Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: “Being Proximate— A Holistic Approach to Youth Advocacy
Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.
This week, the 2014-15 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. (This year’s Pro Bono Publico Award recipient, Alex Dutton, will publish his blog next week when he receives his award.) Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Boston College Law School student Shannon Johnson, a multi-talented advocate single-mindedly dedicated to immigrant youth and the inaugural student in Boston College Law School’s hybrid immigration and juvenile clinic.
Being Proximate–A Holistic Approach to Youth Advoacy
Shannon Johnson, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2014-2015 (Boston College Law School)–
I will never forget the night I heard Bryan Stevenson’s keynote address at the “Rebellious Lawyering” Conference for aspiring public interest attorneys. (As you may know, Bryan Stevenson does prolific civil rights work in the south.) I was in my first year of law school and already felt alienated from my public service goals. I had pursued a legal education to work with immigrant youth and domestic violence survivors. I hoped to grow into a community lawyer, but actually lost my community connections while shuffling from torts class to legal research seminars. In my disconnected state, I was still able to latch onto something Bryan said during his talk. He urged us to seek to be proximate to the communities that we desired to serve. In other words, true social justice advocates must leave our comfort zones to meet community needs. We had to challenge the confines of prestige found even in the public interest community (i.e. the pressure to accept prestigious fellowships in world-class cities).
I internalized Bryan’s words. What did it mean to be proximate to a community when I was immersed in a world that felt so alienating? I struggled with this understanding, especially after living and working as a domestic violence advocate in East Los Angeles. There, I had an understanding of the community that was much deeper than my connections to my new home in Boston. For me, it meant seeking to understand the community in which you wanted to work and not just look to be understood. It meant building personal relationships and partnering with communities. It meant applying humility to advocacy and listening to what a community asks of you (if anything) rather than speaking to what you think a community needs.
I had to challenge my faulty assumptions that ample advocacy opportunities existed in my New Boston home. After working in Los Angeles, I thought that I was working on the forefront of issues facing immigrant teens and undocumented people. After hearing Bryan speak, I knew I needed to listen a little more closely. I knew that my job was to seek understanding of my new greater community, rather than to expect it to first understand (and embrace) me. And as I scratched the surface, I found equivalent concerns and need in Boston as existed in Los Angeles, especially concerning immigrant juveniles.
Since then, the stories I have encountered engaging in clinics and community work have since jolted me out of my first year slump:
A foster youth nearing 18 wants leave the confines of juvenile detention and enter a supportive home placement. A teenager must decide whether to live with a guardian— a stranger to him—or reconcile with his abusive father in order to obtain a visa and subsequent green card. A young man flees his home country for the U.S., where he has no friends or family, in order to escape threats against his life. An undocumented young woman survives rape in the U.S. and has the opportunity to obtain legal status and reunite with her family—but still needs to emotionally heal from her trauma in order to talk about her immigration case. An undocumented teen parent fights for more time with her son but fears entering family court because of her legal status.
As I engaged more with clinics and community work in Boston, scenarios like these made apparent to me the pressing need for holistic legal services to tackle the very adult concerns facing immigrant youth. The youth I served must make very adult decisions while at a developmentally critical stage in life. Immigration concerns, such as being in removal proceedings, navigating life without legal status, or fearing the deportation of a loved one, only exacerbate their trauma. Language barriers also prevent young people from accessing the help they need or effectively advocating for themselves. Many immigrant youth experience trauma from exposure to violence in the U.S. and their home countries or from unstable family situations or intimate partner relationships. Youth also are vulnerable to sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation.
The challenges that many young people face—I quickly realized— required advocates willing to connect youth to supportive services, versed in immigration law, and informed about other civil legal systems. Most importantly, systems-involved youth with immigration issues need advocates to foster a trusting relationship and provide client-centered services that educate and empower youth.
One of the ways that I was able to address young people’s need for holistic services was by partnering with Professor Mary Holper (Director of the Boston College Immigration Clinic) and Francine Sherman (Director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project) to develop an immigration and juvenile hybrid clinic. The goal of this clinic, in part, was to provide holistic advocacy for systems-involved youth with immigration issues.
My goal for the clinic, developed with the mentorship of Professors Holper and Sherman, was to intensively work with young clients to 1) identify their ‘big picture’ goals; 2) counsel youth on their legal options and strategize with them the approach they wanted to take to solve their legal issues or achieve their goals; 3) empower youth by making them stakeholders invested in their case; 4) empower them through education on their legal options; and 5) connect youth with supportive services and collaborate with social workers as needed. Most frequently, the young person and I would navigate their immigration issues along with the family and juvenile court systems. The hybrid clinic has continued this year, hosting two students representing young people in immigration and juvenile cases. My work in the clinic demonstrated the tremendous need for immigration reform, especially for young people. I also had the chance to engage in similar work during my summer internships and other volunteer work which confirmed this.
Taking a youth-centered and holistic approach to advocacy is also my way of growing proximate to the community. It streamlines complicated processes, like family court, foster care, and delinquency proceedings, when one advocate understands the interplay between these systems. Moreover, working with service providers to ensure access to supportive resources stabilizes a young person’s life in order to successfully pursue legal forms of relief.
My experience has taught me the undeniable importance of legal status for systems-involved youth. Obtaining a work permit or Lawful Permanent Residency creates life-altering (and positive) changes in the life of a vulnerable young person. Suddenly a young person can work and have access to income to support themselves of their families. A young person facing intimate partner violence might no longer fear calling the police during an incident of violence. College becomes a feasible goal because financial aid is available. A parenting teen can more confidently enter family court to request child custody or child support thereby creating a better life for the teen’s child. The options for youth to obtain legal status must continue to reach every young person. Solving immigration needs, along with a holistic approach to youth advocacy, is one positive step in the direction of creating stable lives for systems involved youth navigating their complex lives. It is being proximate to the realities facing this community.