Equal Justice Works Receives a Grant from OVC

Grant Will Support Organization’s Work to Mobilize Lawyers to Provide Legal Aid to Victims of Crime in Underserved Communities.

Equal Justice Works, the nation’s largest facilitator of opportunities in public interest law, today announced that it has been awarded a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime, to launch the Crime Victims Advocacy Program (CVAP), a two-year legal Fellowship program.

In 2020, almost 17 million Americans were victims of crime, including more than 4.5 million violent crimes and more than 12 million property crimes. Additionally, crime victimization disproportionately impacts racial minority groups. Crime survivors often face complex legal issues, which can be overwhelming to navigate without legal representation. Victimization can create a myriad of civil legal problems and intensify pre-existing challenges faced by victims and their families. Studies uniformly show that individuals represented by lawyers receive better outcomes than unrepresented or self-represented individuals.

The Crime Victims Advocacy Program at Equal Justice Works will place 21 attorney Fellows at legal services organizations across the country to provide civil legal services for victims of crime in underserved communities, specifically communities of color, and to enforce their rights. In addition to mobilizing attorney Fellows, CVAP will also include a cohort of 21 summer law student Fellows who will support the work of attorney Fellows and help build a pipeline of victims’ rights attorneys who have sustained careers in this field.

“It is essential for crime victims to have access to legal aid to enforce their rights and address many legal issues they may face after the victimization,” noted Verna Williams, CEO at Equal Justice Works. “We are incredibly grateful to the Office of Victims of Crime’s support of this program to provide critical legal services and strengthen community responses for crime victims in underserved areas.”

Fellows in the Crime Victims Advocacy Program will represent crime victims to enforce their rights and pursue available legal remedies for their clients. They will also engage with the community at large through outreach, community education, and partnership-building activities to increase underserved communities’ capacity to effectively support victims.

The Crime Victims Advocacy Program will be implemented in collaboration with the training and technical assistance (TTA) provider, the National Crime Victim Law Institute (NCVLI). As the national expert on victim law and legal training, NCVLI will provide intensive and multi-faceted TTA to the Fellows throughout the program to develop their knowledge and skills on relevant legal issues and best practices and to create opportunities for peer learning.

Equal Justice Works plans to start the host organization selection process and open applications to become a CVAP Fellow in the winter of 2022/2023, and Fellows are expected to begin work during the summer of 2023.

For more information about the Crime Victims Advocacy Program, please contact [email protected].

This program is supported by an award under 15POVC-22-GK-01116-NONF, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this document are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Equal Justice Works is proud to introduce the 2022 class of Housing Justice Program Fellows. Thirty-one Fellows will be hosted at eighteen legal aid and grassroots organizations in areas where evictions and housing instability have reached epidemic proportions. The program has expanded from Richmond to Northern and Eastern Virginia, and into South Carolina and Maryland.

The Equal Justice Works Housing Justice Program uniquely combines the efforts of lawyers and community organizers, working collaboratively as Fellows, to advocate for low-income and under-resourced communities.

Evictions have a disproportionate effect on communities of color, women, and children. Without access to safe and stable housing, individuals and families can face a variety of negative outcomes, including economic hardships and health problems.

Meet some of our Housing Justice Program Fellows and learn more about how they will be building collaborative partnerships among tenant groups and community members and engaging in activities to effect systemic change.

Equal Justice Works Fellows in the Housing Justice Program’s 2022 class have created projects to address a wide range of housing-related legal issues. Examples of these projects include:

Benjamin Apt, Legal Aid Justice Center

Benjamin’s Fellowship aims to foster the growth of affordable housing programs for low-income residents in Northern Virginia through research, representation, and advocacy. He has partnered with the Legal Aid Justice Center to raise awareness of the economic vulnerabilities that very low-income tenants, many of whom are immigrants, face.

DeAnna B. Smith, Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia

At the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia, DeAnna will work with the Attorney Fellows to connect tenants with the legal assistance and knowledge they need to address the systemic problems plaguing local housing markets. DeAnna will also support tenants in low-income public and subsidized housing, conduct outreach, organize education sessions, and build partnerships with community organizations to provide a network of support in addition to legal services.

Emily Blackshire, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center

Emily’s project focuses on expanding tenants’ rights in counties across South Carolina. Throughout the Fellowship, Emily will partner with various actors and organizers in the community to create infrastructure for a housing court system that provides access to counsel for all tenants at risk of eviction.

