Reflecting on Legal Education From the Back of an Outreach Van

There are many days within the walls of the law school when I’ve found myself lost and questioning whether getting a legal education was the right decision. Sometimes the distraction comes in the form of classes, meetings, debt, and applications. Other times, the confusion results from the realization that it is often the legal structure and lawyers themselves who serve to marginalize communities I care about and entrench cycles of poverty and criminality.

But then some experience of deep injustice or meaningful interaction reminds me exactly about what this fight is all about and all the passions that led me here in the first place.

Tonight I had one of those experiences speaking to a girl no older than fifteen from the homeless outreach
van I was volunteering with. This term, I am doing an independent clinical placement at Rosie’s Place, a homeless shelter in Boston. Every night, Rosie’s Place sends out an outreach van into the poorest areas of Boston to hand out food, clothing, and toiletries to those living on the streets. The women running the van also speak with individuals and let them know about services offered by the shelter.

Tonight, I was on the van to let people know about the legal center at Rosie’s Place. I ended up spending most of the night handing out food and just listening to people’s stories. The men and women who came up to the van were incredibly polite and thankful for the little we were giving. Once or twice I wondered what events could have led up to a life in this condition, but I also realized that it was not always so complex, for homelessness results for many from simply a vengeful landlord, an underwater mortgage, a poor nightlife choice, or a disability.

While sitting on my bus-ride back to campus, I thought hard about what access to lawyers could do for these communities and struggled. For most, the justice system has served as a violent and punishing structure maintaining their marginalized societal status with seemingly endless force. Criminal records are difficult to clean and once you live on the street some charges (like trespassing and ‘aggressive begging’) are almost inevitable. Nevertheless knowledge about available legal remedies and tools, like sealing one’s criminal record in order to gain access to public benefits, affordable housing, and employment, could initiate the process out of a life of poverty and violence. I also realized again that often the most significant benefit of all these programs were the small opportunity to treat these individuals with dignity and kindness, especially when the rest of the day society actively worked to ignore them. This may all seem inadequate, and I myself strongly believe that as individuals and as a society we need to commit to restructuring our institutions in fair and equitable ways. But when that fifteen year old girl returned to the van just to hang out and thank us for being the best thing that had happened to her that day, I realized again just how important these simple acts could be as well.

I write this partly as a self-reflection piece, but hopefully also to inspire others to think about what brought them to Harvard Law. For those of us who want to fight for social justice and social change, working through the tools currently available in the legal system can often seem inadequate and frustrating. But, by bringing creativity and passion to our profession, we can think about how to use the laws that currently exist to promote justice, and look to reform the legal and institutional structures serving to marginalize communities we care about when traditional legal mechanisms fail.

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