In Pursuit of Public Interest
Four Columbia Law School Students Awarded Prized Post-Graduate Fellowships
New York, April 25, 2016—Four Columbia Law School students with a passion for public interest work have been awarded prized post-graduate fellowships with leading nonprofits.
Whitney Hood ’16, Loretta Johnson ’16, and Gena Miller ’16 are each the recipient of two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowships, while Kevin Opoku-Gyamfi ’16 has been selected for the one-year Herbert and Nell Singer Social Justice Fellowship.
Whitney Hood will return to Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit organization in New York City dedicated to assisting survivors of gender-based violence, where she began an internship this fall as the Maryellen Abely Fellow. Hood will offer representation to victims of trafficking, work with health care providers to improve methods for identifying and serving survivors, and engage in legislative advocacy on related issues.
“Far too often, survivors of trafficking are brought into the legal system through interaction with law enforcement,” said Hood, whose project is sponsored by Baker & McKenzie and Merck & Co. Studies show that as many as 70 percent of women arrested for prostitution in New York City have been trafficked, and that although 90 percent of victims visited a health care provider while being trafficked, most were not offered help.
“My personal experience overcoming domestic violence now motivates me to work for improved access to services for other survivors of gender-based violence,” said Hood, who as a fellow intends to build relationships with doctors and hospitals as a way to ensure that survivors have access to legal services sooner.
Hood has a solid grounding in human rights advocacy honed as a student in the Law School’s Human Rights Clinic. Under the direction of clinic co-director Professor Sarah Knuckey, Hood was a contributing author of “Righting Wrongs,” a study based on a three-year investigation of sexual violence against indigenous women in Papua New Guinea. Over spring break this year, Hood traveled to the highlands of Papua New Guinea to discuss the report’s findings with sexual assault survivors, facilitate advocacy workshops, and investigate recent allegations of violence.
Last summer, she worked as an intern at Equality Now, an international women’s human rights organization. Previously, Hood interned at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, supporting active litigation and advocacy challenging discrimination and violence against women; and for Human Rights First and Tahirih Justice Center, both where she worked on domestic violence-based asylum cases.
Loretta Johnson will work with another of New York City’s most vulnerable populations: children in foster care, who studies have shown are at high risk for academic failure, violence, drug abuse, delinquency, and teen pregnancy. Johnson’s two-year fellowship with the Legal Aid Society's Juvenile Rights Practice will focus on bringing the child’s voice to the forefront of reunification advocacy and building a model of collaboration with parents’ attorneys to speed up the reunification process and avoid unnecessary removals when appropriate.
“Many of these families live in public housing and often don’t have control over their environments,” said Johnson, whose project is sponsored by Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel. Parents often see their children taken because of conditions that spring predominantly from poverty, and bureaucratic obstacles can prevent their timely and successful return home. “This is not a reflection on the family,” Johnson continued.
Johnson was a teaching fellow in the Law School’s Adolescent Representation Clinic, where she represented young adults who were aging out of foster care. In Feb. 2015, Johnson was part of a group of students who met with lawmakers in Albany to advocate for more resources to support these vulnerable youth.
She wrote a paper, Protecting the Constitutional Rights of Minority Youth on Rikers Island, to be published later this year in the Columbia Journal of Race and Law.
Committed to juvenile justice, Johnson moved to New York in 2011 after graduating from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to work for the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nationally renowned organization committed to ending generational poverty in Central Harlem. “I learned and have embraced the fact that my role as a child advocate is to empower children by giving them agency to help themselves,” Johnson recalled about that influential experience.
She then worked for Advocates for Children as an intern during her first summer at Columbia, and for the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem during her third year, representing indigent residents of Harlem in criminal proceedings, through the Law School’s full-year Community Defense Externship.
Gena Miller, a former teacher in the New York City Department of Education, will do her fellowship at Advocates for Children, where she will use her training as an educator to help prevent and mitigate the harmful effects of bullying in New York City’s public schools, with a particular focus on LGBTQ, gender non-conforming, and special education students.
According to a recent study, 82 percent of LGBTQ youth nationwide have experienced bullying because of their sexual orientation. In her project, sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, Miller will provide direct representation to students who are involved in bullying incidents.
Miller decided to become a lawyer in part because she believes that “changes in the law, or at least changes in the enforcement of law, are necessary for educational justice.” As a fellow, she plans to train students, families, and direct service providers on their rights under various state and federal laws, and to monitor the Department of Education’s compliance under those laws.
Last summer, Miller worked as a legal intern for the New York Civil Liberties Union and as an associate at Debevoise & Plimpton, and last fall she did an externship with the Center for Appellate Litigation. During her second year of law school, she worked at the Bronx Defenders, through the Law School’s Externship on Holistic Defense there, and did a practicum with Professor Susan Sturm in Spring 2015 for her vision, action, and social-change class.
In 2015, Miller was a James Kent Scholar and was awarded the Archie O. Dawson Prize for proficiency in advocacy. She served as executive digital editor of the Journal of Law and Social Problems, as editor of LaLSA Moot Court, and as president of OutLaws (2014-2015), one of the Law School’s LGBTQA student organizations.
Kevin Opoku-Gyamfi, the second-ever recipient of Columbia’s own Herbert and Nell Singer Social Justice Fellowship, will work for Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C. (Kristen Clarke ’00 is President and Executive Director), challenging cases in which individuals—predominantly people of color—are locked up for minor crimes because they can’t make bail. Opoku-Gyamfi’s work will build on his time volunteering on “policing for profit” cases with the Arch City Defenders in Ferguson, Missouri, during spring break last year.
“I would like to focus my efforts on bringing an end to these corrupt fee schemes and other unconstitutional enforcement practices,” Opoku-Gyamfi said. “The goal would be to ensure that indigent defendants were no longer jailed for being poor.”
Opoku-Gyamfi, a native New Yorker whose parents emigrated from Ghana, came to Columbia Law School to become a civil rights attorney and “root out the negative ways race interacts with the criminal justice system.” After a life-altering experience as a victim of police brutality when he was 14, Opoku-Gyamfi vowed to become a lawyer “to fight for equality, justice, and accountability,” rather than “sit on the sidelines.”
A Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar, he was also diversity editor of the Columbia Law Review, participated in the Law School’s Challenging the Consequences of Mass Incarceration Clinic, and he won both “Best Petitioner Brief” and the “Best Oral Advocate” award in the 2014 northeast regionals of the Frederick Douglass Moot Court competition.
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.
The Herbert and Nell Singer Social Justice Fellowship honors Herbert Singer, a member of the Columbia Law School Class of 1928, and his commitment to meaningful learning experiences in public interest law.