Fairstein Fellows Rewarded for Devotion to Public Service
Virginia Law students Matt VanWormer and Amy Woolard have been named the 2007 Linda A. Fairstein Public Service Fellows. Each fellowship grants $5,000 annually for three years to a rising third-year student who is committed to pursuing a career in public service. The award was established in honor of best-selling author Linda Fairstein, a former prosecutor and 1972 alumna who led New York City's Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit for 25 years.
Undergraduate education and hometown: I grew up in Hillsdale, Mich., an exciting small town in the southern part of the state. After graduation, I attended Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
Public service activities at the law school/during summers: As a first-year student, I was a panel organizer with the Conference on Public Service and the Law, a pro bono volunteer with the Virginia Environmental Law Forum (VELF), and a participant in the Migrant Farmworker Outreach Project. I was also involved as a 1L Rep in the Public Interest Law Association (PILA). In January of 2006, I volunteered with Doug Ford of the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) on human rights and immigration-related projects. Following my first year, I worked as an intern with Trustees for Alaska, a nonprofit environmental law firm in Anchorage.
During the past academic year, I worked as an auction director with PILA and a speakers chair with VELF. With the LAJC Outreach Project, I volunteered weekly at the Holy Comforter Church's soup kitchen. Last January, I volunteered with DNA-People's Legal Services on the Navajo Reservation. I am treasurer of the Native American Law Students Association and, most recently, have worked on the Child Health Advocacy Project, a partnership between LAJC and local medical centers. I will spend the coming summer working at California Indian Legal Services.
Public service activities/employment pre-law school: In the summer before law school, I volunteered on an organic farm in Costa Rica. In addition to farming and animal husbandry, I ran English lessons for local youth and worked in the environmental education program. Prior to this experience, I worked as a habitat conservation intern at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. The majority of my undergraduate public service work was also in the area of ecology and the environment. I was a trip leader for four years with Great Outdoors, a student organization that partnered with the Nature Conservancy and Volunteers for Outdoor Arizona on conservation, re-vegetation, and trail construction projects.
What interested you in law and public service? Through course work and research as an undergraduate student, I developed a substantial interest in Native American rights. A large portion of my work was focused on the resource and cultural conflicts surrounding north Montana's Zortman-Landusky mine. Gold extraction at this mine was accompanied by a host of environmental consequences, ranging from cyanide spills to the acidification of rivers and streams. The mine presented an even greater threat to the cultural resources of the downstream tribal populations. Traditional burial sites, pilgrimage locations, and medicinal plant gathering areas were permanently lost. While the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine people were made to bear these burdens, they were given almost no voice in the operation and reclamation of the mine. The Zortman-Landusky case and others of its kind form the foundation of my desire to work as a public interest lawyer
Favorite public service-oriented class? My favorite class as a law student has been Professor Nagin's Issues in Poverty Law seminar. Professor Nagin treats his students to a view of the law that few other classes afford: namely, how poor Americans are deeply affected by a legal system that rarely accounts for the harsh realities of their lives. This seminar challenged students not only to analyze the substantive law that affects the poor, but also to critically evaluate the role of lawyers working with low-income clients. Personally, this seminar helped me answer a question that had been left by my first summer's employment. Would I start my legal career focused on issues or, instead, focused on individuals? At the end of the semester, I had no doubt that I would choose the latter.
Best experience in public service/ pro bono? During law school, my best experiences have come as an intake volunteer with LAJC's Outreach and Child Health Advocacy Projects. Each has enabled me to work directly with members of the local community, helping them to obtain legal advice and secure basic social resources.
What do you want to do after graduation? After law school, I intend to work in a reservation-based legal services office. If I secure fellowship funding, I plan to develop a collaboration that would connect legal services attorneys with doctors and staff in Indian Health Service facilities. Medical-legal collaborations — the Child Health Advocacy Project is a local example — can broaden the client population served, create a more holistic picture of legal needs, and identify specific barriers to medical and social health.
Undergraduate education and hometown: I was born in New York, but grew up on the south side of Richmond, Va. I graduated with a B.A. in English literature from UVA, and then completed two Master's degrees before coming to law school: an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa, and an M.S. in communications from the VCU Adcenter in Richmond.
Public service activities at the law school/during summers: During my 1L year, I was a "court monitor" for the Domestic Violence Project's collaboration with the Shelter for Help in Emergency; I was also a workshop organizer for the Conference on Public Service and the Law. That year, I also took over as project lead for Professor Bonnie's Virginia capital crimes research project, and I did volunteer work through the Virginia Animal Law Society (VALS) for the Charlottesville SPCA.
