Making your way into the World Trade Center PATH station at 8:30 on Monday morning is like being a lone salmon swimming upstream to spawn. One escalator at the station descends to the trains headed to Jersey, while seven ascend from the platforms, carrying Newark residents from their affordable housing to their jobs in lower Manhattan. Even though lower Manhattan is in many ways still reeling from the devastation of 9/11, the economic opportunities it offers to the people of Newark sparkle in comparison to the prospects available at home, a once-thriving center of industry where, today, the city government is Newark’s largest employer.
Along with five other NYU Law students, I made this counterintuitive commute daily for a week in March to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) as part of the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program of Law Students for Human Rights (LSHR)—a week of working, observing and learning.
Last spring, when the Public Interest Law Center first urged LSHR to consider Newark, I thought we might have trouble selling the city as an appealing spring break destination, even to the most public interest-minded law students—and then, in May, I saw Cory Booker speak at NYU Law’s convocation.
Booker related to the Class of 2007 how, as a young Yale Law graduate living in a violence-plagued Newark housing project, he learned from his neighbors to see beneath the troubled surface of the world around him. Tears streamed down my face. He impressed upon me the impact my classmates and I could make just by the way in which we live our lives. “Stand tall,” he said.
Less than a year later, I was standing before the mayor with my fellow spring breakers at a meeting arranged by NJISJ. Booker was every bit as inspiring in the intimate meeting as he had been on the stage of Madison Square Garden. He asked each of us in turn about our backgrounds, interests and ambitions, engaging us on topics ranging from high school nicknames to same-sex marriage. Although Newark is the largest city in New Jersey, Newark’s public interest lawyers and community organizers emphasize how small and close-knit their community feels to them.
During the week, the six ASB interns took turns working on behalf of Reentry Legal Services, one of NJISJ’s partners, calling ex-offenders to offer legal services. I spent hours on the phone on behalf of one man, recently released from prison, who suffered from short-term memory loss and cognition difficulties, helping him to navigate an expansive array of entities comprising the Motor Vehicles Commission and several municipal courts whose approval he needed to get his driver’s license restored. This was necessary for him to be eligible for most of the employment that was available to ex-offenders. Other students drafted petitions to expunge stale criminal records, including a petition on behalf of a 40-year-old client who had just been denied a job promotion because of a conviction for shoplifting when she was 17.
Our work with NJISJ also touched on New Jersey handgun regulation, an integral part of Booker’s public safet y platform, as well as collateral damage from aggressive law enforcement policies, such as a “juvenile waiver” rule that meant that young defendants accused of certain crimes were automatically tried as adults. Our accomplishments were modest, but had an impact nonetheless.
For me, the week was an opportunity to take a step back from school and draw encouragement from the inspiring people around me—from the Newarkers overcoming major obstacles every day just to survive to the attorneys advocating for the city and still making time to embrace us visitors with open arms, to our site leader, Dan Meyler ’09, who spent months learning about Newark, attending conferences, and making connections in order to present us with the array of hands-on opportunities that we enjoyed. I got to remove my law school blinders and see a troubled New Jersey city as something else—a testament to America’s urban plight, but also to its enduring spirit of revitalization, just five miles from Manhattan.
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