Two recent Harvard Law School graduates, Shannon Erwin ’10 and Alana Greer ’11, have been selected as recipients of grants from the Public Service Venture Fund, a unique program that awards up to $1 million each year to help graduating Harvard Law students and recent graduates obtain their ideal jobs in public service.

The Public Service Venture Fund, a first-of-its kind program at a law school, was launched in 2012 to invite law students and recent alumni to identify unmet legal needs and develop new initiatives to meet them.

The vast unmet legal needs of individuals at risk require more than business as usual. Shannon and Alanna bring vision, creativity, talent, and the resourcefulness of social entrepreneurs to this critical need.

Martha Minow

Erwin and Greer were chosen based on their vision for how to approach a public service problem or help a particular community. Erwin will work with the Muslim Justice League to combat policies that marginalize Muslims and Greer will work with Community Justice Project to empower young people of color.

Dean Martha Minow said: “The vast unmet legal needs of individuals at risk require more than business as usual.  Shannon and Alana bring vision, creativity, talent, and the resourcefulness of social entrepreneurs to this critical need.  It is a privilege and an honor for Harvard Law School to invest in such work.”

Alexa Shabecoff, assistant dean for public service and director of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA), who is directing the Fund, said: “We recognize now more than ever the critical need to expand access to justice. Our past Public Service Venture Fund recipients are having a tremendous impact addressing inequities in underserved communities and confronting challenges in the criminal justice system. I am confident that Alana and Shannon, with their amazing skills and passions, will also make great advances in social justice.”

Supporting “seed grants” for start-up public interest ventures and salary support for fellows undertaking projects at existing organizations, the Venture Fund spearheads social entrepreneurship. The selection process is advised by experienced entrepreneurs, and is rigorous and competitive.

Organization-based fellowship awardees for 2014-15 will be announced in May.

2014-15 Seed Grant Recipients

Shannon Erwin ’10 – The Muslim Justice League

The Muslim Justice League, a partnership of lawyers and scholars professionally shaped during the ongoing “War on Terror,” was formed in response to the discrimination, scrutiny and coercion Muslim communities were facing under national security pretexts.  Through MJL, Shannon Erwin ’10 will work to empower Greater Boston communities with tools to end policies and practices that marginalize Muslims and suppress dissent through targeted legal advocacy, community education and mobilization. To this end, MJL will engage in pro bono consultation and representation for persons approached by the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Erwin said: “In addition to the tremendous assistance the Public Service Venture Fund will provide in allowing us to transform this volunteer initiative into a full-time, staffed organization, I hope it may also bring wider attention to the policies that target Muslims as suspect communities and the way those policies erode all our expectations of due process, suppress dissent, inspire divisive suspicion within our communities, and undermine our democracy.”

MJL will lead community education efforts including Know Your Rights trainings; engage in legal and policy advocacy against policies that target Muslims under national security pretext and coordinate local communities to guide and sustain grassroots advocacy.

Alana Greer ’11 – Community Justice Project

The Community Justice Project, a movement lawyering project that was established as a part of Florida Legal Services, provides legal support and tools to a movement for racial and economic justice led by youth of color. Concentrating their efforts in South Florida, CJP co-founders Alana Greer ’11, Human Rights attorney Meena Jagannath, and attorney Charles Elsesser will support grassroots campaigns led by the Dream Defenders and Power U Center for Social Change, among others, to transform the relationships between police and communities, and envision innovative, new approaches to community safety.

Greer said: “We are passionate about supporting young people of color in the struggle for racial justice and Human Rights. These young leaders have focused their energies on ending the plagues of criminalization and police brutality in their schools and communities. By providing legal support, strategic partnerships, and spaces for innovation to these grassroots organizers, we hope that the Community Justice Project, Inc. can bring their vision for a more just and equal world to fruition here in South Florida and beyond. We also hope to share lessons from our experience in community lawyering with legal allies across the country, and together make this type of practice something every corner of the movement has access to.”

