Inside the 2023 Spring Break Caravans: A Week of Meaningful Work

As part of an annual tradition of Columbia Law students spending spring break doing pro bono work, the Empowering Women of Color student organization led a spring break caravan to New Orleans to work with the Capital Appeals Project and the Promise of Justice Initiative.

Group of nine law students standing in a shady courtyard

Pictured: Members of the EWOC spring break caravan.

NEW ORLEANS—In an old, columned house on Elysian Fields Avenue, nine Columbia Law School students seated around a long conference table push their laptops aside and, over a lunch of red beans and rice, talk with Ashwini Velchamy ’20, a staff attorney at the Capital Appeals Project, about working with prisoners on death row.

“The wins are not real wins because we’re fighting against something unwinnable unless it’s destroyed,” Velchamy says of Louisiana’s death penalty law. “It would be so great to be unemployed.”

Not long ago, Velchamy was in a similar position as the students, spending her spring break doing pro bono public interest work while learning about the legal landscape beyond New York. Now, she is the practitioner, discussing the nuts and bolts of fellowship applications, the necessity of self-care in a demanding field, and the rewards of getting to know her incarcerated clients. In New Orleans, she’s speaking to one of Columbia Law School’s Sidley Austin LLP Spring Break Pro Bono Caravans, this one organized by the Empowering Women of Color (EWOC) student group. For a week in March, students on this caravan volunteered their skills at two affiliated legal services organizations in New Orleans: the state-funded Capital Appeals Project (CAP), which handles death penalty cases, and the strategic litigation nonprofit Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), which focuses on ameliorating prison conditions in Louisiana.

Students walking past a coffee shop
EWOC spring break caravan participants en route to the Promise of Justice Initiative offices.
A Long Caravan Tradition

The New Orleans group was among 20 caravans—comprising more than 120 students—that traveled during spring break in March to volunteer their skills in practice areas such as civil rights, immigration, and criminal law at legal services and social justice organizations across the country and the world. A signature program of Columbia Law, the caravans have been organized annually through the Office of Social Justice Initiatives (SJI) for more than a decade. 

“At Columbia, pro bono is one of our core values. It is our belief that pro bono is a key element of being a well-rounded law student and lawyer,” says Marka Belinfanti, assistant director of pro bono and summer programs for SJI. “The caravan program allows students to gain invaluable field experience and hands-on training.”

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, caravans provided volunteers remotely. This year, with the return of in-person trips, new caravan destinations included Nairobi, Kenya, where the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) organized to work with local social justice organizations, and Durham, North Carolina, where the Law and Political Economy Society organized to work on legislation with a small-farm advocacy organization. (See a full list of caravans below.) 

“On the heels of the pandemic, we are thrilled that this year, we were able to return to in-person caravans, increase funding, and that these pro bono opportunities were in high demand,” says Belinfanti.

The opportunity to participate in a spring break caravan “was a big reason why I chose Columbia,” says Rubí Rodriguez ’24, a member of the EWOC caravan. 

In New Orleans, CAP had previously hosted a Columbia Law caravan organized by BLSA. But this year marked the first-ever EWOC caravan. Erika Lopez ’24, the group’s president, says she wanted to raise the profile of public interest careers among EWOC members and plan a caravan that could be replicated in future years. In order to expand the caravan’s scope beyond capital appeals, she organized a team to work for PJI.

“I was excited to work on something slightly different from just strictly criminal defense,” she says. “Civil impact litigation, policy work, and strategic criminal litigation are all things that I knew people would be interested in doing.”

Anaheed Mobaraki ’24 co-organized the caravan. “All of us are very interested in public defense work, some of us in capital defense. So it’s really incredible that we can be down here in Louisiana, a state that still allows the death penalty and has plantation prisons like Angola,” she says. “It’s extra important to be doing this right here. And I'm even more happy that we can do it for free for these organizations.”

For the legal services organization, pro bono work by caravan students is a huge help. “There is so much to do and so few people doing it,” says Erica Navalance, a PJI senior staff attorney. “That means that people who come and work for us really do significant, substantive work, right from the beginning.”

Josh Occhiogrosso-Schwartz, a staff attorney for CAP, says the students were working on legal research projects for an upcoming filing. “We deal with voluminous amounts of records in capital cases, so we have them creating an index so we can easily find things. All of that is work that we regularly do ourselves.”

The organization identifies projects that the caravan students can accomplish during the week they are there, says Occhiogrosso-Schwartz. “They give us a huge boost,” he says. “They really dive right into projects, and there’s a lot actually that we get done in a week.”

For students, participating in a caravan can fulfill the Law School’s 40-hour pro bono requirement and provides exposure to different areas of public interest law. Often, the work involves Westlaw legal research not unlike a law school assignment—but for a real client.

The challenging legal landscape of Louisiana has inspired Lopez, for one, to consider returning. “I feel like I need to come back here after graduation and be somewhere where I really can make a difference,” she says. “It feels like it’s such an uphill battle. But if you actually have a win, it could be such a serious win.”

Students seated around conference table listening to speaker
Spring break caravan members discuss capital defense work with staff attorneys of the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans. 

The Sidley Austin Spring Break Pro Bono Caravans are made possible in part through the generous support of the Sidley Austin Foundation and the Columbia Law School alumni of Sidley Austin.

