Leading by Example: The 2021–2022 Davis Polk Leadership Fellows

From helping poultry farmers to making law school and the law more accessible, the projects this year’s fellows are pursuing have the potential to reshape industries, communities, and lives.

Exterior of Jerome L. Greene Hall featuring the sculpture Bellerophon Taming Pegasus

Columbia Law School’s Davis Polk Leadership Initiative fellows receive training, financial support, and mentorship from faculty, experts, and alumni as they work to advance a project that broadens the reach of legal education and legal services. Learn more about this year’s fellows and Innovation Grant recipients below and on the program’s website.

Zhuoran Chen ’22 LL.M. portrait

Zhuoran Chen ’22 LL.M.

Faculty Mentor: Susan P. Sturm, George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility 

The goal: Using theater and acting techniques, help Columbia Law students, including members of the Asian community, develop leadership, communication, and interpersonal skills.

The inspiration: As an undergraduate at Tsinghua University, Zhuoran Chen ’22 LL.M. directed a production of Rent. Acting, she found, was a great way to help people express themselves and engage with others more openly. At Columbia Law, Chen realized that a disposition toward shyness or being hesitant to speak up could cause someone to “lose opportunities in a society encouraging communication and self-expression.” She decided to draw on her theater background to help students develop communication skills that will benefit them in law school and throughout their careers.

The project: By acting, analyzing scripts, and working with a professional theater coach, participants in Chen’s theater workshops will find new ways to “open up themselves and build connections with other members of the Columbia Law community,” she says. Participants will be encouraged to apply the leadership and interpersonal skills gained from the project in their daily lives, and Chen will share tips that she has gained through her legal and theater work. While the workshop is geared towards Asian law students, it is open to Columbia Law students from any cultural background. 

James Clinton Francis ’24  portrait

James Clinton Francis ’24

Faculty Mentor: Charles F. Sabel, Maurice T. Moore Professor of Law

The goal: Create a ranked atlas of U.S. counties most disadvantaged by contemporary poultry industry dynamics and, with the assistance of farmer advocacy networks, better understand the contractual issues between growers and integrators that may put growers in economic distress.

The inspiration: “The use of debt to ensnare poultry farmers into untenable commercial relationships has long been a feature of the U.S. agricultural system,” says James Clinton Francis ’24. But, he adds, “the consolidation of poultry processing and value-add manufacturing companies—who have historically had the upper hand in contract negotiations—has created a system of 21st-century peonage.” This dynamic is one reason why “small- and medium-sized farms have declared bankruptcy and contributed to overall economic decline in rural America.” 

The project: Francis hopes to accomplish three things: “better educate growers about weighing contracting options, inform the Biden administration’s forthcoming discussions on revising the Packers and Stockyards Act and creating a more resilient food supply chain in the post-COVID-19 era, and foster stronger ties between a new generation of attorneys and rural America and begin to eliminate legal deserts,” he says. Francis will coordinate with farmer advocacy groups and facilitate in-person interviews with farmers in select counties to better understand the terms of contracts. He also plans to share the project’s message with farmers through an advertising and marketing campaign.

Maria de la Cruz Rodriguez Martinez ’22 LL.M. portrait

Maria de la Cruz Rodriguez Martinez ’22 LL.M.

Faculty Mentor: Elora Mukherjee, Jerome L. Greene Clinical Professor of Law

The goal: Institutionalizing and formalizing the Nanuu Initiative as a nonprofit organization. Nanuu empowers disenfranchised immigrant women in the Bronx by providing them with vocational training programs that will allow them to become active members of the labor force and agents of change in their communities.

The inspiration: Maria de la Cruz Rodriguez Martinez LL.M. ’22 plans to focus her legal career on bridging the widening justice gap for migrant communities in New York City and surrounding areas, “particularly for marginalized women,” she says. The Nanuu Initiative, established in February 2021, trains participants to become active members of the labor force and agents of change in their communities so that they can improve their personal, economic, and social livelihoods. Nanuu means “embracing” in a Mixtec dialect still spoken in Mexico by some Indigenous groups. This name “represents the mission of our organization,” says Rodriguez. “We embrace marginalized immigrant women’s problems and provide for them.”

The project: “Nanuu already has established a record of successfully training and engaging underprivileged women in the Bronx in its programming,” says Rodriguez. With the mentorship offered by the Davis Polk Leadership Initiative, she hopes to “develop the necessary skills to make more effective approaches and asks of the various stakeholders involved in making Nanuu a reality.” Rodriguez also wants to scale up the initiative by improving elements of its corporate governance, forming strategic partnerships, and identifying sponsors.

Yashvi Ganeriwala ’22 LL.M. portrait

Yashvi Ganeriwala ’22 LL.M.

Faculty Mentor: Elizabeth F. Emens, Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law

The goal: Creating an accessible network for people in the disabled community to learn about law school and legal careers.

