One started with mock trial and one started with debate, but both of this year's Scholars for Justice got their first taste of lawyering in high school. And for both, that teen intrigue eventually led to a passion for using their skills on behalf of vulnerable communities.
Denise Chen and B. Williams are the 2019 recipients of this prestigious law school award: a full-tuition scholarship granted to one or two top students in each year's entering class who are committed to working in the public interest.
Chen is a 2019 graduate of the University of Washington's Law, Societies & Justice program. Born and raised in Seattle, she arrives at Seattle U Law after having served in volunteer positions and internships with several legal organizations - particularly Family Law Court Appointed Special Advocates and the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center.
Her specific area of interest as an undergraduate student was helping children feel more comfortable in courtrooms when they have to testify as witnesses. "The system is designed for one adult testifying against another adult," she said. "That doesn't work for children."
She researched and wrote an influential thesis on measures that could protect children from secondary trauma, such as closed-circuit televised testimony, therapy animals in the courtroom, and pre-trial tours of the court. Community stakeholders have already shown interest in implementing her recommendations, she said.
Her insights into kids' needs arose from her work as a court appointed advocate. "I am an advocate because the magic of connecting with children and giving them a voice in court is rewarding," she said.
B. Williams, a 2015 graduate of University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, came to Washington for a job as head policy debate coach for the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.
Williams's passion for high school debate turned into a tool for activism and empowerment. Traveling to debate tournaments in other communities, Williams noticed stark differences in educational resources, pollution, and quality of life between school districts. Williams eventually learned how to put those debate skills to work as an activist on issues of climate justice, accessible housing, and LGBTQ rights.
That activism, particularly in the area of advocating for changes in housing policy, is what led to law school. Since 2017, Williams has volunteered with the Seattle-based group Got Green on climate justice issues, working to protect communities of color from environmental degradation.
"All the lawyers who could help us were bogged down with other important work," Williams said. "I realized how nice it would be to have that knowledge, to have those skills. Then that barrier would be removed."
Both Chen and Williams said they appreciate the impact the Scholars for Justice award will have on their future plans to graduate debt-free and seek careers as public interest lawyers.
"I want to graduate with the freedom to choose my path, rather than have it dictated by financial concerns," Williams said.
Scholars for Justice are selected on the basis of:
- A demonstrated commitment to pursuing a career as a public interest lawyer
- Prior involvement in significant public service and/or social justice activities prior to law school
- Academic achievement