During your Equal Justice Works Fellowship, you’ve been working closely with your sponsors on creating Know-Your-Rights materials as well as legal research and clinic opportunities. Can you tell us more about these partnerships and share some of the benefits of having your sponsors involved in your project? 

My Fellowship sponsors Cooley LLP and Uber Technologies Inc. have assisted me with translating Know Your Rights materials to AMEMSA languages. These materials have been distributed to various organizations that work with AMEMSA survivors, ensuring that survivors are able to access resources they can understand and know that remedies are available to them. My sponsors have also assisted me in conducting legal research and writing for a Trial Advocacy Guide for Self-Represented Litigants in Restraining Order proceedings. My department gets more referrals and requests for services than we can assist, so it’s useful to have a comprehensive guide for individuals we are unable to work more closely with.

I hope that survivors are at least able to access resources that they can understand and know that remedies are available to them.

What are some of the ways you are sharing these materials with survivors of domestic violence?

During the first six months of my Equal Justice Works Fellowship, I did the groundwork of connecting with other organizations to establish a stronger referral base. We are in the process of regularly exchanging resources and referrals. However, most of my project is now dedicated to direct legal services and representation of survivors.

Lastly, what has been the most exciting part of being an Equal Justice Works Fellow?

The most exciting part of being an Equal Justice Works Fellow has been connecting with other Fellows across the country. Although our projects vary, it has been a positive collegial experience sharing the growths and challenges of being new public interest attorneys. Legal aid work can be very difficult, so it has been a pleasure connecting with other individual who share similar experiences.

It has been a positive collegial experience sharing the growths and challenges of being new public interest attorneys.

To learn more about Nafisa’s Fellowship, visit her profile here.

Photo of Idalmis Vaquero
Photo of Idalmis Vaquero

By Idalmis Vaquero, a 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Stern-Hughes Family Fund and the Ottinger Family Foundation. Idalmis is hosted by Communities for a Better Environment.

East and Southeast Los Angeles communities consistently get the highest score in a competition no one wants to win—the communities most impacted by myriad environmental and social harms including high levels of pollution, which results in serious health impacts on Latinx, Black, and similarly historically oppressed peoples. Among the many sources of pollution in Los Angeles, the now-shuttered Exide battery processing facility has single-handedly inflicted significant harm by broadcasting high levels of lead to its neighbors.

Throughout its 30-year operation, Exide spewed more than seven million pounds of lead over the households of 100,000 residents and produced the greatest risk of cancer among all pollution-emitting facilities in the South Coast Air Basin. Even seven long years after the facility’s permanent closure in 2015, more than 6,000 properties still require cleanup by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), and the extent of the cleanup of the former facility is still unknown.

As a young Chicanx woman growing up in one of the East Los Angeles communities impacted by Exide and many other pollution sources, I believed that the constant noise of semi-truck trailers, unbearable smells of animal carcass from the nearby rendering plants, and sights of smokestacks from my window were normal. The moment I realized these sights, sounds, and smells were not at all normal was the moment I understood how environmental racism imposes injustice on our communities of color.

The moment I realized these sights, sounds, and smells were not at all normal was the moment I understood how environmental racism imposes injustice on our communities of color.

In late 2020, Exide was allowed to walk away from its obligations to fund the facility and community cleanup in California—in addition to 17 of their former sites across the country— after finalizing their bankruptcy plan. This has left victims with a hefty bill to pay for cleanup and a dysfunctional DTSC, resulting in delays and cost overruns in the cleanup process. While I knew that the legal system was not designed to protect communities of color or to provide environmental justice, with Exide I began to see the deeply rooted injustices perpetrated by bankruptcy laws firsthand.

My lived experience as a woman of color coming from a community directly impacted by pollution motivated me to pursue an Equal Justice Works Fellowship that would allow me to fight alongside my community in pursuit of environmental justice.

I developed my project with the goal of developing the legal and policy expertise of residents so we fight together to ensure that our state government is transparent and held accountable for cleaning up our homes in the aftermath of Exide, and in protecting against future improper land uses.

