Before COVID and remote learning, I used to commute to Rutgers Law every day. Driving from South Philly I would drive over the bridge, look out at the Delaware River, and recklessly merge onto New Jersey traffic towards Camden. My favorite part of my commute, however; was turning onto Cooper Street. Directly next to Rutgers Law in Camden, right there on Cooper Street is a public elementary school. Every morning I would see smiling families dropping off their students for school at the nearby elementary schools, and I could hear the students laughing and eagerly running to learn. I definitely miss those commutes.
Those brief moments would remind me why I chose to go to Law school, and provide me a little extra positive energy for my classes.
Prior to Law School, I was a Special Ed English teacher in Kensington, Philadelphia. For four years I knew the joy of watching students use their curiosity, their critical thinking, and their problem solving skills to grow into effective communicators, independent thinkers, and meaningful contributors to their communities. I also knew too much about fortnight dances, alien conspiracies, and viral videos courtesy of my students. However, what lesson stuck with me most during my time in the classroom was how student achievement today is still influenced by structural racism through the interconnection of housing, health, nutrition, law enforcement, employment and education. Exploring the root causes of education inequity motivated me to pursue a legal education in the hopes of one day having different tools to advocate for students. This educational path led me to Rutgers.
My first year of law school started off a little rough. It had been a few years since my master’s in education so I felt out of practice. The long readings, the new academic jargon, the pressure to succeed while competing with your peers was all a part of a different atmosphere than the educational spaces I was coming from. 1L year also consists of a mandatory classes that, while I was happy to be learning about, didn’t always directly connect with my interests. I wanted to learn more about public interest law. I wanted to work more with people. Most pressingly, I wanted to work with communities in ways that directly relate to the structural racism that impacts student achievement. Interestingly, my brief time at Law School led me right back into the classroom through the Rutgers Street Law Program – thankfully.
Street Law is a pro bono program offered to Rutgers Law student volunteers to provide students in Camden the legal knowledge and civic skills to succeed as adults, combat inequality, and participate effectively in their communities. This free of cost program for our partner schools offers lessons on varied topics including "Know Your Rights," Financial Literacy, Housing and Employment law, Personal and Public Safety, and the Court System.
Lessons and programing are tailored to address the student’s interests. For Rutgers students who are interested, no prior teaching experience is required, and through the Street Law national organization, Rutgers provides scripted curriculum that law students can adapt and implement in their classrooms. This program was perfect for me. It gave me a small way to address structural racism through education. With my prior teaching experience, I became one of the student leaders tasked with connecting Camden institutions, promoting student interest, and training Rutgers volunteers.
Street Law became a little sanctuary for me while at Rutgers. I really enjoy working with my like-minded peers as we collaborate together to support their students. I’m pretty hopeful about the program. I think there’s a vision to better connect Rutgers resources with the people of Camden. As students we share sidewalks with the people of Camden, but we rarely interact with the Camden people. Often, I would hear Rutgers Law students speak negatively about Camden – how it is dangerous. I’d love to see Rutgers Law students move past these stereotypes by actively building relationships with Camden and its residents.
To this end, I believe teaching is an invaluable experience that can help an inspiring lawyer develop the cultural competency skills needed to be successful in client interactions – especially for public interest lawyers. One of the main takeaways I hope our Rutgers student volunteers have when they are in the program is the realization that, although they are providing legal educational programing for the Camden community, they are receiving just as much, if not more, educational programing in the form of cultural competency.
I hope we take on the mindset of servants, not saviors so that we can learn to listen to our community needs first, rather than come in with our plans. Finally, I hope the volunteer’s experience with Street Law is joyful, informative, and even inspiring so that they may consider a career in public interest, or maybe take their experiences with them as they move into other facets of the law. At the very least, I hope their experience can provide them a little positivity and motivation – Just like it has for me.