Activists in Training

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Stein Center News caught up with 1L Stein Scholars Leanne Fornelli ’19 and Christopher Pedro ’19 to find out what motivated them to join Stein Council as this year’s 1L representatives and get more involved with activism on and off campus. Leanne, who is interested in the intersection of women’s rights and racial justice, and Chris, who wants to continue to learn how criminal justice reform can be used to protect indigent communities and stop mass incarceration, share their thoughts on organizing a city-wide law school coalition, participating in the Women’s March, activism at the Law School and beyond and the Stein Scholars Program.

How has the election impacted you and your work with the Stein Program?

Leanne: Although I came to law school committed to pursuing a service-related career and I had periodically been involved in activism during and after college, I was planning to spend the bulk of my 1L year focused on classes, studying, and grades. The election, however, was a wake-up call and since then I have been splitting my time between studies and activism. The activism is imperative right now, but it is also connected to my future as a public interest lawyer. I always knew I would eventually shift my focus towards public service while at law school, but I didn’t expect that I would need to be part of the in-the-streets resistance during my first semester here.

Chris: I decided to go to law school as opposed to pursuing a different graduate path because I was excited at how quickly you can work with disaffected people while a law student. I selected Fordham over other law schools because, during an open house, there was an inspiring presentation on clinical and service-related opportunities and both areas were showcased as examples of some of the best of what Fordham has to offer. I also met Stein Scholar Frank Kearl ’18 at the open house and he told me about the variety of activities students had organized in conjunction with last year’s Week Against Mass Incarceration and that was also a deciding factor in my decision to come to Fordham.

The election threw everything into chaos. The day after the election, I spent 24 hours feeling completely hopeless. But immediately thereafter, we began to organize around the Women’s March, which gave me hope, and now we are working in coalition with other student groups, such as Advocates for the Incarcerated and Immigration Advocacy Project, as well as in conjunction with other area law schools, on key issues. I have had to refocus my energy. Conventional wisdom says that the focus of 1L year should be on getting good grades, so I have had to adjust to accommodate a different mindset. By engaging in activities that touch on longterm and real-world plans and goals, I am feeling reinvigorated. I am able to be a better student when I am also doing my part to make a difference in the world around me.

Leanne: It has been interesting to see the impact of the election on students who were not already politically inclined. For example, when we organized a sign-making event for the Women’s March, some people who came to make signs had never connected with the Public Interest Resource Center (PIRC) office or a student group before, so we were reaching a whole new audience.

How did you decide to work in partnership with other area law schools?

Leanne: Leah Horowitz, PIRC’s director of student organizations & publicity, and Stein Scholar Sahar Moazami ’17 had the idea of bringing together students from different law schools, because our impact as law students can be so much greater when we join forces. The first meeting of the NYC Metro Area Law Student Coalition on January 11 was so exciting because there was such a great turn-out. Over 30 students and administrators attended the meeting from about 9 law schools. Since then, we have had two additional meetings and they were equally uplifting. We created a Facebook group, which allows us to stay connected, expand the network, and coordinate our work, and we have started a weekly e-newsletter, which enables us to share information on relevant activities taking place at our schools and in the community.

Chris: It has been great seeing the work that other law students are doing. Each school has its own political and social culture and it has been interesting to learn about the differences and to understand how those differences impact students’ engagement. We plan to coordinate citywide know-your-rights trainings. The ultimate goal is to organize collaboratively on lots of different issues, because we are stronger together than we are individually.

Leanne: In terms of contributing to and participating in the NY Women’s March, first we had to make a plan that involved the participating law schools. We decided to encourage students to be legal observers and to march as a united contingent of law students. We picked a place to meet and then disseminated that information to the right people at each school. It was an organizational challenge, but it all came together. On the day of the march, we were bombarded with questions via text and phone by students from lots of different law schools. We had to stay calm in order to be able to respond appropriately to each inquiry. In the end, about 50 students wound up marching together as part of the NYC Metro Area Law Student Coalition. It was a great feeling!