Anne Boyle, Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland

Anne will participate in her host organization’s rent clinic, where she will provide day-of-court, limited-scope representation to tenants in district courts for Baltimore City and County. She will also take on an in-house, landlord-tenant caseload and help the Pro Bono Resource Center to recruit, mentor, and support volunteer attorneys.

Warren Buff, Community Legal Services of Prince Georges County, Inc.

At his host organization, Warren will address housing insecurity by focusing on eviction defense in Prince George’s County, Maryland. He will also train local attorney volunteers to assist in tenant defense during eviction proceedings and will participate in education and outreach programs to help local tenants avoid eviction proceedings before they begin.

Jamesa D. Parker, Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia

Jamesa will connect tenants with the legal assistance and knowledge they need to address the systemic problems plaguing local housing markets in Virginia. This Fellowship will also connect with community allies to identify and provide direct and targeted legal services to the community.

Marianela Funes, Tenants and Workers United

As a Fellow, Marianela will engage in community outreach, relationship building, leadership development, and community organizing to build power and advance changes in local housing policies that preserve and expand deeply affordable housing for households at the lowest income levels.

Jake Kmiech, CASA, Inc.

In response to housing instability in Maryland, Jake is partnering with CASA, Inc. to represent immigrant communities facing housing instability throughout Maryland, ensuring they have access to safe housing and justice.

Brandon L. Ballard, Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia

Brandon will collaborate with activists and organizations in the community to tackle systemic barriers to housing by providing direct, targeted legal services to a subsidized—or otherwise low-income—multifamily complex. Brandon plans to empower the community by way of a tenant advocacy group, workshops, and door-to-door outreach.

Rebecca Leussing, Legal Services of Northern Virginia, Inc.

At Legal Services of Northern Virginia, Inc., Rebecca will provide legal representation to low-income clients facing eviction and exploitation by their landlords. She will work to build the network of organizations and community leaders who serve low-income individuals facing housing instability. She also aims to create accessible legal materials to arm people with knowledge of their rights and resources.

Malique Parker, Baltimore Renters United

Malique will work to increase tenant engagement by organizing in Baltimore City, where he will facilitate tenant-led organizing. He will develop a plan for Baltimore Renters United to conduct outreach in community spaces, implement bi-monthly city-wide tenant organizing meetings, offer trainings, and recruit tenant leaders to participate in national training with other tenant-led organizing groups.

DiNesha Rucker, Homeless Persons Representation Project, Inc.

DiNesha’s Fellowship will focus on eviction defense and increasing access to permanent housing for youth and young adults in Baltimore City, Maryland. By providing legal and educational assistance specifically for youths under 25 years old, DiNesha will seek to increase youth and young adults access to permanent housing.

Taylor Rumble, Charleston Legal Access

As a Fellow, Taylor will collaborate with local organizations to defeat barriers to legal representation in eviction hearings. By establishing Housing Court in at least two additional South Carolina counties, she will support tenants facing housing instability through the legal process.

Denise Thomas-Brown, Virginia Poverty Law Center

Denise will identify and support grass roots tenant organizations and groups throughout the state to help coordinate and guide them on policy advocacy. She will accomplish this by providing education and training, collaborating with tenant organizations, and conducting advocacy trainings.

Sloan Wilson, SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center

In response to rising rent prices and a rental home shortage, Sloan will provide resources and support for tenant-led advocacy groups in low-income housing complexes though community organization partnerships, distributed organizing outreach, educational sessions, and legal aid.

Charlie Zenker, Legal Services of Northern Virginia, Inc.

Charlie’s Fellowship will provide community outreach and legal services to promote housing justice in Northern Virginia. This project will partner with the community in know-your-rights trainings, outreach events, and direct legal services to make legal information and resources more accessible.

The Housing Justice Program is made possible thanks to the generosity of The JPB Foundation, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Abell Foundation, and Maryland Legal Services Corporation. Learn more about the program here.

Photo of Ameil Kenkare
Headshot of Ameil Kenkare

By Ameil Kenkare, a 2021 Fellow in the sponsored by AbbVie Inc. and Kirkland & Ellis. Ameil is hosted by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

Prior to attending law school, I taught at a public charter high school in Chicago for four years. There, I worked with students across all grade levels: I taught U.S. history, co-advised a cohort from freshman through senior year, and coached the boys’ soccer team. As a teacher, I witnessed moments of curiosity, achievement, and joy that will stay with me for a long time. I also witnessed and took part in systems of punishment and oppression that cut my homeroom group of two dozen freshmen in half by their graduation, created perverse incentive structures, and placed even the ‘non-disciplined’ students in constant states of anxiety and discomfort. Under the guise of ‘high expectations,’ explicit and tacit exclusions of students who did not conform to gendered, racialized, and paternalistic expectations formed an undercurrent of fear and anxiety in the school, with the remaining kids wondering who was next.

