Inaugural Anti-Racism Grant Recipients and Racial and Social Justice Fellows

The new grantmaking and fellowship programs are part of the Law School’s ongoing commitment to anti-racism in the Columbia community and beyond.

jgh_in_spring.jpg

Last summer, Dean Gillian Lester announced the creation of an Anti-Racism Steering Committee composed of faculty, students, and senior administrators to evaluate, coordinate, and strengthen anti-racism efforts across Columbia Law School. As the committee charted a course forward, it quickly prioritized ways to support members of the community in pursuing their own anti-racism projects. 

“The anti-racism grants and racial justice fellowships were conceived in this spirit,” says committee chair David Pozen, vice dean for Intellectual Life and Charles Keller Beekman Professor of Law. “They are intended both to support a broad range of new anti-racism work in the Columbia community and to foster a culture committed to anti-racist values.”

The Racial and Social Justice Fellowships are open to 2Ls who wish to pursue careers in racial justice or 2L students of color who wish to pursue careers in social justice. 

“These fellowships provide financial assistance to students during their third, crucial year of law school,” says Erica Smock, assistant dean and dean for Social Justice Initiatives and public service lawyering. “They also recognize the unique role that lawyers can play in addressing structural racism and social inequality.” 

The Anti-Racism Grantmaking program provides financial and non-financial assistance to members of the Law School community who are pursuing projects that address racially subordinating policies, structures, or systems and promote racial equity and inclusion. Five projects were recently awarded grants, with project budgets as large as $15,000. “I am very excited to work with all of our grant recipients and to support their incredible projects,” says Director of Student Services Robert Ford, who is administering the grants. “Each brings a different and important perspective to our community’s anti-racism work and will undoubtedly make our community stronger, more inclusive, and more informed.”

Calls for applications went out earlier this spring, and five fellows and five grant projects were chosen from the dozens of submissions. “It was humbling to see the response to both of these initiatives,” says Pozen. “Even in a pandemic, we received an amazing set of applications, and the individuals and projects that were selected are truly remarkable. I am already looking forward to next year’s grants and fellowships.”

Learn more about the programs and eligibility requirements, and meet the new grant recipients and fellows below. Interviews have been edited and condensed.

Racial and Social Justice Fellows

Bianca Larez Chavez

Bianca Chavez ’22

Bianca Chavez ’22 cares deeply about public defense and prison reform. She graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. She is the first in her family to attend law school.

What type of public interest work do you plan to pursue?

My experiences thus far have centered around criminal defense work—from post-conviction capital litigation to family defense to holistic defense work. I will spend this summer at Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, a public interest law firm representing survivors of wrongful imprisonment and police brutality. While I do not know exactly how my legal career will unfold, I know that I will continue to serve justice-impacted people and their families. 

How do you think this fellowship will help you achieve your career goals?

This fellowship empowered me to take financial risks. As I apply to criminal justice fellowships around the country, I feel comforted knowing that I have a bit of extra financial security provided by Columbia. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The Public Interest/Public Service Fellows Program has been one of the highlights of my law school experience. Thank you to Devi Patel for envisioning the program and for creating an inclusive, supportive community. 

Photo of Raisa Elhadi ’22 in front of trees

Raisa Elhadi ’22

Raisa Elhadi ’22 is interested in working with populations who are systematically oppressed. Elhadi has a B.A. in Global Studies from the University of Minnesota. As the daughter of an immigrant, her heritage and family history sparked Elhadi’s interest in human rights.

What type of public interest work do you plan to pursue?

I am planning to pursue human rights law. I hope to use international and U.S. constitutional mechanisms to hold the U.S. government accountable for human rights abuses it has perpetrated. . . . I also hope to help survivors of human rights abuses obtain justice, either by securing legal relief or by helping them gain access to resources to create a better life moving forward.

How do you think this fellowship will help you achieve your career goals?

This fellowship will allow me to stay committed to the work that I care about and that I came to law school to do, lessening the financial burden and opening up many more options with regard to the kinds of human rights jobs I can feasibly pursue after graduation.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I am deeply grateful that [Columbia Law School and Social Justice Initiatives] are willing to support their public interest students in a field that often leaves them behind or forces them to switch careers just to stay financially afloat. Programs like this fellowship and the Public Interest/Public Service Fellows Program show that Columbia has begun to support its public interest students not only nominally, but practically as well. I feel incredibly lucky to be one of the first (hopefully of many!) to benefit from this support. 

Ailee Katz

Ailee Katz ’15 BC, ’22 LAW

Ailee Katz ’15 BC, ’22 LAW is passionate about criminal justice reform and civil rights advocacy, particularly as it relates to race and gender equality. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and Economics from Barnard College and is the first in her family to attend law school.

What type of public interest work do you plan to pursue?

My immediate goal is to work as a public defender. As a public defender, you are in the trenches serving as a direct advocate and ally for indigent clients who are often overlooked or outright disrespected. It is your job to tell each person’s story and make sure every client is heard, even though the system is built to process as many people as quickly as possible. . . .  I also hope to address systemic racial and social inequality throughout my career and am hopeful that the law can be an effective tool to achieve that end, even if only marginally.