Photo of Idalmis Vaquero
Idalmis (left) with Jennifer Ganata, senior staff attorney, Irene Franco Rubio, USC Agents of Change intern, and Gabriel Grief, legal fellow (right) in front of Estrada Courts apartments where the Department of Toxic Substances Control recently completed soil cleanup.

Despite the structural and institutional challenges we face in the Exide cleanup, I have found the strength and support from my community who motivate me to continue advocating for solutions in pursuit of attaining justice. One of the first in-person meetings I attended as part of my Fellowship was an outdoor gathering with mothers living in Maywood, one of the cities impacted by Exide’s contamination. I listened as they expressed their fears regarding their children’s continued exposure to lead and their disappointment and distrust of our state governmental agencies that failed to protect their families.

Most importantly, I noticed that a recurring theme in the conversation was their strong sense of resilience. In community, they shared knowledge resources, home remedies to heal their sick children, and voiced their commitment to continue advocating for safer and more efficient clean-up of their homes.

It is my community’s resilience that informs the vision and work of my project. I continue to research legal and policy tools most relevant and effective for members of my community in East and Southeast Los Angeles, in addition to surrounding communities CBE supports, to give residents the support they need to determine the future use of the former Exide site and other abandoned sites.

It is my community’s resilience that informs the vision and work of my project.

I have also written to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with recommendations on policies and strategies to equitably tackle our national lead poisoning crisis, given our experience with Exide. In addition, I have engaged in state-wide advocacy efforts in a coalition of other environmental justice and public health organizations to obtain structural reform at DTSC, seeking more transparency and accountability. These advocacy efforts aim to ensure that another experience of exposure like Exide does not occur again.

Through this work, I look forward to creating a future where communities of color thrive and live comfortably without worrying about the health impacts a zip code or socio-economic status have on the life outcomes of a child. At CBE and through my Fellowship project, I hope to continue working with residents to ensure our vision of living in lead-free communities becomes a reality.

Visit here to learn more about the Idalmis’ work advocating for communities of color impacted by the Exide contamination.

In March 2022, Equal Justice Works teamed up with the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD), American Red Cross, Legal Services Corporation (LSC), Pro Bono Net and DisasterLegalAid.org, to commemorate Disaster Resilience Awareness Month.

With the frequency and intensity of disasters increasing over the last few years, so too has the demand for lawyers who can help ensure an equitable recovery in disaster-affected communities. That’s why, we created Disaster Resilience Awareness Month—observed every March—as a collaborative effort to highlight the important role of lawyers in helping communities prepare for, recover from, and build resilience to disasters, as well as provide helpful resources for disaster survivors and lawyers.

This year during Disaster Resilience Awareness Month, Fellows in our Disaster Resilience Program shared their expertise, information on the legal services available to disaster survivors, and best practices for advocating on behalf of people who need help recovering from the legal effects of disasters. Fellows authored posts on:

How to Create a Disaster Preparedness Plan 

2020 Fellows Stephanie Duke at Disability Rights Texas and Maria F. Vazquez at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston shared tips on how to create a disaster preparedness plan, with special focus on resources available for immigrant and disability communities. Read their post here.

Legal Help After Wildfires

2021 Fellow Jordan Davis at Disability Rights California looked at how Californians with disabilities are often overlooked in the aftermath of disaster. Read the post here.

Extreme Heat

2021 Fellow Jacob Zarefsky wrote about extreme heat events being overlooked as a disaster and what California lawmakers are doing to address the devastating impact of extreme heat. Read about it here.

Housing

2021 Fellow Christopher Kerrigan shared his experience representing tenants in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and provided some practical tips for assisting tenants with their housing needs following a disaster. Read about it here.

FEMA

2020 Fellow Hannah Dyal of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid shared tips for practitioners handling FEMA appeals in the aftermath of a disaster. Read about it here.

In addition to these posts, Equal Justice Works staff member Touri Goode wrote about the impact of the first cohort of the Disaster Resilience Program, which included six Fellows who served from June 2020 to October 2021 in Texas and Florida. Read more here.

