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MLaw Grads Use Equal Justice Works Fellowships to Advocate for Underserved Communities

By Jordan Poll
August 1, 2017

As a teenager, Angela Ni, '17, developed an interest in public advocacy when her father introduced her to the Urban Justice Center in New York. He encouraged her to seek out firsthand experience and, at 13 years old, Ni spent her summer volunteering with the Street Vendor Project. "I was not very aware of the social issues at the time. I just wanted to get experience in and exposure to public advocacy," said Ni, who utilized her fluency in Chinese to communicate with vendors. "But, when I got there, I met so many people who were immigrants like I am. Seeing that their lives are very different from the life that I have was sobering and eye opening. I realized that not everyone gets to have the same privileges that have been conferred upon me." Her experience, and the need she saw in the street vending community, is the inspiration behind the work she will be doing as an Equal Justice Works Fellow.

The Equal Justice Works Fellowship is the nation's largest post-graduate public interest fellowship program—and one of the most prestigious. Each year it receives nearly 500 applications for 60 Fellowships. The two-year program matches recent graduates who are passionate about public interest work with organizations that are in desperate need of their talents. Applicants develop project proposals in conjunction with potential host organizations. Then Equal Justice Works operates as a matchmaker that secures funding for top applications from sponsoring law firms, corporations, and foundations. Sponsors pay the Fellows' salaries, often as part of their pro bono programs, and frequently support the Fellows' work by providing pro bono assistance and other resources to help increase their impact. As an institution, Michigan Law has been involved in the Equal Justice Works Fellowship for 15 years. Today, seven active Fellows and two incoming Fellows are Michigan Law alumni.

"Fellowships are the best way to get your foot in the door at a public interest organization," said incoming Fellow Rebecca Eisenbrey, '15, who is fresh off a two-year clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. Eisenbrey soon will be relocating to Austin, Texas, for her Equal Justice Works Fellowship, where she will be leading the Equal Justice Center's Fair Chance Hiring Project. "The fair chance hiring movement is designed to empower people with criminal records—to remind them that they are still valued members of community and that the community is behind them in their efforts to reintegrate," she said. "We are also trying to affect some sort of culture shift so that employers don't see people with criminal records as outsiders. Instead of viewing them as a problematic potential hiring pool, we want employers to view them as valuable potential assets to the company and the community at large. The best thing for communities is to have people who come out of prison get into steady employment." Eisenbrey will be providing outreach and education to employers and making sure they understand and comply with Austin's new Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance. "One of the reasons I am doing this project is because there is a need for it, and there is a need for it in Texas," she said. Eisenbrey also will be doing work to enforce Title VII—specifically with the EEOC guidance on the consideration of arrest and conviction records in employment decisions—and the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which regulates background check reporting companies.

The latest generation in a family of public interest attorneys, it is little wonder that Eisenbrey came to Michigan Law to pursue a career in public interest. “One of the main reasons I wanted to go to law school was to be able to continue the sort of work I was doing at the U.S. Department of Labor for three years after college. But I wanted to do it in a more direct and constructive way,” she said. “Just seeing the gap between the regulatory network that existed and the actual enforcement, or rather the lack thereof, really made me want to go into direct service and help people enforce their rights.” Eisenbrey views her Fellowship as an opportunity to connect her two passions—justice for low-wage workers and criminal justice reform—while also supporting an important effort in American society.

Like Eisenbrey, Ni’s Equal Justice Works Fellowship is the next step in a long educational career in public interest. “Everything just fell into place for me,” she said. After her high school experience with the Street Vendor Project, Ni worked as a summer intern with Legal Outreach Inc., a legal education non-profit, and as a public affairs intern for the New York State Unified Court System. Up until the time she moved to Ann Arbor to begin her education at Michigan Law, she served as a policy and legislation intern for the Office of State Senator Daniel Squadron of the New York State Senate.

Greenberg Traurig LLP will be sponsoring Ni’s return to the Street Vendor Project as an Equal Justice Works Fellow—where she will provide transactional legal assistance, outreach, and training to low‐income immigrant street entrepreneurs in New York City. As an immigrant, with family who are members of the vending community, Ni is excited for the next two years of her career. “This is a cause incredibly close to what I’m about as a person. There is a satisfaction I feel by coming full circle and giving back to the community that fostered me to become the person I am.”

Ni foresees the impact of Equal Justice Works Fellowship being twofold, the first being a personal mission she hopes to fulfil. “A lot of them [vendors] just want to live their lives. They are just trying to support their families,” she said. “I want to make that easier, so they can grow their businesses, support their families, and not have to worry about how to file for taxes or comply with permit restrictions.” She hopes the second impact will be policy-related. “There are many street vendors in New York, but there is little awareness towards what they do,” said Ni. Her efforts will highlight their struggles, so that when it comes time to craft legislation, street vendors will have more of a fighting chance to make positive change for themselves.

Ni and Eisenbrey say they feel incredibly fortunate to have been chosen as Equal Justice Works Fellows. “Receiving this Fellowship means that I get to do work that I love doing,” said Ni. “It is sponsoring something near and dear to my heart.” Eisenbrey agreed. “It is validating to know that the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, who is sponsoring me, agrees that this type of work needs to be done,” she said. “They see that my project is something that will help increase access to justice in the state of Texas, and they trust that I am the person who can make that change.”

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