The inspiration: According to the CDC, one in every four Americans lives with a disability. But only 1% to 2% of law school graduates identify as having disabilities, notes Yashvi Ganeriwala ’22 LL.M. “One major reason behind this abysmally low representation of the disabled community within a profession that can truly empower them is, in my opinion, a lack of information about life as a disabled law student and lawyer.” According to Ganeriwala, law schools and employers generally provide insufficient information on the accommodations and assistance offered to disabled students and lawyers. 

The project: Ganeriwala plans to mitigate this problem in part by encouraging students at Columbia Law with disabilities to openly discuss their journeys through first-person accounts. In collaboration with other departments at the Law School, she will also create a network of alumni with disabilities, which prospective law students can reach out to for mentorship and guidance. She hopes “this network will also serve as a resource for the legal community at large and improve the standards of accountability for law schools and workplaces,” she says.

Simeon W. Toronto ’23 portrait

Simeon W. Toronto ’23

Faculty Mentor: David M. Schizer, Dean Emeritus and Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law

The goal: Launch an annual Columbia Law School Interfaith Summit to build meaningful community connections through service and education. 

The inspiration: Growing up in Minnesota as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Simeon W. Toronto ’23 sometimes felt isolated in his local community because of his faith. While serving as a volunteer missionary in southern Italy and Sicily, Toronto saw firsthand the consequences of severe religious discrimination as he aided refugees who escaped violence only to find further intolerance in Europe. Later, as student body president at Brigham Young University—“one of the most religiously homogeneous universities in the nation,” he says—Toronto recalled how isolating the outside can feel and the consequences of not building bridges across faith communities. He created forums at BYU that brought different groups together and gave underrepresented students a space to speak. He hopes to do something similar at Columbia Law. “The objective of the Interfaith Summit will be to facilitate peace and harmony between people of all religious and philosophical traditions while exploring ways to work together to strengthen human development,” he says.

The project: The summit is designed to build meaningful interfaith connections by working together to address a critical issue in society, for example, the refugee crisis, climate crisis, or criminal justice reforms. By focusing on “concrete issues that are in the public eye,” Toronto hopes to identify ways in which communities of faith can help address social challenges. He says the highlight of the summit will be an annual service project, which he sees as “critical to uniting the groups in a spirit of common humanity.” The evening will also include a community-building dinner and educational discussions. Toronto hopes that the summit will work with prominent student organizations and that students of all faiths and philosophical beliefs will feel welcome.

2021–2022 Innovation Grant Recipients

The Davis Polk Leadership Initiative also awards Innovation Grants to students to support community-oriented projects. This year’s recipients include: 

Annah Akhoun-Murat ’22 LL.M.
Creating an eco-conscious community at Columbia by sharing sustainability knowledge on social media and encouraging simple yet impactful individual actions.

Sania Anwar ’21 LL.M., J.S.D. Candidate
Creating a leadership workshop for teaching assistants to support and develop their role, skills, and leadership capacities—both individually and as a community of shared experiences.

Jessica Gadea Hawkins ’22 LL.M.
Creating a student-led restorative justice initiative at Columbia Law School, which will include a reading circle and will provide participants an outlet to deviate from normative legal practice and engage in developing a reflective praxis toward law.

Amrita Mohan ’22 LL.M. 
Creating a workshop/practicum series titled “Practicing Empathy in Everyday Life” at Columbia Law School to encourage a conscious practice of empathy in the competitive environment of law school.

Onuoha H. Odim ’24 
Tackling issues of equitable representation under redistricting and bringing more awareness of the nuances of voting rights to the Columbia Law School community through virtual speaker series, podcasts, and articles.

Gal Shargil ’22 LL.M. 
Creating a one-day workshop (working title: “One Day for Great Impact”) to inspire future practitioners to utilize their expertise (legal and otherwise) to generate positive change and to engage students with creative problem-solving.

Roger Tejada ’23 
Increasing the cultural relevance and responsiveness of teaching at Columbia Law School by analyzing data and creating a resource guide for teaching assistants.

Giselle Valdez ’24 
Creating a podcast in connection with her current social media platform (@TheLegalGist) where she will host guest attorneys and law students from underrepresented backgrounds to share their insights on their legal journeys.

The fellowship and grant program, now in its fourth year, is part of the Davis Polk Leadership Initiative at Columbia Law School. The Leadership Initiative offers an innovative and pathbreaking program that equips students from the time they enter law school to cultivate the leadership skills they will need to succeed and thrive at every stage of their professional development and in a wide variety of professional, civic, and personal settings. In addition to the fellowship and grant program, the Law School has developed an integrated series of courses, workshops, and mentorship opportunities that allow for in-depth learning in innovative ways.

The Leadership Initiative is made possible with generous support from Davis Polk & Wardwell. The 2021–2022 co-chairs of the Leadership Initiative are Elizabeth F. Emens, Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law; James S. Liebman, Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Law; and Petal N. Modeste, associate dean for Professional Advancement, Graduate Degree Programs, and Executive Education.