My Equal Justice Works Fellowship project combats exclusionary discipline practices in education through direct representation in expulsion defenses and through collaboration with grassroots organizations that advocate against the school-to-prison pipeline. Two factors animate my work: my aforementioned experience in a school system that practiced exclusionary disciplinary policies, and my desire to change policy around systemic racism.

I know that not all schools are organized with such carceral rules. Schools with resources do not turn to exclusionary discipline as a first resort—students are allowed to learn and grow from their mistakes in material-rich environments. The high school I attended was like this. Schools with silent hallways and belt checks emerge from deeply segregated systems, where Black and Brown students, disproportionately from under-resourced and intentionally-disadvantaged neighborhoods, have already been separated out to places that receive specifically punitive treatment as a rule. These practices come from policy effectuated against Black and Brown people at the institutional level, policies that directly impact Brown and Black children in their daily lives at school.

Data and academic research demonstrate that high school students who are suspended are more than twice as likely to become involved in the criminal legal system. With expulsions, students removed from their learning environments can move even more quickly towards systems of youth and adult incarceration. While the excluded students have the most to lose in the literal sense, their former classmates, hallways, and communities can feel disruption from even a single student’s absence. Many of the students I work with first and foremost miss their friends, and their friends also suffer the consequences of ‘zero tolerance’ policies, overreactions, and racist discipline philosophies.

My Fellowship is one of many efforts to both reduce the harm of exclusionary school discipline and locate and address the source policies causing it. Along with others who are working to improve school policies, I represent students who are unfairly and improperly excluded from their home schools and identify patterns of exclusion that center on specific laws, loopholes, and indiscretions. I attend discipline hearings, negotiate, and engage in formal and informal legal advocacy to directly address client needs.

Like all lawyers, my central goal is to ensure the best possible outcome for my clients. It is often not as simple as making sure that a student who has been expelled, or who could be expelled, returns to that school. As a core principle, I do not apply prescriptive approaches to complex needs and situations, and instead listen to my clients, community partners, and people being disserved to shape and guide our advocacy. This means working with each student and the important adults in their life to determine what continuing their education and achieving their goals looks like.

I am very grateful to be starting my legal career with an Equal Justice Works Fellowship, and specifically to be working at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. In this role, I can reflect openly on lawyering and its relationship with education equity, what it means to support students and their families, and the extent to which the privilege of the profession can cause a school district to do what it should have done from the beginning.

I hope to continue the work of advocating with Black and Brown families disproportionately impacted by excessive discipline practices for the rest of my career. All students should have the right to decide and fulfill their potential. I want to grow long-term bonds of trust with community partners and work together to end discriminatory policies for all students, especially for the kids most negatively impacted by exclusionary discipline.

To learn more about Ameil’s project, visit his profile.

By Ariele Dashow, 3L law student at Stetson University College of law, and disaster law extern for Equal Justice Works’ Disaster Resilience Program.

Throughout adolescence, parents spend a great deal of time teaching their children who to call in case of an emergency. By age six, most children know how to call the police, the fire department, or even animal control. With age, our need for information may expand, depending on location: hurricane evacuation routes to take, where the closest protective shelter is located, and how to respond during any kind of disaster. This information may be common sense to the average individual living in high-risk areas, but for members of federally recognized tribes living on reservations, accessing aid for disasters isn’t so simple.

Under the United States Constitution, federally recognized tribes are considered “domestic dependent nations,” holding a type of “tribal sovereignty” within their own courts systems and governing bodies. These internal governments and councils dictate tribes’ relationships with local, state, and federal governments and their corresponding agencies and disaster response services. The most important agency recognized by the tribes is the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which has acted as the mediator, negotiator, and representative for the tribes within the government for the past 185 years.

This long-standing relationship with the government and the ability of tribes to create their own government has left disaster response surprisingly more complicated for tribes than for others. The title of “domestic dependent nation” has wedged tribes in a position with more sovereignty over their land and people than states have, but less than the federal government. Since tribes possess their own government, disaster response and preparedness starts from within the tribe, with aide coming from tribal police and resources. These resources are very limited in funding and manpower, which occasionally forces tribes to leave disasters unattended. Despite representation by the BIA, the tribes do not have as concrete of a relationship with other federal response agencies as States do.

