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UDC Law Students Report Back on Spring 2019 Service-Learning Trip to Mississippi

Monday, May 20, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: UDC Law Staff
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Ten UDC Law students traveled to the Deep South over spring break to supply in-state legal support to low-income people and communities of color and study the source of the civil rights movement. Working with the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm advocating for racial and economic justice statewide, participating law students provided pro bono legal support to advance access to healthcare and educational equity and build power in underserved communities in the Mississippi Delta and Gulf Coast. Based out of the Center’s offices in Jackson and Biloxi, service-learning students supplied pro bono support across the firm’s diverse legal practice areas spanning direct legal services, impact litigation, and legislative lawyering. On Wednesday, Apr. 10, after returning from the week-long trip in March, the service-learning students convened a school-wide report back session to share the transformative journey with the broader law school community.

Group of people having a discussion
Charles Moreland, '19, left, Theodore Wilhite, '19, second from left, and other UDC Law service-learning students learn of the efforts of community members to reclaim neglected property in Turkey Creek, Mississippi, while Professor John C. Brittain looks on, right.

The Mississippi service-learning trip was led by distinguished civil rights attorney John C. Brittain, UDC Law Olie W. Rauh Professor of Law, and Marcy Karin, Jack and Lovell Olender Professor of Law and Director of the law school’s award-winning Legislation Clinic, upper-level students joined Professors Brittain and Karin on the journey, including Crystal Adams, ’20; Candida Angeles, ’19; Kelsey Boyea, ’19, Christopher Collins, ’19; Monique Koch, ’19; Shelley Mackay, ’20; Charles Moreland, ’19; Demetria Themistocles, ’19; and Theodore Wilhite, ’19.

In reflecting on the program, students described how the eye-opening Mississippi experience not only sharpened their practical knowledge of unfamiliar areas of law and practice but drew them closer together with their peers as they worked toward a common mission. “I got to bond with my classmates in ways I never imagined,” said Theodore Wilhite, ’19, speaking to the camaraderie built through the program. “Friendships and bonds were formed with some of the brightest minds that the legal profession will soon inherit.”

This year’s trip marks the thirteenth anniversary of the law school’s Service-Learning Practicum & Seminar, a cutting-edge program that combines classroom instruction with hands-on lawyering in a two-credit course organized around a week-long service trip each spring. A key component of UDC Law’s nationally recognized clinical and experiential lawyering program, the service-learning practicum led PreLaw Magazine to name the law school one of "America’s 20 Most Innovative Law Schools” in 2012.

Laying the Groundwork: The Principles, Pedagogy, and History of Law School Service-Learning

In preparation for the trip, Professors Brittain and Karin – with the guidance of co-founder of the program, Professor Susan Waysdorf – led participating students in a five-week seminar of instruction on community-based lawyering, professional ethics, and different models of partnership between lawyers and underrepresented communities. Students also studied from the civil rights struggle in Mississippi from both contemporary and historical perspectives.

The seminar incorporated close readings of faculty scholarship on reflective lawyering and service-learning pedagogy authored by program founders Professors Waysdorf and Morin, as well as the writings of last year’s faculty lead, Co-Director of the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic Lindsay M. Harris, whose Fall 2018 Clinical Law Review article “Learning in Baby Jail” describes the value of law school service-learning programs in immigrant family detention centers.

UDC Law Professors Susan Waysdorf, Laurie Morin, and the late William McLain launched the program in 2006 to provide emergency legal support to the people of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Between 2007 and 2010, the service-leaning program won the release of dozens of prisoners “lost” in the Louisiana prison system, helped displaced families secure FEMA and insurance claims, and represented migrant workers suffering wage theft at the hands of unscrupulous contractors. The inaugural service-learning trip in 2007 grew into a multi-year initiative, leading to annual service trips to New Orleans from 2007 to 2010.

In the years since its founding, the service-learning program has expanded its scope to serve other communities in crisis, partnering with community-based organizations around the country. The program shifted from its initial focus to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after the BP oil disaster devastated coastal communities there, partnering with the Biloxi office of the Mississippi Center for Justice in 2011 and 2012 to deliver legal assistance to low-income residents on post-Katrina housing, discrimination, and recovery issues, along with assisting in the claims process against BP as well as other community restoration and rights representation. More recently, in addition to several return trips to work with Mississippians, the program has stepped up to address the immigration enforcement crisis, dedicating several service-learning trips to serving immigrant families confined in detention centers as far afield as Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

The classroom sessions helped lay the foundation for the week-long service trip in March. The rich readings and robust classroom discussions culminated in regular reflection and journaling during the Mississippi service trip itself to deepen the learning experience. Following the week-long advocacy trip, students and faculty participating in the journey reconvened for several classroom sessions to debrief and reflect on lessons learned.