This year, we also partnered with ABA YLD to create a National Disaster Attorney Guidebook, an expansive resource on disaster lawyering. This guidebook is the first of its kind and contains an overview of the available disaster assistance under various state and federal laws, as well as information on how to ensure that legal assistance reaches low-income disaster survivors. Equal Justice Works hosted a webinar to introduce the resource and walk participants through the contents and how to use it.

Thanks to the generous support of all our partners, host organizations, and supporters who joined us in making Disaster Resilience Awareness Month 2022 a success. We look forward to finding new opportunities to raise awareness about the complex legal needs of disaster survivors and the important role that lawyers play in supporting communities with the resources they need to recover from disasters and be resilient for the future.

For more information about the Disaster Resilience Program, visit here. To view the National Disaster Attorney Guidebook, please visit here and here for the accessible version.

The Disaster Resilience Program is funded by the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and individual contributions. 

Photo Jorge Roman-Romero
Photo Jorge Roman-Romero

Jorge Roman-Romero, a 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Brico Fund, recently spoke with us about advocating for safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities with his host organization, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Inc.

What inspired you to pursue a career focused on water pollution and environmental justice?

Inspired by Dr. King’s legacy on civil rights law, my Equal Justice Works Fellowship focuses on water pollution and environmental justice to confront the fact that vulnerable populations disproportionately bear the health risks of pollution. Starting my environmental law career advocating for people to have the right to clean water regardless of skin color, cultural background, or socioeconomic status is a dream come true.

Starting my environmental law career advocating for people to have the right to clean water regardless of skin color, cultural background, or socioeconomic status is a dream come true.

As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, you advocate for disadvantaged communities in Wisconsin that face disproportionate exposure to toxic pollutants from contaminated water. More specifically, your Fellowship addresses contamination by group of toxic and persistent synthetic chemicals known as per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Can you share more about this public health threat and the potential health effects of PFAS exposure?

PFAS are a family of thousands man-made chemicals produced since the 1940s and used in industrial processes and consumer goods due to their heat, oil, and water-resistant properties. Due to environmental and public health concerns, PFAS manufacturers agreed to phase out national production of two types of PFAS––PFOA and PFOS––in the early 2000s. However, thousands of new chemicals were developed and produced in lieu of.r.

Drinking water is the main pathway of exposure, and data so far reveals that approximately two-thirds of the U.S. population is served by water systems with PFAS-contaminated water. Without a comprehensive regulatory response, our right to safe drinking water is in peril. PFAS are of high concern because they are extremely resistant to degradation in the environment, persist in water and air for long periods, and bioaccumulate in our bodies over time; characteristics for which they have been termed “forever chemicals.” The widespread contamination of these hazardous chemicals is a serious public health threat because exposure to several PFAS has been linked to cancer, reproductive disorders, impaired fetal development, thyroid hormone disruption, and immunodeficiencies.

You’ve been working on a comprehensive advocacy response to defend the right to safe drinking water in Wisconsin. Can you tell us more about the multi-pronged strategy and how you are working with state and federal agencies and offices?

To better explain the multi-pronged strategy of my Fellowship, constituting of (1) regulatory advocacy, (2) public awareness campaigns, and (3) direct legal action, here is some regulatory background on PFAS in Wisconsin:

Approximately two-thirds of people in Wisconsin rely on drinking water from groundwater sources. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently investigating dozens of sites of PFAS contamination around the state. Unfortunately, because the federal establishment of drinking water maximum contaminant levels under the Safe Drinking Water Act for PFAS are years away, it is up to the DNR to respond to this public health threat. Currently, the state agency is in the process of establishing groundwater and drinking water quality standards for two types of PFAS. However, the Wisconsin Administrative Act Procedure Act makes it cumbersome for protective rules to be finalized. The Natural Resources Board, the supervisory body of the DNR, must first approve the proposed rules. Then, the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules has unilateral veto power to either prevent proposed rules from finalizing or suspend finalized rules at the end of the rule-making process.