This long-standing relationship with the government and the ability of tribes to create their own government has left disaster response surprisingly more complicated for tribes than for others.

Ariele Dashow /
Extern for Equal Justice Works' Disaster Resilience Program

When internal responses fail, the tribes do have access to and are encouraged to use response measures and preparedness resources put in place by federal agencies. Many of these resources, such as pre-disaster mitigation plans, emergency operation plans, and other training modules are readily available for the tribes to engage in. The Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP) under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently reported on trainings they provide to tribes and their members on disaster preparedness. A recent seminar provided basic medical training for mass casualty incidents. Ronald Spang, the Disaster and Emergency Service Coordinator for the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, attended this seminar and spoke about how the rurality of his tribe and many others impacts their ability to respond to emergencies:

“The majority of Native American communities are small and located in rural areas. We do not have access to this type of training, and I know all of the tribes here will benefit. I rarely see emergency simulations that reinforce the importance of practicing our plans or implementing new plans if they are needed.”

I rarely see emergency simulations that reinforce the importance of practicing our plans or implementing new plans if they are needed.

Ronald Spang /
Disaster and Emergency Service Coordinator for the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation

It is also important for Native American communities to have access to legal services in the aftermath of a disaster. All indigenous peoples and federally recognized tribes have access to the Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC); with offices in Montana and Washington, D.C., this non-profit organization centralizes all legal and non-legal resources and news for American Indians and indigenous groups. Through this organization, everyone is encouraged to learn and support their indigenous friends and neighbors, as well as take action in the legal battles and disasters tribes face. Additionally, the National Indian Law Library (NILL) offers direct links to sources, guides, and lawyer directories for tribes to use in times of disaster. NILL is a great academic resource for those looking to learn more about the history and current practice of Native American Law. For those interested in Native Indian Law or in need of legal aid, their website can be found here. The ILRC and NILL are regularly updated with new projects, resources, law news, and ways to show support to different tribes being affected by disaster. Attorneys who are interested in offering legal aid to native tribes should also brush up on the laws and contacts of local tribes. Visiting a tribe’s tribe website is another great way to get involved—these websites will guide individuals towards tribal leaders, employment opportunities, important historical facts, and laws.

As recognized citizens of the United States, tribes can seek aide from federal agencies and organizations, such as FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the American Red Cross, as well as other state and local response teams. The CDP offers more than 40 free courses in disaster response and preparedness to tribal nation members, at no extended cost to their members and globally-accessible preparedness training via their YouTube Channel. FEMA seeks to bridge the gaps between tribal nations and federal agency aide to make response and preparedness more accessible for tribes and their members. Additionally, online trainings are meant to encourage communication and relationships between tribes and local resources that would be able to provide aide during disasters.

When in the face of a disaster, it is important to know who you can turn to in your time of need. The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is committed to ensuring that all disaster survivors have equal access to recovery, legal services, and information to help communities prepare for and withstand future disasters.

For more information about the Disaster Resilience Program, please visit here.

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. Marketing and Communications Assistant Miranda Sullivan spoke with Robert Flores, a 2018 Fellow in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps and a 2020 Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program. As a Fellow, Robert was hosted by YMCA International Services.

For Robert Flores, working in public interest law is a commitment to the entire public interest community. His focus on immigrant communities affected by disasters is a testament to his philosophy. “There’s one fundamental truth to disasters,” said Robert. “[They] can make an already bad situation worse. So, for people who are already disadvantaged or are already struggling in one way, being affected by a disaster just exponentially makes things unbearable.”

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas in 2017, Robert was practicing immigration law at YMCA International Services. The office closed for a week due to flooding and when he returned, he noticed how members of the community were impacted by the hurricane. “It led to them not being able to afford the fee for the immigration office… so I began to do more and more fee waivers for our clients due to applying for temporary needs-based benefits or due to effects on their income or other financial hardships.”

Robert had the unique experience of serving in two Equal Justice Works Fellowship programs. From 2018 to 2020, he participated in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, a program that placed lawyers throughout Texas and Florida to deliver critical legal services to underserved communities affected by recent hurricanes and tropical storms. Following this Fellowship, Robert joined the Disaster Resilience Program from 2020 to 2021, where he helped to fulfill the need for equitable legal services before, during, and after a disaster occurs.

Throughout these two Fellowships, Robert remained at his host organization, YMCA International Services, continuing to expand disaster resiliency within the immigrant and refugee communities and build stronger client relationships.  “It has made me more cognizant of people’s situation outside of the service that I am providing them,” he noted. “I had the opportunity to go to the immigration courts and actually speak to people in removal proceedings on a rotating basis… and [this allowed me to be] able to see trends, identify gaps, and identify things that were working and things that were not working… My immigration knowledge experience increased exponentially.”

