New York, June 10, 2013— Three Columbia Law School graduates have been awarded prestigious Equal Justice Works Fellowships that will allow them to spend two years pursuing public interest projects they designed: helping English-language learners, challenging housing laws that negatively impact domestic violence victims, and working with South Asian women facing forced marriage and other forms of gender violence.
Gabriella Barbosa ’13, Michaela Wallin ’13, and Sayoni Maitra ’13, who graduated on May 23, will begin their fellowships in the fall. They were assisted in the application process by the Law School’s Social Justice Initiatives (SJI), which has primary responsibility for career services for students and graduates interested in public interest, government, and legal volunteer work.
“All three graduates will use their EJW fellowships to work on issues that have been important to them since before law school,” said Ellen P. Chapnick, dean for SJI. “They were able to make the most of the opportunities Columbia Law School provides both in an out of the classroom. I look forward to staying in touch with them and learning about the transformative work they do for their clients.”
Barbosa will advocate on behalf of English-language learners in her hometown of Los Angeles in an effort to close the achievement gap separating those students from native English speakers. While working as a high school teacher before law school, she saw firsthand how non-native speakers fell behind in their studies.
“My students voiced their continuous struggle of being immersed in English-only classes, unable to fully understand the content of those classes, and without the support from the district that would enable them to succeed,” she said.
Working with Public Counsel, a Los Angeles-based pro bono law firm where she spent the summer after her first year in law school, Barbosa will offer direct representation to English-learners. She will make sure parents are aware that a California language-immersion requirement can be waived and serve as counsel for students in any complaints and appeals. Her fellowship is being sponsored by the Morrison & Foerster Foundation
Columbia Law School’s two other Equal Justice Works Fellows will address domestic violence issues. Maitra, a South Asian American student, will work at Sanctuary for Families, the leading nonprofit in New York dedicated exclusively to serving domestic violence victims, sex trafficking victims, and their children. Maitra was a 2011 Abely Fellow at the organization and will focus on assisting young immigrant women who are forced into marriages by abusive family members. Her fellowship is sponsored by Verizon Foundation and Baker & McKenzie.
She plans to train health care and education professionals on how to work in a culturally sensitive manner with victims of forced marriage and other so-called honor crimes, which punish women for deviating from traditional gender norms, in order to raise awareness of their legal rights and available assistance. She also will provide legal services for applicants of asylum and other immigration remedies.
“A project specializing in forced marriage and honor crimes with special attention to culturally specific issues in the South Asian community will ensure tailored, coordinated, and comprehensive provision of services, allow close follow-up of the needs of individual clients, and provide women and girls the tools they need to prevent the recurrence of violence from their families, build independent lives, and remain in the United States without fear,” Maitra said.
Domestic violence is also the focus of the work Wallin will be doing at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, but Wallin will be targeting discriminatory housing laws. Chronic nuisance laws impose sanctions on property owners and tenants if police are called to a home over a set number of times. To avoid sanctions, landlords often evict tenants who are in violation of the law.
“My primary goal is to provide relief for the many survivors forced to choose between safety and housing, using litigation to ensure the preservation of their housing and right to request police assistance,” said Wallin, who coordinated a domestic violence courthouse assistance program before law school and worked for a summer at the Women’s Rights Project after her second year. “I will also engage police and lawmakers to explain the detrimental impact of these ordinances and push for changes in policies and implementation.”
Wallin plans to challenge ordinances and advocate for victims in New York and Pennsylvania. Her fellowship is sponsored by Morgan Stanley and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.
Equal Justice Works, a Washington-D.C. based nonprofit, pairs host organizations with recent law school graduates who pursue public interest projects that address the needs of children and families across a variety of legal and social issues. More than 80 percent of Equal Justice Works fellows continue doing public interest work after their fellowships end. Whatever the future holds, each of this year’s Columbia Law School fellows is dedicated to helping community members in need.
“Encountering situations far beyond my own experience, I realized the importance of standing in solidarity with my clients,” Wallin said. “I believe that the role of a public interest attorney is to give voice to and ensure the rights of the most vulnerable in a manner that honors their knowledge and autonomy.”
“As a teacher, I learned about various barriers preventing minority students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds from being successful in their education,” she said. “I became a lawyer after I realized the power of law as a tool to challenge structural barriers and empower disadvantaged communities.”
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