Do I belong here? As a first generation American, this is a question I grapple with regularly, and one that became particularly stark during my three years at Berkeley Law. I was always acutely aware of the few spaces at Berkeley in which I felt comfortable, as well as those that reminded me that this institution was not made for students like me. I came to law school knowing that I was committed to public interest work, and I chose to attend Berkeley because of its history of activism. My first year, however, was jarring—I felt out of place and I was disappointed with the type of lawyering that was considered to be exemplar. I was frustrated with the myth that law was a panacea for societal failings and that lawyers were at the forefront of social change—how could that be the case when I saw over and over again that law was the mechanism of oppression? The absence of critical conversations during my 1L year made me feel like there was an important part of my law school education that was severely lacking.
My subsequent experience at the Education, Defense, and Justice for Youth (“EDJY”) Clinic at the East Bay Community Law Center was a formative part of law school. Not only did I learn tangible lawyering skills such as client interviewing, oral advocacy, and legal research and writing, I was able to explore the questions that went unanswered during my first year of law school. While in EDJY, I attended hearings at the San Leandro Juvenile Court and watched how EDJY advocates zealously defended their young clients’ agency in a system designed to disempower them. I saw how racist California Education Codes pushed out disabled, poor, and predominantly Black and Brown students and perpetuated the school-to-prison pipeline. And through my work with the Black Organizing Project (“BOP”), I witnessed true social change.
What I loved the most about being an EDJY clinic student was that I was repeatedly able to put theory into practice. For example, I engaged in participatory defense—a concept I had only ever read about—to successfully advocate for a young client from Oakland who was being pushed out of school. By accessing his social network, we gathered numerous witnesses, pictures, and letters of support. At the final expulsion hearing, we were able to remind school administrators that our client was more than the offense he was charged with. Through his community, we showed that he was a kind, compassionate, and thoughtful young person who, like all young people, deserved support rather than discipline.
Furthermore, in EDJY, I saw for the first time what it meant to use the law in service of social movements. In July 2020, BOP successfully passed the George Floyd Resolution and removed police from Oakland schools after over a decade of organizing. BOP had enlisted EDJY lawyers and law students to tackle the legal issues that arose from the district’s termination of school police contracts. My contribution here was small—I researched discipline and arrest rates for Black and Brown students and attended school board meetings in solidarity with BOP. But through my exposure to BOP, I saw how diligent and persistent organizing could change peoples’ hearts and minds. BOP uncompromisingly pushed for police abolition during a time when the concept was considered radical and unattainable. And while EDJY provided legal support, it was BOP organizers who led the charge. Through my time in clinic, I saw the importance of centering the needs of directly impacted people, and I learned what it meant to use the law as a tool rather than as a strategy.
I am inspired by EBCLC’s ability to work at numerous levels to fight back against the million indignities that our clients face everyday. To me, EBCLC is the essence of community lawyering. The staff here provides legal services that address a client’s immediate needs while also engaging in broad-scale policy advocacy and movement lawyering. In that way, EBCLC lawyers and law students are simultaneously on the defensive and the offensive for the most pressing issues facing poor and BIPOC Californians. We are in the governor’s office, at know-your-rights trainings, in school board meetings, and on the streets.
As a future family defense lawyer at Brooklyn Defender Services, I am excited to implement the lessons I learned at EBCLC to my post-graduate position. At EBCLC, I met clients and organizers who reminded me that lasting social change is achieved through building power in communities. I found a space that was willing to have tough conversations that interrogated the legal profession’s complicity in perpetuating oppression. I developed relationships with lawyers—like my wonderful supervisor, Oscar Lopez—who I consider to be role models and exemplary advocates. And perhaps most importantly, EBCLC affirmed that despite the profession’s innumerable obstacles, I belong here.
Written by Pooja Shivaprasad
University of California, Berkeley School of Law Class of 2021
East Bay Community Law Center Education Defense and Justice for Youth: Education Justice Clinical Student