Serving in these programs also allowed Robert to gain experience in other areas of law. “I was able to see civil law in a way that I hadn’t been able to see before [and] I was able to see how disaster effectiveness affects other legal processes,” he said. “I was able to understand the importance of title clearance, of FEMA appeals, and of insurance. I was able to see how people with disabilities are affected or systemically cut off from services and I would not have had that exposure without the Fellowship.”

I was able to see civil law in a way that I hadn't been able to see before [and] I was able to see how disaster effectiveness affects other legal processes.

Robert Flores /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

In his conversation with Miranda, Robert also shared the following advice for those looking to go into public interest law: “Start off with looking at what causes an emotional reaction from you right now. Whether that is good or bad, look at something that is exciting to you… and see if there is any way that you can get involved.”

“Public interest is an incredibly wide net. It can be anything from immigration to education rights, rights for people with disabilities, accessibility, reproductive rights. It’s a field that almost has no limits,” he added.

To learn more about Robert’s work helping immigrants and refugees prepare and recover from disasters, 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!

WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPTEMBER 14, 2022— Equal Justice Works, the nation’s largest facilitator of opportunities in public interest law, today announced the newest members of the Equal Justice Works Alumni Advisory Council.

The Alumni Advisory Council (AAC) is a non-fiduciary advisory board comprised of a diverse group of 15 Equal Justice Works alumni who provide advice and counsel in support of the organization’s alumni engagement initiatives. AAC members work in partnership with the director of alumni relations to build lifelong relationships between Equal Justice Works, its Fellowship alumni, and current Fellows through programming, communication, and volunteerism. The AAC works to advance and promote the mission of Equal Justice Works and our programs while representing the interests and concerns of alumni to Equal Justice Works, and the interests of Equal Justice Works to its alumni.

AAC members are appointed to serve three-year staggered terms and may be reappointed for one additional consecutive three-year term. Members are reflective of the diverse strengths, Fellowship programs, geographic distribution, professional accomplishments, and public interest disciplines of the Equal Justice Works alumni community. Recently, the AAC welcomed five new members.

“We are thrilled to welcome the newest members to our Alumni Advisory Council and are looking forward to having each one of them contribute their diverse expertise, viewpoints, and experiences,” said Lynbea Toombs, the Director of Alumni Relations at Equal Justice Works. “The work of our Council members is immensely important to furthering our alumni engagement program and our organization’s mission; the commitment of our newest members to the communities they serve and to Equal Justice Works will continue to enhance the Council’s value.”

The new members of the Alumni Advisory Council include:

Headshot of Sarah Belton
Headshot of Sarah E. Belton

Sarah E. Belton, 2010 Fellow

Sarah’s Fellowship at Legal Services for Children addressed the unmet educational needs of youth pushed out from public schools due to school discipline, attendance, special education, and other issues. After her Fellowship, Sarah was a Supervising Deputy Attorney General at the California Department of Justice, where she led the Bureau of Children’s Justice within the Civil Rights Enforcement Section. She also worked as the first Cartwright-Baron Attorney at the Oakland office of Public Justice. Sarah now works as a Clinical Supervising Attorney and Lecturer in Law at the Mills Legal Clinic at Stanford Law School. There, she leads the Racial Justice Pilot Project, which is focused on combatting systemic racism and addressing harm to communities of color.

Headshot of Esha Bhandari
Headshot of Esha Bhandari

Esha Bhandari, 2011 Fellow

During her Fellowship at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, Esha worked to secure greater procedural protections for immigration detainees with mental disabilities in removal proceedings. Esha now serves as the Deputy Director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, where she uses litigation and advocacy to protect freedom of expression and privacy rights in the digital age. She also focuses on the impact of big data and artificial intelligence on civil liberties. She has litigated cases including Sandvig v. Barr, a First Amendment challenge to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act on behalf of researchers who test for housing and employment discrimination online, and Alasaad v. Wolf, a challenge to suspicionless electronic device searches at the U.S. border.