How do you think this fellowship will help you achieve your career goals?

I was committed to working in public interest law when I came to law school. This fellowship provides the financial support and assurance that I need to sustain my public service career for the long term. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I am truly humbled by this fellowship—to be in the company of so many incredible public interest lawyers, advocates, social workers, and organizers—and am incredibly grateful that the committee believes in my ability to advance racial and social justice throughout my career.

 

Roger Tejada

Roger Tejada ’22

 

Roger Tejada ’22 is passionate about social justice issues. He holds a B.A. in Government and Legal Studies from Bowdoin College. As a child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and the first in his family to graduate from college and earn a graduate degree, Tejada is committed to empowering others to achieve the American dream.

What type of public interest work do you plan to pursue?

I came to law school with the goal of becoming a civil rights lawyer, and that remains unchanged. At the same time, I’ve become increasingly interested in administrative law (and the administrative state). Ultimately, I hope to be an appellate litigator and public servant who uses the law to make our society more racially and economically just. 

How do you think this fellowship will help you achieve your career goals?

This fellowship is pivotal to helping me pursue my career goals. As someone who grew up in poverty, it is very important for me to be able to provide financial security to my family while still following a path to become the best possible advocate for others. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

This fellowship helps me see that Columbia Law School is working to support students who want to pursue the public interest. I expect and am excited to see this continue. I want to give my warmest and most heartfelt thanks to Alexis Hoag. . . . She is a visionary who drives many of us toward becoming better people, better advocates, and better lawyers. 

 

Brandon Vines

Brandon Vines ’22

Brandon Vines’ focus is using the open-source evidence generated online to pursue accountability for wrongful state violence both domestically and internationally. Vines graduated magna cum laude and as an Honors Scholar from Kennesaw State University. He is a native Georgian and a first-generation graduate student.

What type of public interest work do you plan to pursue?

I am committed to fighting the death penalty and cruel prison conditions in the Deep South.

How do you think this fellowship will help you achieve your career goals?

I am keenly aware that race and racism have never lost contact with the law, and that the racial justice dimension of challenging state violence is far from theoretical. The Racial and Social Justice Fellowship helps in a few very practical ways.

It is no secret that finances are the greatest barrier to public interest careers. . . . The salary for those positions is abysmal and an active barrier for first-generation and BIPOC students in particular. . . . For me, this fellowship helps me see a viable path to doing the work I want to do and having a family. 

Beyond clearing financial hurdles, being a Racial and Social Justice fellow affirms my drive to pursue honest accountability and prevent unjust state violence. The fellowship is a sign to employers, partners, and the communities I am fighting alongside that I am here for the long haul.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I want to thank Professors [Alexis] Hoag and [Bernard] Harcourt for helping a first-generation student see that we can have a tangible impact with our degrees.

 

Anti-Racism Grant Projects and Recipients

Global Movements for Black Lives: Deepening CLS’s Engagement With Activism, Justice, and Law on Both Sides of the Atlantic

Project Leaders: Udodilim Njideka Nnamdi ’21; Anjli Parrin ’17, Associate Director, Project on War Crimes and Mass Graves, Human Rights Institute; Lauren Richardson ’23; and Nancy Stephen ’22

About the Project: The project will advance racial justice by deepening opportunities for members of the Columbia Law community to learn about, engage with, and advance global movements for Black lives. The project will support the development of a reading group on global racial justice issues, advance efforts to increase diversity at Columbia Law, and increase experiential and practical opportunities for Law School students to work in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Black Men’s Initiative @ CLS

Project Leaders: Damonta Morgan ’22 and Paul Riley ’22 

About the Project: The Black Men’s Initiative @ CLS ([email protected]) cultivates an intentional community among Black men who are, or have studied, at Columbia Law School through platforms such as a website, mentorship program, and events.

Law School Pathways Program

Project Leaders: Iris Carbonel ’22, Stephanie Nnadi ’22, and Stacy Okoro ’22

About the Project: The Columbia Law School Pathways Program aids first-generation, low-income, and minority students from the Harlem/Bronx/Uptown area who are considering attending law school. The mission of the program is to foster ties between Columbia and its surrounding communities, increase true diversity and representation within the legal profession, and uplift traditionally forgotten groups.

Columbia Law School and the Legacies of Slavery

Project Leaders: Katherine Franke, James L. Dohr Professor of Law; Black Law Students Association; and Empowering Women of Color

About the Project: Professor Franke is leading a research team at Columbia University documenting the relationship of the Law School to slavery and its contemporary legacies. This project will examine questions such as: What relationship did our founding faculty, students, curriculum, and financing bear to slavery? And what have been the enduring legacies of anti-Black racism at the Law School?

Lawyering and the Quest for a Multiracial Democracy

Project Leaders: Marica Wright ’22; Olatunde Johnson, Jerome B. Sherman Professor of Law; and Sneha Pandya ’21 

About the Project: As part of the project, the team will produce a six-episode podcast, designed to address the question of how members of the legal profession can help build and maintain a multiracial democracy, and they will develop an evergreen website of resources.