I have been working with impacted communities to amplify their voices in the comment period of the rule-making process urging the DNR to finalize the proposed rules that will prompt a systemic response to abate PFOS and PFOA contamination. I have also developed toolkits with information about the rule-makings to bring public awareness and foster public participation. Additionally, my regulatory advocacy has incorporated an environmental justice lens to ensure that environmental justice and equity are guiding principles of the statewide response to PFAS pollution. I am also continuing to work on legal theories if litigation becomes necessary in the rule-making process.

Related to other PFAS substances of concern not subject to current rule-makings, I am exploring vehicles to request federal agencies, like the Center for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency, to test and develop toxicological health data in Wisconsin to spur additional rule-making efforts. Finally, to better identify sources of pollution and unknown communities at risk, I will be leading an effort to retrieve data under Wisconsin’s open records law from utilities that have tested but not yet disclosed information to the public about the severity of the contamination.

My regulatory advocacy has incorporated an environmental justice lens to ensure that environmental justice and equity are guiding principles of the statewide response to PFAS pollution.

Part of your work also involves creating educational materials on the risks of toxic exposure and promoting local activism to spur statewide water testing. What are some of the ways you are sharing these materials with affected communities and what does public involvement look like to you when it comes to local activism?

Public participation is a crucial feature of my Fellowship. I am collaborating with various environmental attorneys in the state to prepare and distribute toolkits with the factual and legal issues surrounding the PFOS and PFOA rule-makings. Further, we hosted a webinar where we provided an opportunity for members of various affected communities to ask questions regarding the rule-making process. Again, without fostering public involvement and activism, the legal and regulatory aspects of my Fellowship will not have meaningful effects.

Without fostering public involvement and activism, the legal and regulatory aspects of my fellowship will not have meaningful effects.

Lastly, what has been the most exciting part of being an Equal Justice Works Fellow and what are you hoping to achieve in the first year of your Fellowship?

The most exciting part of my Fellowship is that I get to work on cutting edge water quality issues through a civil rights lens. Removing barriers to equal protection and fostering equitable access to decision-making processes are principles embedded in the American constitutional project and I appreciate the opportunity I have as a Fellow to advance these principles.

The most exciting part of my Equal Justice Works Fellowship is that I get to work on cutting edge water quality issues through a civil rights lens.

To learn more about Jorge’s Fellowship, visit his profile here.

Photo of Symone Wango
Photo of Symone Wango

By Symone Wango, 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow cosponsored by Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and Morgan Stanley

In the Capital Region of New York­­—Albany, Schenectady, and Rensselaer counties—Black people make up 11% of the population but are disproportionately low-wage workers. The median income in these three counties for white families is approximately $96147, more than double the median income for Black families $43,323. Low-wage working class workers are the most vulnerable to workplace abuses, employment discrimination, wage theft, and poor working conditions.

The Worker Protection Program at my host organization The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York (LASNNY) is designed to provide low-income Black workers and other workers with free legal assistance for employment discrimination claims, wage and hours claims, and workplace safety issues. I grew up in a low-wage working-class household in the Capital Region and know too well that living paycheck to paycheck is not a far-away concept, it is a way of life. The economic impact of losing one’s income causes a ripple effect for everyone in the home. This threat to income can cause workers to endure workplace abuse, wage theft, discrimination, and unsafe conditions. This is one of the reasons that I am so passionate about helping low-wage workers of color.

I grew up in a low-wage working-class household in the Capital Region and know too well that living paycheck to paycheck is not a far-away concept, it is a way of life.

Symone Wango /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow
cosponsored by Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and Morgan Stanley

At LASNNY, we provide free civil legal services to low-income people and families in the Capital Region and Northern New York. Prior to the inception of the Worker Protection Program, no legal services providers in the Capital Region offered free legal assistance to low-wage workers for employment related matters. This program was designed to fill a gap for low-income workers and their families and ensure that there is an advocate who will represent them if they have a legal issue with their employer. It also guarantees that workers are not left behind because they lack the resources to afford legal representation.

