Launching Youth into Law and Leadership

students from CYDL 2020What if, as a high school student, you couldn’t focus on your schoolwork because your family struggled with getting food and shelter on a daily basis? What if you could imagine only two potential careers for yourself – auto mechanic or construction work? What if your family actively discouraged you from pursuing college? Or told you that your dream of becoming a judge was foolish because you’re not white? Or you were repeatedly turned away from opportunities because of your immigration status?

These are just some of the challenges faced by high school students in the Center for Youth Development through Law’s (CYDL) educational pipeline program, operated in cooperation with UC Berkeley School of Law. CCCBA and many of its members provided generous support for this program through the 2019 CCCBA Bar Fund.

A Pipeline to College and Beyond

students from CYDL 2020Various diversity programs support underrepresented college students in applying to law school, and help diverse law students and lawyers achieve success and leadership within the legal profession. However, the challenges faced by youth from underrepresented, under-resourced, and first-generation backgrounds make it less likely that they will be able to access and persist in higher education, where they could benefit from those programs. These challenges can include financial pressures, stressful home lives, lack of adequate academic support, lack of practical guidance and encouragement, the “imposter syndrome” and more.

Additionally, some youth growing up in low-income communities develop a negative view of the legal system because of negative experiences with it – for example, through criminal justice encounters, foster care involvement or immigration issues.

High school pipeline programs such as the Center for Youth Development through Law’s program counteract these issues by exposing youth to law and legal careers in a supportive and empowering way, and by inspiring and preparing them for higher education and professional careers.

Law, Life Skills and Leadership

CYDL’s Summer Legal Fellowship Program is an immersive, eight-week, paid summer program for high school students followed by ongoing educational and career mentoring.

Participants take interactive classes on the UC Berkeley School of Law campus integrating legal instruction with life skills and leadership activities. They learn about constitutional rights, criminal law, civil rights and immigration law – subjects that are relevant to their lives. Taking these classes in the Law School building enables the students to truly envision themselves belonging and succeeding in a college environment.

Program instructors and guest speakers are not only diverse, but they include some of the program’s own alumni. It’s inspiring and illuminating for students to learn from people who have overcome the same adversities they are facing.

Program participants are also placed in six-week law and government internships, and CYDL pays them for their participation, as disadvantaged students do not have the luxury of participating in unpaid summer internships. They are able to see law and government at work first-hand, and develop practical skills and a sense of belonging in a professional environment.

Through internship coaching and classroom activities, the students also develop “soft skills” such as communication skills and teamwork, which will help them succeed in a competitive field such as law. Research shows that even academically accomplished youth from underrepresented backgrounds often do not acquire these skills, and yet these skills are more important for succeeding in today’s workforce than skills specific to a particular career.

After the summer program ends, CYDL offers ongoing educational mentoring, including college and financial aid advising, support with career exploration, and networking opportunities.

CYDL also operates after-school mock trial programs in two Richmond high schools, through which students learn the skills and procedures for conducting a criminal trial and participate in the exciting Contra Costa County High School Mock Trial Competition.

“This Program Allowed me to ‘See’ My Future Self”

More than 92% of CYDL participants subsequently attend higher education, and six program alumni have become members of the California Bar. These include an attorney with the City of Richmond Rent Program, an attorney with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and CCCBA Board Treasurer Dorian Peters, who practiced criminal law and is now a police officer (and also donates his time as a program instructor). Several program alumni are currently either in law school or applying to law school. Others are working in public policy, restorative justice, and law enforcement careers, and many alumni have also become inspired to be more civically engaged.

An attorney who participated in the program while in high school shared this reflection: “I was the first in my family to go to college. This program allowed me to ‘see’ my future self at a university, at a law school, and in a professional setting. I wasn’t just told that I could do it, I was shown that I could and I did. For the first time, I had examples of the path I could take from people like me who had gone through it. The staff’s encouragement started that summer and has never ended.”

Different Models, Similar Goals

Another type of program with similar goals is a “Law Career Pathway” within a high school. Pathway students take a series of classes in law and law enforcement as part of their regular school curriculum, and they participate in mock trials, government simulation activities, field trips, and college and career readiness activities. Schools in Contra Costa County that have Law Career Pathways are DeAnza High School (in Richmond), Deer Valley High School (in Antioch), Pinole Valley High School, and Richmond High School.

Another similarly-themed program, for Oakland youth, is the Youth Law Academy at Centro Legal De La Raza, which provides weekly evening sessions for a cohort of students starting in their sophomore year of high school.

The Legal Community’s Support

Lawyers and other legal professionals have important roles in all of these programs, as mock trial coaches, guest speakers, instructors, field trip hosts, mock trial scrimmage or competition scorers/judges, board members or advisory committee members, and internship hosts and mentors. CCCBA members Judge Danielle Douglas and Judge Joni Hiramoto serve on the Board of CYDL, and Dorian Peters serves on the CYDL Leadership Council. CCCBA itself has provided much-needed financial support to CYDL and the Richmond High Law Pathway, and individual donations also play a valuable role in the success of these programs.

All kinds of law and government offices provide transformative experiences to youth by serving as internship placements. Current CYDL placements include Bay Area Legal Aid, Family Justice Center, Richmond Police Department, Contra Costa County District Attorney and Public Defenders offices. Individual professionals in these offices become role models and mentors, sometimes staying in touch with the interns long after the summer ends.

If you or your organization would like to get involved with the Center for Youth Development through Law or any of the other programs mentioned, contact Nancy Schiff,
High school students from under-represented and challenging backgrounds have great energy, resourcefulness, idealism and fresh ways of looking at things. Supporting them with pipeline programs is not only the right thing to do from an equity perspective, but it also enables the students’ talents and diverse perspectives to enrich the legal community as well as our community as a whole.