By Bibeane Metsch-GarciaMarch 13, 2015
Rather than hitting the beach for spring break, 2L David Pisano led a trip to Detroit, where he and five other Michigan Law students worked with United Community Housing Coalition, an organization that assists low-income homeowners who are facing foreclosure.
"This type of engagement with the community was a special and rewarding experience," says Pisano, a participant in Michigan Law's Legal Alternative Winter Breaks (LAWBreaks). "After just a couple of hours of training, we began meeting with clients on day one, providing substantive advice and guidance. By the end of the week, we were handling complicated questions with relative ease. Everyone should have gained a certain amount of confidence in terms of their ability to be an effective advocate."
LAWBreaks was founded in 2010 by Michigan Law students. The program now has approximately 200 current participants and alumni, and is responsible for thousands of pro-bono hours in different communities. This year, LAWBreaks took a record six trips during winter break to Albuquerque, Belize City, Brooklyn, Detroit, New Orleans, and Tucson.
On the trip to Albuquerque, co-sponsored by the Native American Law Students Association, students volunteered with the Window Rock Navajo Tribe on tribal law issues. The students who ventured to Belize spent time volunteering with three organizations: Child Development Foundation, Institute of Cultural Heritage, and the United Belize Advocacy Movement. In Brooklyn, students worked with Brooklyn Legal Services. Students on the Tucson trip met United States Customs and Border Patrol officials. They also hiked the United States-Mexico border and completed volunteer training with the Tucson Samaritans and Operation Streamline, and they met with members of the City of Tucson Public Defender's Office.
In New Orleans, 13 students volunteered with the Office of Public Defender and toured Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the country. The focus of the trip was mass incarceration—which many people "consider to be the civil rights issue of our time," trip leaders said in their collective recollections of the trip. Because New Orleans has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the United States, it was an appropriate destination.
Their guide at Angola was Norris Henderson, a man who was exonerated after spending almost 30 years there for a crime he did not commit. Students toured the prison law library, cellblocks, a populated death row, and the execution chamber, and took a lunch break in the prison cafeteria. On their last night in New Orleans, participants dined with Calvin Duncan, another man who spent nearly 30 years in Angola for a crime he did not commit. Trip participants recounted that Calvin "told us his heart-wrenching story, and made a compelling call to action for us and others to help him in his effort to help inmates with access to legal research, and to help recently released people with re-entry."
The groups raised funds in support of their trips. The New Orleans participants, for instance, cleaned a section of Yost Ice Arena after a game, worked on several bake sales and Lawyers Club dinners, hosted bar nights, and partnered with a barre studio to raise money using fees from a group class. By walking to and from work and cooking meals at home, the group was able to stick to a modest budget.
For more information and to provide support for LAWBreaks, visit the group's WordPress site.
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