EmPOWERed for Public Interest Wraps Up a Busy Year

EmPOWERed for Public Interest is a Justice Center initiative designed to support students whose lived experiences intersect with the legal systems they seek to challenge in their careers. EPI gatherings are intended to serve as a space for dialogue, mentorship, and resource-sharing tailored to the particular needs and strengths of students whose public interest work as attorneys may be directly tied to their lived experiences and/or those of their loved ones.

The need for EPI emerged from discussions among members of the Justice Center’s student advisory board and Justice Center staff. Araceli Garcia ‘24, a student advisory board member, launched the initiative with Justice Center support in 2022. This year, Leslie Villacorta ’25 joined her to co-lead the project.

Over the 2023-24 academic year, Garcia and Villacorta organized a series of gatherings, including a welcome/framing lunch and midsemester check-in in the fall, a lunch with faculty members in the spring, and several community-building lunches focused on topics like searching for summer jobs, processing fall semester grades, and selecting classes. The year culminated with a mentorship dinner, a time for students to meet with local attorneys who identify with the EPI framework.

“We are grateful to all the students and the Justice Center for making EPI so successful,” said EPI student leaders Araceli Garcia and Leslie Villacorta. “Our hope is that this initiative helps students better recognize and hone their unique strengths, while providing a strong community they can turn to for support when they need it.”

The community building and supportive programming resonated with students. “The community building lunches were an incredibly safe and empowering space where I felt valued and supported,” said 1L Sunni Whitmore ‘26. “Community is everything,” said 3L Emani Brown ’24. “I have been so happy to find a group of people who are interested in doing this work — work that directly intersects with our identities and where we come from.”

Students also appreciated the opportunity to meet attorneys with similar paths. “The mentorship dinner was an opportunity to truly connect with attorneys working in the field I am interested in while also being from a similar background,” said Whitmore. Brown agreed. “I have been extremely grateful for all of the mentorship I have received while in law school,” she said. “I have found comfort in being able to talk to, confide in, and ask for guidance from people whose lives have been similar to mine and whose values align with mine. It is incredibly reassuring to connect with people who have walked this path before me.”

Both Whitmore and Brown observed that their participation in EPI has helped them navigate law school and the public interest law path. “EPI has provided me with connections to like-minded individuals who I may have never met without the program. It’s made me feel like I have a place here at the law school, or at least have others facing the same types of systemic challenges,” said Whitmore, who will spend the summer after her 1L year working with the ACLU of Southern California in Los Angeles. “EPI has also provided a much-needed balance to the big law/firm-heavy recruiting that is present throughout the entire year. I feel more confident in myself and my path, as well as feel like I truly belong as a law student.”

Brown concurred. “Connecting with other students in this group has grounded me and reminded me why I am in law school — to pursue a career in public interest law,” said Brown, who graduates this spring and is headed to a two-year clerkship with U.S. District Judge Leslie Abrams Gardner of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, in Albany, Georgia. “It is always helpful to have a community of people you can lean on and connect with later down the road. I know that the relationships I have made through EPI will be lifelong connections. I am so excited to see how all of these people flourish and pour into their communities.”

“EPI has been a significant source of community and support for public interest students this year. Araceli and Leslie have done an exceptional job of creating a space that uplifts and empowers students who aim to challenge systems they have been impacted by,” said Nicole Simmons, director of the Justice Center. “As the year draws to a close, I would like to express my gratitude to Araceli and Leslie for their leadership of this impactful initiative. Additionally, I would like to thank Araceli for her three years of dedicated service to EPI.”