They will use a variety of tactics including litigation, policy advocacy, and human rights forums to amplify grassroots organizing on these issues. In recent months, they have also supported the growth of a local movement lawyering infrastructure in Ferguson, Miss., as founding members of the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee, and helped lead a delegation that included Michael Brown’s parents and movement leaders from Ferguson to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva. The Community Justice Project will continue to work with allies in Florida and beyond so that the voices of those most impacted by systemic and institutional racism are heard and their vision for a more just world becomes a reality.

Where are they now? Seed grant recipients Gina Clayton ’10, Lam Ho ’08, Mercedes Montagnes ’09, Alec Karakatsanis ’08 and Phil Telfeyan ’08

2014 PSVF Recipient: Gina Clayton ’10 – Essie Justice Group

Gina Clayton ’10 was awarded a seed grant to establish Essie Justice Group in San Francisco, California. Essie Justice Group’s mission is to work nationally to engage women with incarcerated loved ones, creating a community in which women are united, trained, and empowered to advocate against mass incarceration. In just its first few months since being seeded, Essie Justice Group has made a noticeable impact on this stigmatized, yet often overlooked, segment of the population. Essie recently piloted a training program for 15 women who, for 9 weeks, participated in programs geared towards trauma healing, managing money through crisis, and advocacy. A number of these women from the pilot group were trained in communications and leadership skills and given the opportunity to travel, do public speaking, and connect with policy advocates. Overall, 67 women with incarcerated loved ones have been nominated to this program by both incarcerated and non-incarcerated people, and Essie Justice Group is currently piloting three more groups. To help further broaden its network and mission, Essie has partnered with 20 Bay Area non-profit organizations to help identify and bring their services to women in need. Essie Justice Group is growing and has received grants in addition to the Public Service Venture Fund. Essie formed a Board of Directors, national Advisory Council, volunteer Program Team, and has hired two staff members. This past year, Essie won two highly competitive grants: the Echoing Green and the Soros Justice Fellowships. Clayton herself was named by Colorlines News for Action as one of “14 Women Who Rocked 2014.” Clayton highlighted some testimonials from the women who participated in the program, including one who said “Essie Justice Group provided and created a space where, for the first time in a long time I felt completely whole. From within the Essie circle of support I saw endless possibilities of positive and powerful transformations. I think about the women of Essie every day. The heavy burdens that I had been carrying alone are now lighter, thanks to Essie’s Place. Essie’s women’s voices and brave lives echo through me every time I talk about the group with other people. I am so very excited about this work and know that you cannot walkaway unchanged once attending these sessions. I hope that the program is given the support needed to grow and build on this phenomenal base.”

2014 PSVF Recipient: Lam Ho ’08 – Community Activism Law Alliance

Lam Ho ’08 received a 2014 seed grant to establish Community Activism Law Alliance (CALA) in Chicago, Illinois. CALA’s mission is to “bring legal services directly to disadvantaged communities that otherwise do not have access to legal assistance.” CALA uses an innovative practice model – community activism lawyering – to not only provide legal services but also support grassroots activism in the community. This is done through establishing law clinics directly in the communities they serve in collaboration with local activist organizations. CALA has been very active in its first year of existence, building a steady stream of clients, and partnerships. Since this past October, CALA has set-up three “community activism law clinics:” One for undocumented immigrants, one for day laborers, and one for sex workers (which is the second legal clinic of its kind in the United States). CALA will also be launching a fourth clinic in partnership with Centro de Trabajadores Unidos: Immigrant Workers Project (CTU) to create a community activism clinic that will support the far south side of Chicago. CALA is making a big impact in the communities, serving over 150 families. Through their law clinics, they have provided free legal assistance, self-advocacy and extended assistance, and representation to families in immigration, family, employment/labor, housing, criminal records, public benefits, and consumer law. One notable success was stopping a deportation mid-flight. In addition to its clinics, CALA has provided community legal education to an additional 200+ families. CALA has provided workshops, trainings, and outreach sessions to over families on the west and south sides of Chicago. CALA is also looking at ways it can expand its clinical services, including partnering with a program through the Chicago Bar Foundation to help expand one of its clinics in the Little Village neighborhood. CALA is also expanding its operations to include two attorneys, both summer and academic internship programs, and several volunteers, which CALA hopes will extend its services and reach.