Oscar Fernandez Headshot
Headshot of Oscar Fernandez

Oscar Fernandez, 2016 and 2017 Fellow

Oscar’s Fellowship afforded representation to unaccompanied children in removal proceedings before the immigration court, in asylum proceedings, and in other adjudicative bodies. After his Fellowship, Oscar became a staff attorney with his host organization, the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida, where he continued working predominantly with unaccompanied minors and expanded his reach as an advocate to also represent adults with lower incomes who were seeking immigration assistance. Oscar is currently a Research Attorney and Practice Area Consultant at LexisNexis, where he works closely with law schools and firms in south Florida. He volunteers his free time through the company to further the LexisNexis Cares initiative of advancing the rule of law and caring for communities.

Headshot of Jilisa Milton
Headshot of Jilisa Milton

Jilisa Milton, 2019 Fellow

During her Fellowship, Jilisa worked at the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program’s Black Belt Disability Justice Project (BBDJP) to protect the rights of children with disabilities. After her Equal Justice Works Fellowship, Jilisa became a State Policy Fellow through the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. She currently works at Alabama Arise, a statewide, member-led organization advancing public policies to improve the lives of Alabamians who are marginalized by poverty and racial injustice, where she is a policy analyst and lobbyist on state budget and tax policy (economic policy) and racial justice.

Headshot of Claire Johnson Raba
Headshot of Claire Johnson Raba

Claire Johnson Raba, 2010 Fellow

Claire’s Fellowship at Bay Area Legal Aid provided a fresh start for people who suffered from coerced debt, identity theft, and consumer and tax debts incurred due to abusive relationships. After her Fellowship, Claire served as the Consumer Rights unit team lead at Bay Area Legal Aid for nine years, and taught Consumer Law for two years as an Adjunct Professor of Law at UC Hastings, College of the Law. Claire joined the UC Irvine School of Law Consumer Law Clinic as a Clinical Teaching Fellow in 2019, where she supervised students representing clients in complex predatory lending matters and affirmative policy litigation to halt unconstitutional government-imposed debt. Currently, as an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law, Claire teaches Civil Procedure and Consumer Law and conducts empirical research on issues of access to justice, civil court modernization, legal technology, and consumer debt.

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To learn more about the Alumni Advisory Council, visit here.

We are thrilled to welcome the newest members to our Alumni Advisory Council and are looking forward to having each one of them contribute their diverse expertise, viewpoints, and experiences.

Lynbea Toombs /
Director of Alumni Relations

Photo of Emily Bruell
Photo of Emily Bruell, 2022 Student Fellow at NMILC

By 2022 Disaster Resilience Program Student Fellow Emily Bruell, who works alongside 2022 Fellows Sophia Genovese, Taylor Noya, and Anna Trillo at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) to provide legal aid to non-detained asylum seekers and noncitizens in immigration detention facilities experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. In honor of National Preparedness Month, this blog was written to raise awareness about the importance of being prepared for disasters in order to respond to them adequately and efficiently.

COVID-19 has intensified the chronic issues within immigration detention facilities, which are wrought with medical neglect, government misconduct, and due process violations. The pandemic has made these facilities even more dangerous, particularly for those with medical vulnerabilities.

I work alongside my colleagues at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) to respond to issues exacerbated by COVID-19 in two of New Mexico’s private immigration detention facilities: the Cibola County Correctional Center and the Torrance County Detention Facility.

Over the past several months, we have spoken with ill and disabled migrants and asylum seekers whose basic needs go woefully unmet while in immigration custody. We also observed that when there is a COVID-19 outbreak in a detention facility, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the facilities do not respond adequately nor appropriately, jeopardizing the health and safety of incarcerated immigrants, particularly those with medical vulnerabilities.

In response to this mismanagement, we filed a Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) complaint with the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of Edgar, a Nicaraguan asylum seeker, against the ICE El Paso Field Office and the Cibola County Correctional Center. Edgar suffered physical abuse at the hands of government officials, which resulted in his ankle being broken, and he experienced first-hand how ICE’s COVID-19 policies were negligent to the detainees in Cibola. In addition to detailing the physical abuse Edgar suffered at the hands of government officials, causing a broken ankle, we also exposed the inadequate response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The COVID-19 outbreak at Cibola began when another incarcerated immigrant in Edgar’s unit reported symptoms on Friday, August 5. Edgar reported symptoms the next day. Neither Edgar nor the other man received a COVID-19 test until the following Monday, August 8. At that time, Edgar’s entire unit was tested, then sent back to their usual dorms before learning the results of their test. The next morning, Edgar was given another COVID-19 test and informed that he tested positive.

He was then moved to quarantine—three days after initially reporting symptoms, which allowed the disease to spread in Cibola. Edgar was originally quarantined with four other men, and the number ultimately increased to seven. The total number of those who tested positive for COVID-19 is still unknown because ICE refuses to report these positive tests.

