My time in the Clean Slate Clinic at EBCLC was one of the most formative parts of my law school experience. As most lawyers will tell you, you learn to become a lawyer doing experiential work, not in the classroom. My time in the clinic, which spanned four semesters, enhanced me as a future lawyer and a person.
As someone who likes to be exposed to all kinds of work, I was excited when I was the “floater” my first semester with Clean Slate, taking on assignments from each of the Record Remedies, Decriminalization of Poverty, and Homelessness units. Although the work differs substantively, all units share a commitment to helping people navigate harmful systems in a compassionate and effective way.
Something I will always carry with me is EBCLC’s client-centered approach. Again and again, my supervisors emphasized that everything we did was guided by the desires of our clients. Every attorney in Clean Slate genuinely cared for their clients and approached them with humility and understanding. Rebecca, my Record Remedies supervisor, always made sure our clients knew that they controlled their own story, even though the courts demand a certain narrative to prove “rehabilitation.”
My favorite part about direct services work is the opportunity to connect with people. Ideally, our clients wouldn’t need our services or need to reveal intimate details about their lives to a stranger to address a legal issue. Still, I try to make the best of the situation by making client interviews feel like conversations. One of my fondest memories from clinic is sharing music taste and getting DJing tips from a client, a conversation that started organically while I was getting information for a petition to vacate a conviction for immigration purposes.
One of my favorite parts of the Clean Slate Clinic was our weekly meetings where one person choose a topic and a couple of readings for the group to discuss. It broadened my thinking about the work beyond the day-to-day direct services and allowed me to connect with other attorneys in the practice who had years of experience and insight to share. I got so much insight from Rebecca, Maureen, Jael, Candy, and Osha in those meetings.
My time in Clean Slate’s Homelessness practice was also transformative for me professionally and politically. In that capacity, I worked directly with people living in encampments in Berkeley. One day, my supervisor, Osha, told me that there was going to be an eviction defense in opposition to an encampment sweep in Berkeley and invited me to come along with him. I had never been to something of the sort, and it immediately interested me.
I ended up sticking around the whole day and coming back the next day too. What I learned there, listening to the stories and challenges of people in that community of tent and vehicle-dwellers, changed my life. I already had a clear understanding that homelessness resulted from systemic — not individual — failure. But I also had the idea that the government had not solved the problem due to a lack of resources or a lack of knowledge on how to address the issue. After speaking to members of that community, I learned that the city was not simply neglecting its unhoused residents, it was actually actively hindering their survival. By the same token, I came to understand how interdependent and self-sufficient many encampment communities are. One of many examples of the municipality’s harmful behavior is its refusal to allow trash services for folks in encampments, even when they are able to pay for the service, the way any housed person has the right to do. Then, the resulting lack of cleanliness is used to justify sweeping away people’s entire lives.
Afterwards, when I was asked to write a memo about constitutional legal arguments to prevent encampment sweeps, I felt inspired, driven, and motivated by what I had seen and heard on the ground. Sometimes, legal research and writing can feel disconnected from real people and communities, but that was never the case for me at EBCLC.
A year later, I found myself rolling tires with another inspiring supervisor, Brigitte, at the Wood St. encampment in Oakland. We were helping a woman move her belongings to the other side of the arbitrary line that CalTrans had set as the outer boundary of their sweep. Brigitte had been litigating a temporary restraining order case on behalf of the residents of Wood St. and was on the ground daily when CalTrans started clearing people out. Brigitte was there to not only make sure that the city workers and police were not violating the law, but also to be a pair of hands to help out in any way possible. This speaks not only to Brigitte’s commitment, but also to the severe lack of people and resources that go towards supporting our unhoused neighbors.
Brigitte’s approach to lawyering — what feels like true movement lawyering — reminds me that being a lawyer never means I’m above any kind of work and that small acts of kindness are as important as any legal argument. It’s frustrating and heartbreaking that the system doesn’t care for our most vulnerable — vulnerability that the system created in the first place. But, we can be the change we want to see in the world through simple, daily interactions of care and love. The world won’t become a better place until we decide to make it happen ourselves. I will always carry my time in Clean Slate as a reminder to keep up the good fight and to keep getting my hands dirty.
Written by Natasha Mangham
University of California, Berkeley School of Law Class of 2023
East Bay Community Law Center Clean Slate Clinical Student