Read Below: Voices From the EWOC Caravan
Young woman gesturing in conversation

Abigail Hodonicky ’24

“What I want to get out of this week is just learning more about how capital cases work: the different steps that you take to get to know a client and then make your argument. Different advocacy skills.”

Smiling young man wearing striped shirt

Stephen Kpundeh ’24

“I'm going to be doing a lot of research that helps inform their [the nonprofit’s] overall legal strategy. Giving them more knowledge is something that I could do. That’s a material difference that all of us can make in the little time that we have here.”


Young woman with gold hoop earrings.

Erika Lopez ’24

“I feel like I need to come back here after graduation and be somewhere where I really can make a difference. [In Louisiana] it feels like it’s such an uphill battle—but if you actually have a win, it could be such a serious win.”

Young man in blue shirt sitting outside

Kendrick Lu ’24

“Part of my political growth has been shifting away from a ‘punishment paradigm’—a paradigm of reliance on police, prosecutions, and prisons to respond to instances of harm. I’m instead trying to understand, what are the structural issues underlying those harms? How do systems of oppression operate along lines of race, class, and gender to pull people towards criminality? And then, what can we do to dismantle those systems from the root? That’s the response to harm that I’m learning to embrace.”

Young woman with braids smiling and talking

Morgan Martin ’24

“It’s been really enlightening to learn about the legal systems and practices of another state up close, specifically one down south. Seeing people sentenced to hard labor has been particularly striking. Coming from Los Angeles and New York, the politics are very different.”

Young woman with glasses and braid over shoulder gesturing

Anaheed Mobaraki ’24

“As an undergraduate, I volunteered at a juvenile prison. That made me realize I wanted to go to law school to be a public defender. At the prison, people would say, ‘You really want to do that? My public defender was awful.’ And so I felt more inspired to go.”

Young man gesturing in conversation

William Oh ’24

“To be here on the ground with one of the organizations that are doing cutting-edge legal work is a completely different thing. And it’s really an honor and privilege for us that the organizations are willing to host us.”

Young woman with yellow headband speaking

Rubí Rodriguez ’24

“I'm interested in legal issues around surveillance technology in urban areas, and New Orleans is a city often discussed when it comes to these issues. My pro bono assignment here is helping me think about what these issues look like in other states besides New York.”

Three people in the top rows of a basketball arena

Squeezing in Some Spring Break

In New Orleans, the caravan members stayed in an Airbnb house, sharing rooms, deploying the living room sofa bed, and breakfasting together before jumping in a ride share to the nonprofit’s headquarters in the Marigny district. A color-coded spreadsheet prepared by Anaheed Mobaraki ’24 laid out the schedule: It included not only five days of volunteer legal work but also a swamp tour, a ghost tour, music at a jazz club, dinner at the famed restaurant Commander’s Palace, and necessary “chill” time.

Exploring New Orleans’ food scene provided plenty of entertainment. Rodriguez undertook a comparative study of beignets among different cafes. Stephen Kpundeh ’24 discovered the delights of gumbo. “We’ve been to so many amazing restaurants. Lots of good food has been eaten,” says William Oh ’24. 

Going beyond the spreadsheet, three caravan participants—Kpundeh, Rubí Rodriguez ’24, and Kendrick Lu ’24—snagged tickets to a New Orleans Pelicans basketball game. 

“Spending a week in proximity to a group of people does things for relationships that you can’t get in a school environment,” Lu says. “You get to know them in different ways. Working together with them too—we’ll come out the other side knowing we all worked on this common cause together, and I think that brings us closer in a different way than just a surface-level friendship.”

2023 Spring Break Caravans

ADL Civil Rights Spring Break Caravan, New York City (Jewish Law Students Association)
Agricultural and Food System Advocacy, Durham, NC (Law and Political Economy Society)
Aldea—The People’s Justice Center, Reading, PA (Society for Immigrant and Refugee Rights) 
Anti-Violence Project x OutLaws, New York City (OutLaws) 
Black Law Students Association Spring Break Caravan, Nairobi, Kenya (BLSA)
Bronx Defenders,  New York City (Criminal Justice Action Network) 
California Appellate Project, San Francisco (Criminal Justice Action Network) 
CLWA x California Women's Law Center, El Segundo, CA (Columbia Law Women’s Association) 
Texas Advocacy Project, Austin, TX (Domestic Violence Project)
Environmental Justice, remote (Environmental Law Society)
EWOC Spring Break Caravan Capital Appeals Project, New Orleans (Empowering Women of Color) 
EWOC Spring Break Caravan Promise of Justice Initiative, New Orleans (Empowering Women of Color)
Miami-Dade County Public Defender, Miami (Criminal Justice Action Network)
NALSA Judicare Legal Aid, Wausau, WI (Native American Law Student Association) 
New Civil Liberties Alliance, Washington, D.C. (Federalist Society)
New York Legal Assistance Group Immigrant Protection, New York City (Society for Immigrant and Refugee Rights)
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, remote (Asian Pacific American Law Student Association) 
Paltrek, Ramallah, West Bank, Israel (Columbia Law Students for Palestine)
Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C. (Criminal Justice Action Network)
Universität Hamburg Refugee Law Clinic, Hamburg, Germany (Columbia Society of International Law)