2014 PSVF Recipient: Mercedes Montagnes ’09 – The Promise of Justice Initiative

Mercedes Montagnes was awarded a seed grant in 2014 to support her organization, The Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) based in New Orleans, Louisiana. PJI advocates for humane, fair, and equal treatment of individuals in the criminal justice system including the abolition of the death penalty in Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the United States, conditions for inmates often fail to meet basic constitutional standards. PJI works to address these conditions through targeted impact litigation, individual representation, and policy reform. PJI has been active in cases ranging from extreme temperatures in prisons, and on death row; medical care in prisons; addressing concerns with prisoners facing lethal injection and numerous other issues facing the prison population in Louisiana. Montagnes reported that PJI recently argued an appeal in Houston with the support of the Department of Justice regarding extreme heat in Louisiana prisons. For the same appeal, Montagnes collected amicus briefs from the Department of Justice, the Texas prison guards’ union, Disability Rights Texas, and the families of prisoners in Texas who died as a result of extreme heat. PJI negotiated seven-month stay of execution statewide in the course of ongoing litigation regarding lethal injection. PJI filed petitions for certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of defendants convicted based upon non-unanimous juries (Louisiana is one of only two states to allow a jury to convict a person based upon a 10-2 vote). PJI also recently completed an intensive investigation relating to medical care for a forthcoming prisoner class action lawsuit PJI plans to file. Through its Client Welfare Project, PJI supported the release and re-entry of one exoneree as well as one man released after 40 years with a hard-fought reduced sentence, and has offered support to over 250 incarcerated individuals in Louisiana in the form of letters, family phone contact, hygiene materials, medical necessities, and birthday and holiday cards.

2013 PSVF Recipients: Alec Karakatsanis ’08 and Phil Telfeyan ’08 – Equal Justice Under Law

In the inaugural year of the Public Service Venture Fund, the law school awarded its first seed grant award to Alec Karakatsanis and Phil Telfeyan, both members of the Harvard Law School Class of 2008. With their grant, they founded Equal Justice Under Law (EJUL), a nonprofit civil rights law firm dedicated to challenging the role of the profit motive in areas related to the criminal system. EJUL made exciting progress and boasted significant successes under their first year of their seed grant. Some highlights included:

  • EJUL investigated rising debtors’ prison practices in dozens of cities and filed a major class action lawsuit against the City of Montgomery, Alabama. EJUL recently formalized this landmark settlement agreement, which will result in a complete overhaul of Montgomery’s court costs and fines, as well as reform the city’s Municipal Court.
  • EJUL litigated their first civil rights trial– a constitutional challenge in federal court to Alabama’s sex offender registration laws. They have completed post-trial briefing and are currently awaiting a verdict.
  • EJUL filed three major federal civil rights cases against the District of Columbia and numerous police officers regarding the militarization of D.C. police and the use of violent home raids by armed officers throughout the impoverished African American community in D.C.
  • Filed two landmark class action lawsuits seeking to end the rise of modern debtors’ prisons in Ferguson and Jennings, Missouri.

EJUL’s work has also been featured in numerous articles and publications, such as the New YorkerNational Public Radio, and the Washington Post. Equal Justice Under Law was recently renewed for a second year of funding through the PSVF and hopes to build on the momentum it gained in 2014. Karakatsanis and Telfeyan recently reported on their goals in their second year. “We have set a goal of expanding our successful debtors’ prison work to at least two additional cities in 2015. We also hope to bring at least two more cases concerning the increasing militarization of the D.C. police. Further, we hope to bring challenges to the bail systems of at least three states in an effort to end the practice of incarcerating defendants prior to trial based solely on their inability to afford a monetary payment. Each of these projects will involve extensive collaboration with community groups, organizers, affected people, and local lawyers, as well as meticulous on-the-ground factual investigation.”