How I Got Here: Oscar Lopez ’13

Oscar Lopez is the interim director of the Education Advocacy Clinic at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, California.

Dark-haired man in gray t-shirt
What exactly do you do? 

When I tell people I’m an education attorney, they ask me, “What is that?” all the time. And so sometimes I have to say I’m a civil rights lawyer. 

I work in three areas. The Education Advocacy Clinic represents students who have been recommended for expulsion from school. A lot of the students we represent actually have special education needs that have not been addressed. We try to keep them in school but also get them the services they need. A lot of our clients have also been referred to the district attorney’s office for juvenile delinquency charges. We partner with the public defender’s office and try to educate the district attorneys and the judges about the ways the clients have been let down by our education system. 

We’re also a clinic at Berkeley Law School. Each of the staff attorneys supervises a couple of law students every semester, and law students take the lead on these cases. 

The third bucket of work is our policy and legislative work. It’s mostly students with disabilities who are referred to our office. It’s mostly Black and brown students who are referred to our office. It’s mostly poor students who are referred to our office. We see this as a larger, systemic issue. We partner with community-based organizations to work on local and statewide policy changes. How do you reimagine a school district that isn’t so reliant on pushing kids out of school and calling the police on them? 

These three buckets of work are all related. 

What do you like about your job? 

My passion for the work that I do today comes from my own personal experiences. I went to public schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. When I was in 10th grade, my trigonometry teacher didn’t believe that I had finished my work so quickly. I showed him my work, and the teacher just didn’t believe me. He crumpled up my work, threw my textbook in the trash, and kicked me out—not just for that day but for the rest of the year. That led to all of these repercussions: I got a truancy ticket because I wasn’t in his class. I no longer felt safe in school. I didn’t feel like my teachers really cared about my success. 

I had no idea that I had a right to an education and that what my teacher did was actually illegal. I could have appealed that suspension. I didn’t know that. I can work with young people who are going through very similar experiences and make sure that they have a voice in this process, that the decisions are made with their input. But ultimately, the goal [of the clinic] is to start changing the culture of schools. If enough of my clients’ voices are heard, if their stories are listened to, then maybe we’ll start seeing some real changes in schools. 

I’ve always had a hard time saying that I love this work because I wish I didn’t have to do it. I’m passionate about doing it, and I want to continue doing it. But it’s hard to say that I love it. 

How did law school help prepare you for your current job? 

In law school, I took the Mass Incarceration Clinic with Brett Dignam, a negotiation clinic with Mavis Fowler-Williams, and a year-long seminar with Susan Sturm that was focused on education policy. I developed legal research and writing skills with the help of Olati Johnson, my research adviser. 

It was really the clinical classes that prepared me to do the work I’m doing now. When you’re in law school, you kind of imagine that most lawyers spend their days in court filing briefs and making oral arguments. In my case, the majority of my days are spent negotiating. I’m working with school teachers and administrators trying to figure out how we can create a better plan for clients. 

Mavis Fowler-Williams taught us that in order to come up with a good deal, you have to understand the interests of your opposing party. A lot of the teachers who work with my clients don’t get training [in issues like learning differences or trauma-informed educational practices]. They have very little time to do professional development, and there are issues in which they just have no expertise. When I’m at an IEP [individualized education plan] meeting, I advocate for training for the staff. If it’s built into an IEP, they have to be given that training by law. That’s one of the ways that I show that I hear what the teachers are telling me, and it’s a way of taking an individual situation and moving it towards a systemic change. 

What is the hardest part of your job, and how do you deal with it? 

The hardest part of my job is when I meet young people who have given up on school. They don’t feel welcome, they don’t feel like they’ve ever succeeded, and they don’t see a reason to go back. And when I review their records and when I see how they’ve been let down, it’s hard to tell them, “No, actually, you should go back.” I’m negotiating with them: Is there anything that we can do to try to support you in school that would make you want to go back? Every once in a while, I find someone I’m just not going to persuade. 

The policy work that we do is the way we cope with that. It would be impossible for me to genuinely tell all my clients, “If you go back to school, I promise you that things are going to be way better.” But that’s what I want to work toward, and that’s why we do the policy work that we do. 

“I’ve always had a hard time saying that I love this work because I wish I didn’t have to do it. I’m passionate about doing it, and I want to continue doing it. But it’s hard to say that I love it.”

What has been your proudest achievement so far? 

We partnered with the Black Organizing Project, which started a campaign in 2011 to eliminate the Oakland School Police Department. The school district paid for its own police. The dollars that should have been going to pay the teachers and replace outdated textbooks and desks—they used that money to pay for its own police department. And keep in mind, Oakland schools have been in a budget crisis for 20 years. Last year, the school district finally agreed to eliminate that police department. The chief of the police department literally had to take his and his officers’ guns to get melted and destroyed. That image makes me think, “That’s what keeps me going.” 

Which experiences have helped you grow in your profession?

I’m extremely grateful for all the work that I did at the Advancement Project and all the training that they gave me. I learned how to be a movement lawyer: I learned how to think about not just discrete legal issues but to put those legal issues in the context of larger social, systemic issues and how to use the skills that I learned in law school to support grassroots organizers and local campaigns. The Advancement Project is headed by a Columbia Law School alumna, Judith Browne Dianis [’92] Everything that I learned from her was instrumental to where I am today. 

Who else do you consider a mentor? 

Recently, my mentors have been organizers with the Black Organizing Project and others who are working with us on statewide campaigns. It’s not just lawyers; it’s the organizers, data consultants, and the young people themselves who inspire me. It’s really refreshing to have a teenager join our legislative coalition meetings. They come with a different lens, and they’re able to direct us in the right direction. 

What motivates you?

I do a lot of the defensive work—representing students at expulsion hearings and the special education meetings—but then I’m also doing a lot of the offensive work, trying to build an alternative approach to school policies. For me, that’s the stuff that’s extremely inspiring—when I’m with other attorneys and organizers and students themselves, and we’re brainstorming ways to do things differently. That’s the work that really motivates me to keep going.

What professional aspirations are you working toward? 

We’re in a really exciting time right now because there are so many public institutions that are reimagining themselves: School districts, police departments, probation departments, government institutions are reflecting on themselves. Over the last year, I’ve seen conversations happening that I cannot imagine happening five years ago. I’m working with school districts across the state of California now. In movement building, that’s the goal: to bring everyone into the movement. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Brief on Oscar Lopez ’13

Hometown: Los Angeles
Current city: Oakland, California 
Prior experience: Public Counsel, Advancement Project
Honors: Skadden Fellow, 2013–2015
Outside the office: Can be found playing rec-league basketball and Fortnite with his nephews.
Advice for law students: “Younger attorneys just do everything. They’ll take on more than they can handle because they want to prove themselves useful. But it’s really harmful for their longevity in this field. My advice is to develop your own theory of [social] change. That’s going to guide you when you’re making decisions about what to do or what not to do. That’s important to setting healthy boundaries and having a good work-life balance.”