Towards the end of my first year, I began my term on the PILA board as an auction director, and will continue on the board next year as a membership director. During my 2L year, I served as vice president of public service for VALS, through which I was able to serve on a committee appointed by the Charlottesville City Attorney that was tasked with revising Charlottesville's animal cruelty laws. I also worked on C.A.R.E.'s (Child Advocacy Research & Education) intake project with JustChildren [at the Legal Aid Justice Center], and am currently completing a "freelance" project for JustChildren that involves writing and producing a handbook for parents of kids whose cases have been transferred to adult criminal court.
As far as summers go, this past summer I interned here in Charlottesville at JustChildren, and this summer I'm headed to Washington, D.C., to clerk at the D.C. Public Defender office in their juvenile trial division.
Public service activities/employment pre-law school: For the past few years, I've taught college writing correspondence courses and worked for an online writing lab, both primarily serving ESL students. I've also volunteered for several different chapters of the SPCA (depending on where I was living), as well as a few different educational organizations as a tutor in writing, English, and French, on both the grade school and college level.
What interested you in law and public service? The more I grew as a writer, and the more experience I gained as a writing teacher, the more I realized the power of one's own voice, and the distance a person can sometimes travel in the world if they are simply heard by others around them. I came to law school at, arguably, a bit of a later stage in life than most. The decision to return to school was among the easiest and most difficult I'd ever had to make: certainly, a legal education is not inexpensive, but I felt I had reached a wall in my life, and saw the classic "two paths" diverging before me. On one path, I would continue doing average work with little social consequence from the inside of an office cube, complaining about politics with friends over happy-hour drinks. On the other path, I would stop merely thinking or talking or complaining about the changes I would like to see in the world around me, and find a way to become a part of those changes. Once I made the choice to stop sidelining myself, everything seemed to fall into place. All of the ideas I'd argued about over drinks, or scribbled about in a journal, seemed possible. Probable, even. I was drawn to public service and the law because I thought it was the way I could best help other people — people who have been systematically silenced — to develop their own voices, the way I'd been fortunate enough to develop my own.
Favorite public service-oriented class? There are quite a few such classes that stand out, for different reasons: first, I would have to say the Child Advocacy Clinic, because it involved working with the very clients I hope to be serving after graduation — kids in need.
Also, I'd have to include Race and Law with Professor Forde-Mazrui, and Lawyers & Justice with Professor Brown-Nagin; the readings and discussions in both of those classes have made me think very carefully about the advocate's role in relation to her client, as well as the many ways politics, sociology, history, psychology, and the environment can come into play when working toward social justice.
Finally, I'd also single out Professor Daphne Spain's Urban Theory and Public Policy, a class I took last fall in the Architecture School's Planning Department. I'm very interested in community organizing as a strategy for social change, and Professor Spain's class gave me a great foundation in how communities are built, how they are damaged, and how they respond to change.
Best experience in public service/pro bono? Without a doubt, my best public service experience was interning at JustChildren last summer at the Legal Aid Justice Center here in Charlottesville. My primary case there dealt with juvenile justice issues, specifically juvenile transfer. Our case felt like such a long shot at the time: we were representing a 15-year-old boy who faced considerable adult prison time if his charges and convictions weren't somehow overturned. We were able to come up with a strategy that ultimately resulted in our client's release and dismissal of some very serious felony charges, based on a speedy trial violation. It was one of those cases where you could see so clearly why procedural errors aren't just "technicalities" — our kid was in some form of prison for almost a year because of these procedural problems. I was working with Carolyn Clark (who is now working in the civil advocacy division of the Legal Aid Justice Center), who is simply amazing to me. Her work on this case was truly inspired and inspiring, and it really solidified my commitment to juvenile justice.
What do you want to do after graduation? Too many children are funneled into the justice system, and many will never return to the outside world. My greatest hope is to work with at-risk and incarcerated children, to help provide them with an adequate education, to protect their rights, to prevent them from entering the criminal system in the first place, and if they do, to ensure they are adequately prepared for re-entry back into society. It would be my dream to work in a Legal Aid office that has a juvenile program like JustChildren; I like JustChildren's three-part strategy of direct services, community organizing, and policy work, and would love to participate in all three critical areas. I'm very much interested in the intersection of educational failure and juvenile delinquency.
That said, I'm also excited to work at DCPDS this summer, and could envision myself doing public defense work, as well, especially if it involves representing kids.