Leadership for Justice Fellow Marisa Ordonia will reach out to incarcerated youth

April 23, 2014

Marisa Ordonia was a talented student in high school, but as a queer student of color, she found the environment often felt oppressive and considered dropping out.

marisa ordoniaHer parents and school administrators saw her tremendous potential and encouraged her to try Running Start, in which she was able to take college classes while still in high school. She ended up becoming the first person in her immediate family to get a bachelor's degree and the first person in her extended family to go to law school. Now, as the Leadership for Justice Fellow, she hopes to give second chances to incarcerated youth, most of whom don't have the opportunities she did.

Ordonia, who will graduate in May, was selected for the two-year fellowship to work with TeamChild on The ReConnect Project, which will work to help incarcerated youth returning to  their communities through direct legal representation and policy work to break down legal and societal barriers to success.

Recognizing the difference adequate support systems can make, she has worked to support young people in various ways through volunteer work and past employment before and during law school. Her broad experience includes providing legal information to homeless youth through Street Youth Legal Advocates of Washington; mentoring middle school girls through the Girls Rock! Program at Passages Northwest (now part of the YMCA); and working with the Asian Pacific Islander Freedom School to develop curriculum and facilitate workshops for high school youth.

During her time in law school, she served as an extern for the Washington Appellate Project, King County Superior Court Judge Mary Yu, and the Northwest Justice Project and interned with the Unemployment Law Project. Ordonia has also been an active board member of the Incarcerated Mothers Advocacy Project (IMAP) since her first year in law school.   Ordonia's work with incarcerated parents was particularly significant in envisioning The ReConnect Project, as IMAP works with people who face a variety of legal barriers and access to justice issues.  

"My experiences have shown me that there is more to a person than his or her past actions, and I believe that every child can succeed if given the opportunity to do so," Ordonia said. "I do not want to minimize the fact that some of the youth I will be working with have committed very serious crimes, but as a society we are beginning to embrace the notion that people, especially kids, deserve second chances and should not suffer lifelong consequences of criminal convictions and long periods of incarceration."

Youth released from custody can face restrictions on where they can live, barriers to school enrollment, disruptions in medical care, or termination of public benefits. Even well-laid plans for housing, education, treatment, and other supports can easily unravel. In order to address all of these barriers, Ordonia will provide direct legal representation and work on policy changes - with input from youth.

"What really makes Marisa unique and indispensable is a powerful combination of strong attorney/client communication skills, demonstrated experience and excellence in traditional legal skills, and an ability to take lessons learned from direct legal advocacy to envision and implement systemic improvements," said Anne Lee, executive director of TeamChild

Seattle University School of Law is the only law school in the state to offer a post-graduate fellowship. This fellowship was made possible through a gift from social justice champions Jim Degel '80 and his wife, Jeanne Berwick.

Ordonia, who is a Scholar for Justice at the law school, is thrilled to receive the fellowship.

"It feels amazing," she said. "I came to law school because I wanted to do community empowerment work. I am excited to use the skills I have gained in law school to not only provide meaningful second chances through direct legal services, but also to develop youth leadership in pushing for policies that will help young people avoid juvenile justice contact in the first place."