On the Road from Memphis to Jackson

Museum building
The service-learning group toured the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee before departing to the Mississippi Delta.

On Friday, Mar. 8, the first day of spring break, students and faculty started off the service-learning trip with an early morning flight to Memphis, Tennessee. They visited the renowned National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel shortly after their arrival – the site of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, a day after his celebrated Memphis Sanitation Strike speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which Dr. King spoke to the importance of economic justice in movement organizing toward racial justice.

After experiencing the powerful civil rights history showcased by the museum, the team loaded up in a rental van to begin the 440-mile trek south, making their first stop the same evening just across the state line in Cleveland, Mississippi. The group toured the Mississippi Delta the next morning, visiting important sites of the civil rights struggle in the region, including the burial site and memorial of Fannie Lou Hamer – the indomitable civil rights organizer dubbed the “Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement” who helped secure the right to vote for African Americans in the South. The next stopover was Money, Mississippi, where three white men tortured and murdered 14-year-old Emmet Till in 1955 after Till supposedly flirted with a white woman at Bryant’s Grocery. The murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury. Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, held an open-casket funeral and granted permission for news photographers to print images of his badly mutilated body in a 1955 magazine article. The story of Emmet Till’s murder led to a national outcry against lynchings and segregation in the Jim Crow South, acting as a key trigger of the civil rights movement.

Working Toward Educational Equity and Immigrant Justice in the Mississippi Delta

On Monday, Mar. 11, the service-learning group reported for the first of two days of service in the Mississippi Center for Justice’s office in Jackson. After a brief orientation from the Center’s legal team, the students separated out into multiple tracks organized around the Jackson office’s ongoing projects in Jackson, the Mississippi state capital. The diverse practice areas and representation types of the Center’s Jackson office – direct service, impact litigation, legislative lawyering – offered students a full range of service opportunities to further develop their skills in client-centered and community-based lawyering.

Students paired with the office’s educational equity track contributed to the Center’s efforts to promote access to school nursing services in Mississippi. Working with data on the distribution of school nurses statewide, students assessed opportunities for legal and policy solutions to the state’s enduring inequalities. These data painted a stark contrast in service levels between school districts with high-income students and those districts serving low-income people and communities of color. Their legal research generated crucial insights on possible litigation strategies, as well, focusing on current statutory protections for students with disabilities and the specific remedies available against local school districts violating the law.

Working on the Center’s housing track, Kelsey Boyea, ’19, contributed research and fact development on local rental housing policies for applicants with criminal histories. She praised the experience for shining light on an unfamiliar area of law. “I don’t think I would have ever known this stuff if not for this trip, so I’m grateful to this trip for that,” said Boyea.

Meanwhile, team members assigned to the office’s immigration track got to work. The five students immersed themselves in the Center’s wide-ranging immigration practice over the course of the two-day placement. Several students provided Spanish-language support, helping to ensure clear and accountable communication with the Center’s vulnerable immigrant clients by translating client declarations and acting as interpreters for live-client interviews. For his part, Charles Moreland, ’19, praised the experience. “I appreciated the opportunity to help someone directly and apply client interview skills I learned in clinic to a real-life situation” in the field, said Charles.

Students participating in the Center’s immigration work also contributed legal research on a variety of questions of law specific to the immigration law context. The Jackson office’s immigration docket encompassed asylum and various visa case types, including a request for relief under the Convention Against Torture on behalf of a Central American immigrant that required intensive research on political violence in the client’s home country as well as research and analysis of secondary sources of law.

Learning the History of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle

With their two-day placement in Jackson accomplished, and their next assignment in the Center’s Biloxi office just a day away, the service-learning team work up early Wednesday morning to take full advantage of their time left in Jackson, the state capital.

The group started the day with a special lecture by civil rights historian Dr. Robert “Robby” Luckett, held at the COFO Civil Rights Education Center at Jackson State University (JSU). Dr. Luckett – Director of JSU’s Margaret Walker Center, an archive and museum dedicated to the preservation, interpretation, and dissemination of African American history and culture – spoke to the lasting impact of Mississippi’s civil rights struggle on the movement for racial and economic justice in America. Dr. Luckett traced the history of the civil rights movement from its beginnings in Mississippi, noting the many martyrs in the continuing struggle for justice in the region. He also discussed the role of coalitional organizing in civil rights successes, including the COFO Center’s namesake, the Council of Federated Organizations, which was established in 1961 as an umbrella organization for grassroots civil rights groups working in the state including Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Next, the service-learning contingent headed to the first state-sponsored civil rights museum in the nation, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which opened just two years ago. The museum documents the history, culture, and lives of black Mississippians in the fight against white supremacy in America. Students and faculty reflected on the many civil rights activists who fought – and died – in the struggle for racial justice, as well as civil rights activists’ pioneering organizing strategies developed across decades of protests, boycotts, and coalitional campaigns. The moving history of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle left a lasting impression on the team.

