Joan Vermeulen has served as a volunteer with the Feerick Center for Social Justice since March 2014. Vermeulen is a public interest lawyer and has served in many leadership positions, including as executive director of the Vance Center for International Justice and of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
How would you describe your public interest career?
I have always been interested in the issue of equality and efforts to improve the lives of marginalized and disadvantaged people and communities. Fighting for equality can improve lives, and all of us have the capacity to help create a world where opportunity and resources are more equitably distributed. I really consider this a moral, political, and constitutional issue. As I looked for work as a lawyer I always looked for
opportunities where I could help bring about these kinds of changes. So I worked in legal services—for many years on housing and health issues for low-income people and then on issues related to environmental justice. Many of these practice areas have an overarching theme: They involve laws that could be helpful to marginalized and disadvantaged people and communities but are not because of a lack of access to either the knowledge about those laws or a lack of access to lawyers to help realize fully the potential and intent of those laws.
What have you enjoyed the most as a volunteer at the Feerick Center?
First, volunteering with the Feerick Center has been a wonderful experience and a wonderful way to learn about and get involved in important issues that are new to me. The Feerick Center has a unique way of identifying emerging issues and developing approaches—all of which is very interesting to me and is providing me with insights into other ways to engage in social justice.
Second, working with grant-funded staff and dean’s fellows has been a terrific experience and total delight. I feel so very lucky to be able to spend time with the center staff and to learn more about what young people are thinking. All of them are committed to working for social justice and have interesting life stories. Sometimes it is very easy to get isolated in one’s own age group. I have really benefitted from working with them and getting to know them and how they see the world.
Third, I really enjoyed working on the Feerick Center’s strategic plan, which was an effort undertaken in advance of the center’s 10th anniversary. I have seen too many organizations get started on the right foot but then falter because no one thinks about institutionalizing the organization over time. I think the Feerick Center engaged in a robust strategic planning process and hope that the final document will serve as a useful guide for the Feerick Center as it plans its next decade.
What are the issues that interest you the most as an experienced public interest leader?
One of the things that I have enjoyed about volunteering with Feerick Center is getting involved in issues that had interested me in the past but which were issues that I had not been fully engaged in and been deeply informed.
I’ve had an opportunity to learn about new issues and what is happening around these issues in New York City and around the country. One example is educational equity, which is an issue that I think is critically important for the future of democracy.
I have enjoyed being involved in the LEEAP Educational Component and volunteering at Henry Street Settlement. Another thing that interests me right now is the state of democracy and voting rights and what we can do to address problems with the democratic process that the country is facing.
What advice do you have for senior lawyers who are in transition and/or contemplating retirement?
It helps to have a plan ahead of time and not to think about transition and retirement at the point when you are leaving a position or firm. It is the lack of planning or the thinking about it that can make the transition difficult for senior lawyers. My advice is that, before senior lawyers stop working full time, they should think about the interests that matter to them the most and that require legal skills. Senior lawyers should think about volunteering through their law firm, their law school, or other legal services organizations. Identify those issues and then try, on pro bono basis, to get involved and see how it goes.
Most of all, it is really important to find something to do! Otherwise, it is easy to feel that you are no longer relevant. Senior lawyers should find a place where their skills are useful.
Any final thoughts or reflections?
I have thought a lot about the following question: How do you change people’s ways of thinking?
While I think the law is one important way to address injustices and important problems, legal advocacy does not change people’s way of thinking broadly. One can see this, time and again, with negative public reactions to Supreme Court decisions. This challenge is always an issue for social justice lawyers, who try litigation, get a positive response from the courts, and then work to build public support and change in public attitudes.
Sometimes legal wrongs are so egregious that lawyers must work to create a change in the law. But it is also important for social justice lawyers to communicate how important social justice legal victories have been and how they have affected everyone’s lives for the better.
One great example involves voting rights: Impact litigation and other legal advocacy did not just expand enfranchisement for people of color but also for young people by giving citizens 18 years of age and over the right to vote. That is just one example of how law changes lives beyond just litigation and advocacy.
Another example is an effort I was involved in about 15 years ago at public education on key legal issues. We worked with artists to create 15 street signs related to and located near a legal event or a legal case that changed lives. The effort was called “Civil Disturbances” and involved for example putting up a sign near the offices of the NAACP related to school desegregation cases. This is just one example of how to engage with the public more broadly to increase awareness about how changes in the law can really benefit everybody.