Legal Eagles

Legal Internships Give Students Opportunities to Serve Their Communities

Last semester, two Heritage students took a different route to work than normal. In January, they began six-month fellowships at two local organizations, working with attorneys to get a sneak peek at what a law career might look like. The program is called The American Rural Communities (ARC) Law & Policy Fellowship, and it was launched last year as a collaborative between Heritage, Columbia Legal Services (CLS), Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and PopUp Justice.

HANDS-ON, REAL-WORLD EXPERIENCE BUILDS STUDENT SKILLS AND CONFIDENCE

Senior Noemi Sanchez, a history major, joined Columbia Legal Services as an intern-fellow and junior Maria Rivera, who is studying criminal justice and history, joined the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. The non-profits provide legal services to underrepresented populations in the community. CLS advocates for laws that promote social, economic and racial equity for those in poverty, often through class action litigation. Northwest Immigrant Rights Project devotes itself to supporting immigrants through advocacy, legal services and education.

Maria Rivera at the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project in Granger, Wash.

During these internships, the students were mentored by practicing attorneys and gained practical, professional skills as well as learned about experiences other attorneys had in law school and in their careers – especially as people of color. In addition, the students promoted and were guests at a set of workshops called the Lunchbox Series. The series brought together experts in law and social justice who are advocates versed in the diversity and unique aspects of rural communities to share thoughts, provide guidance and answer questions.

The organizations maximized the students’ skills and their enthusiasm to dive in, introducing them to cases and tasking them with projects like conducting client interviews; gathering, organizing and cataloging research; and distributing information about resources through community outreach.

LIVED EXPERIENCE LEADS STUDENTS DOWN DIFFERENT LEGAL PATHS

Sanchez and Rivera learned about the fellowships from Kim Bellamy-Thompson, who is chair of the Social Sciences department at Heritage. “Both students see the need for social change in the community,” said Thompson. “I knew they would be interested in the fellowship.”

Thompson said she looked for juniors or seniors who have strong writing skills and even more so, have a fire in them, believing that action for these causes can lead to a change.

PIPELINE TO LEAD MORE LOCAL STUDENTS TO RETURN TO THE COMMUNITY

For her part, Sanchez was trying to figure out if law school was a must for her real career passion, public policy, which propels social justice through legislation. Rivera was certain law school was her next step, but she wanted more exposure to daily life as an attorney as well as more direction about proceeding to law school.

Senior Noemi Sanchez at Columbia Legal Services in Yakima.

Lori Isley, a directing attorney at CLS, said students like Sanchez are an asset to her organization and the community.

“This has been a very exciting collaboration,” said Isley, who was one of Sanchez’s supervisors and mentors. “One exciting part for me is developing a pipeline from our community into law school by providing context and connection and then having them come back and serve our community.”

Sanchez has been working on the organization’s Working Family Project, which focuses on the undocumented community and farm workers. This is a special interest for Sanchez because she grew up in a family of farm workers and she saw workers with untreated injuries or wage issues who were afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs. As a student who identifies as a queer and non-binary student, Sanchez is also passionate about advocating for LGBTQ inclusion in the schools.

“So many Heritage students bring lived experiences of the challenges faced by many in our community,” confirmed Isley. “Having them makes our work more effective. Their own stories are a source of power, and it helps them connect with others on the journey.”

Isley said Sanchez organized research and cataloged information requests so litigation could proceed more quickly and smoothly. She also helped elevate the organization’s community outreach by assisting Insley with visits to camps of H2A workers, using social media to locate and reach out creatively to people in Mexico for a case, and even recorded a Facebook video to explain a settlement in layperson’s terms. Community outreach actually proved to be one of Sanchez’s favorite aspects of the work.

“It’s been really exciting,” said Sanchez about their visits to the camps. “I love to connect with people and show them they are not alone. This means a lot to me because my parents and grandparents didn’t have access to these things.”

Sanchez is still planning to work in public policy, but she has decided that law school can equip her to do that, first at the city and county level, and later, she hopes, at the state level. “When I first came here, I was unsure about law school, because I’m so policy driven,” she said. “What I learned is policy changes can come out of litigation, so even as an attorney, I can still create change.”

NON-PROFIT ENVIRONMENT, CLIENT STORIES IMPACT RIVERA

While Sanchez was pondering the value of law school, Rivera needed no such confirmation. She had been single-mindedly pursuing the goal of earning a Juris Doctorate from the minute she set foot on the Heritage campus. She had taken two years off after high school and had worked for a law firm during that time, so she knew it was what she wanted. When she joined the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, however, she was surprised by how much she enjoyed the non-profit environment, something she admits she had never considered.

“There are four attorneys here working 100 cases, and they all have pretty big hearts,” said Rivera, who described the all-female office staff she worked with as nurturing, strong and persistent.

The fellowship dovetailed with Rivera’s long-term goal to practice immigration or criminal law in the Valley. She has a curiosity to know what makes people do what they do and for uncovering details that may prove someone’s innocence.

Rivera said her daily tasks were similar to a paralegal’s. She took notes, researched background information on immigrants’ countries of origin to document facts that could strengthen their cases for remaining in the U.S. Many clients had difficult lives before arriving in the Valley.

“I’ve taken the declarations of two clients so far,” said Rivera, who explained that it’s part of the immigration process. “They sit down with me and tell their stories about why they came to the U.S. many times, traumatic events have occurred, and it’s a process that results in the reopening of those wounds.”

As Rivera guides them gently through conversations that can take two or three hours, she tries to capture as much detail as possible while walking slowly toward topics that are painful for them. She believes it’s a privilege to be entrusted with their stories. “It’s not something I take lightly,” she said somberly.

Both Rivera and Sanchez now share the same goal – attending law school and then returning to the Valley to put their law degrees to work in their community.

Bellamy-Thompson said the fellowship would not be possible without someone willing to step up and fund it. Thankfully the Laurel Rubin Farm Worker Justice Project stepped in and provided all of the funding necessary. Isley shared that the project, which exists to make internships available to students interested in pursuing law careers that provide services to farm workers in Washington, has a long history of funding law school students, but this was the first time the organization supported undergraduates.

“We can do great things if we have the funding,” said Thompson, who hopes to offer the ARC Fellowship again to students in spring 2020.

“I can’t imagine not coming back to this community after law school,” concluded Sanchez, who is hoping to begin law school in the fall of 2021. “I just want to give back to the people who have given so much to me.”