While in quarantine, Edgar experienced trouble breathing, shortness of breath, severe lung pain, and nausea in addition to intense body aches, headache, sore throat, and congestion. He was not provided any medication for over 24 hours, at which point he was given a pill for his sore throat and another for his congestion. Every evening, the men were placed in separate cells with a radio to contact the officers; however, the officers did not respond to any communication from the radio.

One of the men in quarantine became extremely ill and was struggling to breathe. Edgar and the other quarantined men pleaded for medical help over the radio but received no response. Though the man’s condition improved somewhat the next morning, the lack of response left no doubt in Edgar’s mind that he could not expect help from the officers if he needed urgent medical care.

The lack of response left no doubt in Edgar’s mind that he could not expect help from the officers if he needed urgent medical care.

In response, we escalated our concerns to ICE, and those complaints went ignored until the filing of the CRCL complaint the following week. To this day, ICE has not reported the positive COVID-19 cases at Cibola County.

Despite having ties to the United States and a sister who is deeply committed to supporting him upon release from detention, Edgar remains detained at Cibola, where he continues to experience horrific and unsafe living conditions. In light of his prolonged detention, Edgar contemplated giving up and accepting deportation; however, he remains committed to fighting his complaint and ensuring no one else suffers the way he and so many others have in Cibola County.

I work alongside my colleagues at NMILC to help people like Edgar every day. We hold on-site bimonthly legal presentations for migrants and asylum seekers that provide an overview of asylum law, their rights, how to request to be released from detention, and more. Since April of 2022 we have provided valuable legal presentations and know-your-rights information to nearly 300 incarcerated migrants and asylum seekers.

I work alongside my colleagues at NMILC to help people like Edgar every day.

We have also conducted consultations for these 300 individuals, providing them with individualized case information. After conducting consultations, NMILC—in partnership with Innovation Law Lab, Justice for Our Neighbors—El Paso, and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center—coordinates legal services for individuals seeking representation in their requests for release from detention and other legal support. So far, we have helped release nearly 20 people from immigration detention. In addition, we have engaged in systemic advocacy to combat the cruelties of immigration enforcement, removal, and detention.

At NMLIC, we are constantly fighting for transparency in ICE operations, fighting for the rights of incarcerated migrants and asylum seekers impacted by the COVID-19 disaster, and demanding the release of all immigrants from deadly detention facilities in New Mexico. COVID-19 has exacerbated the cruelties of immigration detention, and no amount of oversight or medical response can prevent another tragedy from occurring. In the end, I believe the only way to overcome, and be resilient to, the COVID-19 crisis in New Mexico’s immigration detention facilities is to abolish detention itself.

To learn more about the Disaster Resilience Program, visit here.

By Sarah Jasper, program specialist at Equal Justice Works 

Interested in working in public service after law school? Want to transform your passion for equal justice into a career? Becoming an Equal Justice Works postgraduate Fellow is a great way to get started!

Equal Justice Works postgraduate Fellowships offer two different avenues for new public interest lawyers to jumpstart their careers while serving their community. Through the Design-Your-Own Fellowship, applicants identify a particular area of unmet legal need and propose strategies to address it. Through our issue-specific Fellowship Programs, participants join a corps of Fellows addressing a particular area of need, such as housing or disaster recovery.

No matter how you choose to serve, being an Equal Justice Works Fellow helps jumpstart participants’ careers in public service law and fosters long-term success. On average, 85% of Equal Justice Works Fellows remain in public service following their Fellowship, and many continue to use the connections and the skills they attained during their Fellowship to help them throughout their careers. Additionally, once you have completed your Fellowship, you are invited to join the Equal Justice Works Alumni Network, with over 2,000 passionate public interest lawyers who support one another throughout their legal careers!

To learn more about the different ways you can become an Equal Justice Works postgraduate Fellow, check out the recording of the “Mobilizing the Next Generation of Public Interest Lawyers: EJW Postgraduate Fellowships”conference session from the 2021 Conference and Career Fair. In this session, you will hear from Sherene Thomas and Laura Roach about the two different Fellowship models Equal Justice Works provides. You will also get to learn about the project that 2020 Design-Your-Own Fellow, Clarence Okoh, is working on in collaboration with his host organization, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

This fall, the annual Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair will be held virtually, with the conference taking place on a separate weekend from the career fair portion of the event. The Equal Justice Works Conference will take place on Thursday, September 22 and Friday, September 23, and the Equal Justice Works Career Fair will be held on October Thursday, October 20 through Saturday, October 22. It is the largest national public service legal career fair in the country, bringing together hundreds of public interest employers, law school professionals, law students, and recent graduates from across the United States and its territories to network, participate in interviews, and attend substantive conference sessions and workshops.