What can you tell us about being part of the Stein Scholars Program?

Leanne: I’m so grateful for the opportunity to learn from other Stein Scholars about how to be an effective organizer and improve my time management skills. I am learning how to galvanize energy and marshal great ideas into action plans. The training I am receiving as a 1L has been incredible – a crash course in organizing.

Chris: Before I started law school, I had no real experience as an organizer. Now I am learning so much. There is a tremendous amount of important work that needs to be done, and students want to be active now more than ever. We are mobilizing and channeling students’ passion and concern into activism. The Stein Scholars Program is great because it represents an automatic support system. I am amazed and inspired by the willingness of Stein Scholars to help each other out. It is an invaluable resource and community.

Leanne: Everyone has leadership skills, but everyone can benefit from improving those skills. At first it is intimidating, but then you learn how to abandon your fears and jump in – the current state of affairs demands it, and upperclass Steins model how to be effective leaders while at the same time encourage us to be leaders in our own right. It is reassuring to know that fellow Steins figured out a way to balance being a student with activism and that by stepping up, you can make a difference and have an impact. After observing others making a difference, you realize that you can too.

We organized a poster-making event at Fordham the day before the march. It turned out to be a good organizing tool in and of itself because everyone who came to make a poster wound up showing up at the march too, even if that wasn’t their initial plan. It was a good lesson in how to bring in a broad range of students, even those who are more inclined to put studies over community involvement. 

Chris: That is one of our biggest challenges right now – how to reach non-activists. You can’t be apolitical in this climate. We need to figure out how to use our collective voices to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable among us.

What are some plans for the future?

Leanne: We are continuing to build and strengthen the NYC Metro Area Law School Coalition. We hope to organize legal-observer and know-your-rights trainings at Fordham Law School and to use those to get people involved. Once we get them off the ground at Fordham, we would like to bring those trainings to the broader coalition of law schools.

Additionally, we have been attending Fordham’s Coalition of Concerned Students student-faculty meetings. The Coalition of Concerned Students seeks to combat discrimination and bias at the Law School. Recently, we have discussed how to go about de-escalating hate speech. There has been an increase in hate speech and hate crimes throughout the city and we think it is important that all of us learn how to de-escalate situations and protect people who are being attacked and marginalized.

At these meetings, we have also discussed how to best use fact-based discourse to reach across the aisle and effectively advocate for a position. This could be another way to engage more students. We envision creating and displaying a Center for Fact-Based Arguments that is both advocacy-related and based on facts. 

A big challenge with our efforts will be to resist being constantly on the defensive and reactive. We need to be thinking creatively and outside the box, anticipating changes and then responding affirmatively and coherently.

Chris: Another recent focus of our activism was the Week Against Mass Incarceration, which took place from February 27 to March 3. Students helped construct a solitary confinement cell, to bring the ramifications of using that enforcement tool home to students. There were also lots of speakers addressing mass incarceration and the relationship between racism and the criminal justice system.

What has it been like to be the Stein Council 1L representatives?

Chris: When I ran to be a 1L representative, I didn’t realize the full breadth of what Stein Council does and I didn’t appreciate how much control students have within the Stein Scholars Program. If Stein Scholars raise an issue, Stein Council is in a position to be able to respond quickly. We are also able to support and help coordinate all of the work that individual Steins and Stein committees are doing to advance the work of the program and social justice. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience because I am able to facilitate so many worthwhile undertakings. We are helping to make real change happen. 

Leanne: I am really enjoying the sense of duty that accompanies being a 1L representative on the Stein Council, which is a responsibility I take seriously. I appreciate that my fellow council members hold me accountable. I am definitely learning how to be a more effective leader, but there have been growing pains for sure. At first, I struggled with my timidity because I was terrified of making mistakes, but I am learning how to plow forward and get things done.

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