By Cynthia Huynh, Berkeley Law School Public Interest Fellow
Often times, advocates forget that our role is more than crafting the most persuasive argument; perhaps an equally important objective is to support the client in finding her own voice so that, long after we have closed her file, she continues being her own life-long advocate. I have been fortunate to learn this valuable lesson in advocacy through MHAS’ newly-formed pilot program, LawWorks. LawWorks is a school-legal partnership between Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc. (MHAS) and Learning Works Charter School (Learning Works). A charter school for middle and high school students who have been pushed out of traditional schools, Learning Works serves underserved, high-risk students including those who have dropped out, been delinquency involved, and are parenting teens.
Although LawWorks’ stated goal is to connect vulnerable students to legal support through know-your-rights trainings and advice and consultation at on-site legal clinics in Pasadena and Boyle Heights, I realize that the ultimate goal of any support system like Learning Works or MHAS is to strengthen a young person’s own sense of self-efficacy – the central support system that will carry a youth throughout her life.
On my first day of the LawWorks legal clinic, I conducted an initial intake interview with a 17-year-old student who explained her situation regarding a truancy citation she received before enrolling in Learning Works. Before I could provide her with information on how truancy is handled in California, she quickly asked me whether her failure to appear at the scheduled hearing would have negative consequences for her family. I couldn’t help but express my admiration for her maturity in taking responsibility for her past actions. She went wide-eyed for a brief second and then gave me a sheepish smile before trying to downplay her question. Nevertheless, the fact that the student’s first question to me was how others would be affected by her actions spoke volumes to me of her strength and responsibility, quite independent from any advocacy I might provide.
My LawWorks’ clients face adversity at every turn, and yet, they still show up to Learning Works to complete school work, attend labs, and engage wholeheartedly with their learning community. Working in the presence of such students who continue to fight through incredible emotional, financial, and physical hardships that often interfere with their school attendance and daily engagement inspires me to be the kind of advocate who supports these youth in recognizing their own abilities to advocate for themselves as they transition to independent adult life.