Attending the Conference and Career Fair is a great way to build your network and secure either summer or full-time opportunities. Even if you are not ready to apply for interviews just yet, we encourage anyone who wants to get involved in public interest law to attend the fair and see the myriad ways you can work in public service within the legal community!

Visit here for more information about the 2022 Conference and Career Fair.

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. Program Specialist Sarah Jasper spoke with Annie Lee, a 2014 Fellow in the Design-Your-Own Fellowship Program and chair of the Alumni Advisory Council. As a Fellow, Annie was hosted by the National Center for Youth Law.

Annie Lee began her professional career as a history teacher in the Bronx—a role that gave her firsthand insight into the obstacles facing her students, which inspired her pivot to public interest lawyering on behalf of underserved students. “What I realized in my time teaching is that [students] faced so many barriers outside of our classroom and our school,” Annie explained. “I was really interested in trying to address some of those, and so that’s why I went to law school.”

Early in her legal career, Annie learned to leverage resources, her network, and the experiences available to her to become a strong advocate. These skills proved useful when she chose to pursue an Equal Justice Works Design-Your-Own Fellowship. Throughout the application process, Annie relied on her public interest peers, who helped her navigate the complexities of law school, define her Fellowship, and clarify what she wanted her long-term public interest career to look like. She highly recommends that potential Fellows do the same and lean on their networks to maintain strong connections in the public interest community.

In 2014, Annie began her Equal Justice Works Fellowship, where she worked with the National Center for Youth Law to improve educational outcomes for foster youth. “People view foster youth as a child welfare issue [without acknowledging] the other aspects of [a] child’s life,” explained Annie, “including schooling.” Her Fellowship also advocated for increased transparency in how school districts utilized their funding, and directly represented students in special education and in school disciplinary matters.

Throughout the conversation, Annie emphasized the value of collaboration. She recommends reaching out to others in the public interest community for help, citing the work she did with her host organization to define the focus of her Fellowship during the application stage. “It’s not just on you to figure out this new idea,” Annie stated. “You can work with other people to… take that pressure off yourself.”

Annie was able to have a smooth transition from her Fellowship into the next step of her career by having a conversation about new opportunities with her supervisor at her host organization. For those who are not sure what next steps to take after their Fellowship, Annie advised: “life is not linear… there is no right next step—it is whatever step you choose. Choosing one thing for the immediate future does not necessarily foreclose other things.”

Through her extensive public interest experience in varying roles, Annie has developed a lot of advice for those who are starting out in public interest, including what steps were most helpful to get her to where she is today. One important step is setting boundaries and remembering to care for yourself, as well as your clients, to avoid burnout. To set helpful boundaries, Annie recommended reaching out to people you trust at your place of employment and asking them about their experience. Having this conversation with your employer will give you a good idea of what to expect as an employee.

Annie also advised current law students who are looking for inspiration for their project to join clinics related to their interests. “It is the best learning experience… far better than any doctrinal class you can [take],” said Annie. She so highly recommends clinics to young professionals because her experience in a clinic clarified her path forward in two ways: it showed her what content area of law she wanted to focus on, and it let her test out which kinds of legal tasks she found to be the most engaging.

Annie’s last bit of advice for anyone looking into a career in public interest was to leverage the experiences available to you in law school. “Clinics, externships, summer internships… [use these] to figure out the content that you’d like to work in, the skills you’d like to build, and the geographical region that you want to be in.” One of the most helpful tools along the way, besides her Fellowship experience, was her network, which she began building through experiences like internships. Her connections in the public interest field helped her land her Fellowship at the National Center for Youth Law and continue to help her in her current job as the Director of Policy at Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and in her advocacy as a co-founder of the national Stop AAPI Hate coalition.

In addition to an extensive professional career, Annie stayed involved with Equal Justice Works after her Fellowship through the Alumni Advisory Council. She now uses her networking skills to foster connections within the Equal Justice Works alumni community. “One of the best parts of being on the Alumni Advisory Council is the diversity… we’ve got folks from all across the country, but also [from] different fields, different types of Fellowships and different parts of their career,” Annie explained. “I really like when we come together and leverage our skills and experiences to give back to the Equal Justice Works community.”

To learn more about Annie’s work advocating for educational rights, 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!

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!