The Worker Protection Program guarantees that workers are not left behind because they lack the resources to afford legal representation.

Symone Wango /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow
cosponsored by Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and Morgan Stanley

Photo of a “Know Your Rights in the Workplace” training administered by Symone Wango

The Worker Protection Program’s clients are primarily Women of Color with various legal issues ranging from pay equity claims, to employment discrimination, to workplace retaliation. One of the biggest barriers to assisting workers in the Capital Region has been outreach. The COVID-19 pandemic has cut off many in-person community outreach opportunities that were previously available. However, we are working to overcome this barrier by offering virtual Know Your Rights in the Workplace presentations to our community partners. We’ve also been working with the Albany Damien Center, a community-based organization that assists individuals with an HIV or AIDS diagnosis. Recently, we teamed up with the Damien Center’s Employment Pathways program and gave a presentation on their weekly podcast.

The first few months of my Fellowship have been rewarding, the more I interact with workers and the more I learn about the issues that are affecting them in the workplace. Over the next year I plan to build upon these community relationships to develop a community engagement platform where workers can voice their concerns, access legal resources, and improve their working environment. I’m excited to continue leveraging these existing relationships and building new relationship throughout the community to increase awareness about the resources available to our most vulnerable workers.

At Equal Justice Works, we are proud of Symone and other Fellows for helping Black and brown communities fight back against employment discrimination and wage theft. To learn more about Symone’s Fellowship, visit her Fellow profile here.

By Bailey Russell, 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by the Mwalimu Center for Justice

Photo of Bailey Russell

Louisiana has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States. It also convicts people of capital murder at an alarming rate. The people who are charged with capital crimes in Louisiana are almost exclusively poor and black. Many of them had their first interaction with the carceral system as children.

My Equal Justice Works Fellowship focuses on learning how to zealously fight Louisiana’s capital punishment system. It allows me to resist the system by learning how to directly advocate for clients on death row in post-conviction, as an attorney at the Mwalimu Center for Justice (formerly Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana). I also aim to resist the school-to-capital-punishment pipeline that exists in Louisiana, by spreading legal resources with impacted communities.

Engaging with the community of New Orleans has been a highlight in my Fellowship. I became a board member of my neighborhood association, created professional relationships with leaders in the city, and forged bonds with people who were born and raised in New Orleans, to analyze how the prison system impacts Black and brown communities on a micro and macro level.

I have also found joy in representing clients in the post-conviction phase of their capital appeals. It has been an honor learning from people who are actively petitioning the State of Louisiana for their lives. Driving two and half hours to the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, going through security, driving twenty minutes to Death Row, and sitting down face to face with my clients, has humbled me in a way I can’t even put into words.

However, humility comes from struggle. Capital defense work is the definition of struggle. The feeling that comes over me every time I exit Angola is one of deep sorrow, because I realize that my efforts, no matter how fruitful, can’t take away the trauma, the grief, and the anguish of my clients. I know that a winning brief can’t give back the time my clients have lost while sitting on Death Row. I know that while I can leave through the front gates of the prison, my clients cannot.

I know that a winning brief can’t give back the time my clients have lost while sitting on Death Row.

When I was growing up, I never understood why adults always told me to “stay a child as long as possible.” I couldn’t wait to grow up and change the world. But now I finally appreciate the advice. This work has forced me to see some of the darkest parts of humanity. It has required me to grapple with the reality that I can only act as a band aid to a wound that has existed for centuries.

This work has forced me to see some of the darkest parts of humanity. It has required me to grapple with the reality that I can only act as a band aid to a wound that has existed for centuries.

But it’s the bonds I’ve forged and the partnerships I’ve built with the people of this city that keep me energized to pick myself up and keep going. Looking ahead, I am excited to finally put together educational material to disperse within the community. Most of all, I am eager to keep learning from the work, and fighting for my clients’ right to life.

At Equal Justice Works, we are proud of Bailey and other Fellows for helping Black and brown communities fight back against capital convictions. To learn more about Bailey’s Fellowship, visit her Fellow profile here.

