A new class in law and social justice brings the stuff of legal seminars into the undergrad classroom. And sends students out into the community to understand where theory meets the street.
Our assignment: Put a face to the legal theory we were studying in the class “Law and Social Justice.” The place: a local community center—perhaps a soup kitchen or a legal clinic. I found myself drawn to Casa de Clara in San Jose. The description for it read: “Interact and have dinner with homeless women (and young children) in an intimate home-like shelter.”
It’s one thing to read about complexities ... but that learning really hits home when you’re helping a homeless woman navigate the complex process of filing a request for food stamps.
During my weekly Wednesday-evening visits to the shelter, serving dinner and listening and learning, one of the residents I met was a woman I’ll call Deanna M. She grew up in a small town on the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala., in the 1950s. Deanna, who is African-American, shared memories of her daily journey to school: being shot at and riding a school bus past dummies hanging from nooses. Only more amazing than Deanna’s having survived such oppression was her attitude toward what she had endured—and the fact that she is homeless now.
“You don’t give up hope, you don’t give up your dreams,” Deanna said.
That, and she takes pains to point out that the South today is a very different place.
Casa de Clara was founded in 1978 by Peter Miron-Conk ’71 and wife Norma. The dinners I experienced at this Victorian home gave life to the concepts taught in class by law professors Deborah Moss-West J.D. ’94 and Stephanie M. Wildman, who modeled the course on a law school seminar in law and social justice.
It’s one thing to read about complexities—and bias in the system—that are part and parcel of federal assistance programs; but that learning really hits home when you’re helping a homeless woman navigate the complex process of filing a request for food stamps. That’s why the experience at Casa de Clara, arranged through the Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Partnerships for Community-Based Learning, is described by program director Laurie Laird as “the textbook that you live.”
Advocates one and all
“Theory informs practice and practice informs theory,” says Wildman, co-author of Social Justice: Professionals, Communities, and Law: Cases and Materials. “Giving people vocabulary to talk about issues is important.”
Also important is learning how to access legal aid—something most students didn’t know how to do when the class began. Although the course is structured from a legal background, its emphasis on critical thinking and social awareness are applicable to any career path. “Whether students want to become a lawyer or not, these skills enable them to become advocates,” says Moss-West.