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Law program delivers valuable training to disadvantaged teens

Editor’s note: The State Bar hosted five interns this summer through the Center for Youth Development through Law program. This story about the program originally appeared on the UC Berkeley School of Law website and is republished here with permission.

By Andrew Cohen

Everywhere she turns this summer, Cali Luke encounters accomplished professionals “who are truly committed” to her educational and career development. For Luke and 37 other disadvantaged area high school students chosen for this year’s Center for Youth Development through Law (CYDL) program, it’s an eye-opening and often life-changing experience.

Group shot of interns
The State Bar’s interns pose for a group photo. From left to right they are Stephanie Gonzalez, Deisy Garcia, Gerone Alatorre, Cali Luke, Esmerelda Echavarria.

Four days a week, they work as paid interns for law offices, nonprofits, government departments and elected officials. Each Thursday, they come to Berkeley Law for classes that integrate a legal curriculum with life skills and leadership development activities.

“The teachers here are amazing,” said Luke, a rising senior at El Cerrito High School. “They make the lesson plans so interesting and encourage us to actively take part in the discussions. When you see a teacher working hard to engage you, that’s motivating.”

Particularly when the topics and classroom approach are entirely new. In “Race, the Constitution and the Supreme Court”—taught by program alum and City of Berkeley attorney Palomar Sanchez—students review seminal cases and debate timely issues while learning how to craft effective arguments.

Ameer Alkrizy
Ameer Alkrizy of Kennedy High School debates a constitutional law issue.

Discussing current events, including the recent incidents of police violence, allows students to “express anger and frustration about injustices, but also to learn how to analyze situations from a legal perspective—and to understand constructive tools and avenues for making positive change,” said Nancy Schiff, CYDL’s executive director.

An African American, Luke said “talking openly about the struggle that my generation and generations before have gone through is something I’ve never discussed in a class before.” Learning about the Fourth Amendment has been “especially empowering. I always assumed police officers could do what they want; I didn’t realize they can’t legally conduct a search without probable cause.”

The students will take part in two mock trials at Berkeley Law—one as a witness or lawyer, one as a juror—with alumni judges Joni Hiramoto ’87 (Contra Costa Superior Court) and Leo Dorado ’74 (Alameda County Superior Court) presiding. CYDL recently initiated a mock trial program in Richmond high schools, enabling students from low-income backgrounds to compete in a rigorous county competition that previously included only more affluent school districts.

DYale Adams and Wanda Gonzalez
Berkeley High School’s D’Yale Adams and Kennedy High School’s Wanda Gonzalez before mock trial class.

Emphasizing critical thinking and communication skills, the program builds an appreciation for law’s importance “and the positive role law and lawyers play in making the world a better place,” Schiff said. “We also forge a community of peer and adult mentors that will continue to support these students into college and beyond. The aim is to instill a belief that they belong and can be successful on a college campus, in a law school and in a professional workplace regardless of their background.”

All hands on deck

Berkeley Law instructors, students and alums play key roles in the program. This year, Professor David Oppenheimer teaches a segment on the civil rights activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., lecturer James Rule teaches a writing workshop, and Bryn Starbird ’14 teaches the mock trial class. Professor Catherine Albiston serves on CYDL’s Board of Directors, and Professor Bertrall Ross connects program participants with students in Berkeley Law’s First Generation Professionals group.

“This provides a tremendous opportunity for law students to help extend the ladders of opportunity to those striving to go to college and perhaps ultimately a career in the law,” Ross said. “We want to expand connections over the course of this year in hopes of building true and deep mentorship relationships. I think it will mean a lot for the law students to give in this way, and for the CYDL students to be able to broaden their imaginations about what’s possible for them.”

Berkeley Law’s Jessica Hollis ’18, helped coordinate a mentoring event and presented a “Know Your Rights” workshop with classmates Jordan Fraboni ’18 and Pedro Viramontes ’18. The first person in her family to go to college, Hollis appreciates the difficulties first-generation students often face preparing and planning for school—and once in school.

“This program struck me as a great way to reach high school students who express an interest in higher education, and to provide them with the kind of guidance and experience that will help them make that leap to college,” she said. “A lot of people have helped me get to where I am, and I think it’s important to encourage younger students trying to go down a similar path.”

Internships are assigned after students provide feedback about their areas of interest and geographic preferences. Working in the general counsel’s office at the State Bar of California, Luke files judgments and constructs judgment packets, among other tasks. Leandro Gonzalez, a rising junior at Berkeley High School, interns at the law school’s East Bay Community Law Center.

“I’ve learned a lot about housing issues, immigration, health, and welfare—and a lot about interacting with different types of people,” he said. Gonzalez credits the program for expanding his resources and helping him “really explore what it’s like to be a lawyer and how this could be a potential career for me.”

Finding common ground

Beyond the substantive course material, students learn best practices for navigating their education—in and out of the classroom. Over the past few years, the program has offered more robust college application and financial aid information and assistance.  

“My parents didn’t go to college, so I didn’t have any background on that,” Luke said. “We had a guest speaker, a college advisor who gave us tons of helpful information and is available to us as an ongoing resource. That’s what’s so great about this program—we continue to have access to great people and key information long after the summer ends.”

CYDL participants also gain confidence, and acceptance, by learning about challenges their peers have overcome. In one class session, students were asked to place their five happiest and five worst moments on a timeline.

“Everyone was really honest,” Luke said. “You’d never think some of these people had overcome so much. That was really helpful, because it lets you know you’re not the only one who has gone through some hard times.”

Since CYDL launched in 1999, more than 92 percent of participants have enrolled in higher education. This summer’s program concludes with a graduation ceremony August 19, when federal district court Judge Edward Davila will be the keynote speaker.

“This is a great opportunity that builds skills and confidence on many levels, even if you don’t end up going into law,” Luke said. “I’m so grateful to be part of it.”