Dispatches from Fellows helping low-income tenants, small business-owners, and victims of elder abuse access justice.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, we celebrate the work of our Fellows who are bringing us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community”—a society based on justice and equal opportunity.

Photo Madison Wiegand Brown
Photo of Madison Wiegand Brown

“Service means trusting the community you serve to articulate their needs, and then uplifting and advocating for those needs,” said 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow Madison Wiegand Brown, who is sponsored by the Rossotti Family Foundation. “Tenants acutely understand the need for safe and healthy housing, it is our job to try to get them there.”

Illinois has one of the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning in the country. At Legal Aid Chicago, Madison represents low-­income Chicago families who have been exposed to lead due to unsafe housing conditions, in collaboration with personal injury attorneys and community partnerships. Although legal protections exist, there is little to no enforcement of lead law protections. For example, when a landlord receives a mitigation notice for lead hazards, and there is a child or pregnant person on the property, the landlord must mitigate the lead within 30 days. When there is neither a child nor pregnant person, the landlord has up to 90 days. When Legal Aid Chicago reviewed the records of the Chicago Department of Health, they found that on average, landlords take a whopping 394 days to mitigate lead hazards on a property.

Through Legal Aid Chicago’s medical-legal partnership, Madison seeks holistic outcomes for her clients and community-informed impactful legal solutions for those who have been exposed to lead. This means, “challenging and changing the conditions that people live in, so that they have the chance to lead healthy lives,” she said.

Service means trusting the community you serve to articulate their needs, and then uplifting and advocating for those needs.

Madison Wiegand Brown /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

Photo of Kevin Perry
Photo of Kevin Perry

Growing up in a low-income household, 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow Kevin Perry learned the importance of assistance programs and how they can help lift many people out of poverty. “For every helping hand my family received it was one less challenge we had to resolve ourselves,” he said. Kevin became a Fellow to have a positive impact in his community, and the very challenges that inspired him to go to law school are the issues he tackles in his work as a Fellow.

At Volunteers of Legal Services, Inc., Kevin, who is sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP, focuses on leveraging civil and transactional legal resources to historically marginalized and underserved communities within the Northeast Brooklyn area. Many small business owners in this economically stagnant area are unable to allocate funds to stay afloat, defend themselves from legal challenges, and, often, recover. Through his Fellowship, Kevin connects with clients and community partners through virtual workshops and legal counsel, as well as facilitating small business ownership training.

“When we stand up for equality and justice, we empower others to do the same, and in time you are never alone,” explained Kevin, on why he is passionate about serving communities in need.

When we stand up for equality and justice, we empower others to do the same, and in time you are never alone.

Kevin Perry /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

Photo of Cortney Sweat

Elder abuse is a growing problem, with 1 out of 10 older Americans experiencing some form of elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation each year. At Indiana Legal Services, Inc., 2020 Fellow Cortney Sweat from the Elder Justice Program* provides legal assistance to elderly adult victims of crime for the northern half of Indiana.

Cortney was drawn to this work because as a prosecutor, she would often see defendants have their rights put above the rights of the victim. Now, as a Fellow, she is able to provide holistic services to clients and “help victims beyond what closure they receive from criminal prosecution.” Her case load consists of clients who have been victims of domestic violence and need advice or assistance with protection orders, individuals who are under abusive or overly restrictive guardianships and need termination or modification of the guardianship, and consumer issues where clients have been scammed.

“Standing up for equality and justice to me means to never become complacent in the status quo,” said Cortney. “…We are all not equal and we do not all have the same access to justice. We should always be striving for a more just world, and that cannot happen until we stop being complacent with the status quo.”

We should always be striving for a more just world, and that cannot happen until we stop being complacent with the status quo.

Cortney Sweat /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

We are proud of all our Fellows for bringing lasting change to our communities. Learn more about their commitment to service here.

The Elder Justice Program is supported by an award from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), Award Number 2019-V3-GX-K033. This federal funding is supplemented by funds from private donors. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.