Building Power on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Group holding Mississippi Center for Justice sign
UDC Law service-learning students pose with staff members of the Biloxi office of the Mississippi Center for Justice. (Photo credit: Marcy Karin)

On Thursday, Mar. 14, the service-learning cohort began their first day at the Center’s Biloxi office. Low-income people and communities of color on the Gulf Coast suffered the full force of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. Despite the devastating damage to these coastal communities, state and federal funds have not been equitably distributed to the hardest-hit communities. Today, outside development is accelerating gentrification and permanently displacing many residents whose families have lived in the area for generations. The crisis is compounded by the scarcity of affordable housing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, as well as widespread housing discrimination by residential landlords.

The work day began with an in-person visit to the Gulfport community of Turkey Creek, a historically black community founded in 1866 when emancipated African Americans settled in the area and built a close-knit community on undeveloped swamplands. While the community has endured for six generations, it faces growing pressure from encroaching development, shrinking wetlands, and lasting damage from Hurricane Katrina.

On arrival back at the Biloxi office, students split up across multiple tracks – including education, community redevelopment, and housing discrimination – and got to work. For their part, students on the community development track received a special assignment, a brand-new Center project involving an abandoned school in the Turkey Creek community. While the City of Gulfport and local school district had long ago abandoned the property, causing it to fall into disrepair, Turkey Creek residents recently won back possession and embarked on a project with the Center and a team of architects to restore the land. The assigned students worked to understand the intergovernmental dynamics between the State of Mississippi and the City of Gulfport, as well as the legal framework that could best preserve community ownership. The project required to get their hands dirty with hands-on work as well, as participating students braved torrential rain to build the case, taking structural measurements and photographs of the building to develop the facts.

Meanwhile, students on the housing enforcement track confronted the lack of safe, decent, and affordable housing in the region, as well as the uneven distribution of housing and shelter across racial and economic lines. With no state-based housing enforcement agency in Mississippi, federal law represents the only legal remedy for housing discrimination in the state.

Homecoming: Civil Rights Icon John Brittain Revisits His Legacy in Mississippi

In reflecting on the experience, the service-learning students singled out Professor Brittain for praise. Openly admired for his grace and generosity, and well known as a level-headed administrator, Professor Brittain used his civil rights background in the state to open doors for students throughout the service-learning experience. “You may think you know someone but you really don’t until you hear it from the mouths of people whom they have touched,” said Theodore Wilhite, ’19, “we have been walking with a civil rights icon all three years in law school.”

Throughout the week, students benefited from Professor John Brittain’s intimate knowledge and long experience in Mississippi, connecting students to leading activists in the struggle for civil rights. The trip was something of a homecoming for Professor Brittain, a prominent civil rights litigator who, in 1969, began his legal career in the Mississippi Delta as a member of the third-ever class of Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellows. The fellowship program was a project of the National Legal Services Program under the leadership of its first director, the late Jean Camper Cahn, who would go on to found UDC Law with her husband Edgar Cahn in 1972. The first-of-its-kind program brought together recent law school graduates – or “Reggies” as alumni affectionately refer to the fellowship program – for intensive training in various aspects of poverty law before being placed at regional legal services programs around the nation.

As a Reggie Fellow with the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services in Oxford, Mississippi, Professor Brittain litigated some of the first school desegregation cases in the region. He then joined the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Jackson, participating in momentous voting rights and civil rights cases including Hamer vs. Sunflower County, Fannie Lou Hamer’s landmark Mississippi voting rights suit. He also represented the City of Mound Bayou – the proud black community visited by the service-learning group on the second day of the week-long journey. Later, as Chief Counsel and Senior Deputy Director of the Lawyers’ Committee, Professor Brittain oversaw the organization’s advocacy efforts on behalf of victims of Hurricane Katrina, among many other areas.

In 2015, the Mississippi Center for Justice named Professor Brittain a "pioneering civil rights leader and esteemed law professor who has inspired a generation of young attorneys," in recognition of his decades-long service to low-income people and communities of color in Mississippi.



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