The Minnesota Justice Foundation Celebrates Twenty Years of Street Law
Date Posted: June 1, 2018
The Minnesota Justice Foundation (MJF) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1982 by University of Minnesota Law School students concerned about the decreasing availability of legal services for low-income Minnesotans. MJF strives for justice by creating opportunities for law students to perform public interest and pro bono legal services. MJF receives support from and serves students at all three local law schools.
One of MJF’s long-running programs is Street Law. The original Street Law program, launched at Georgetown University in 1972, was founded to provide a greater understanding of the law to those outside the legal profession and to promote the use of interactive educational methods to develop academic, critical thinking, and civic skills. For many years, Jennifer Bloom at the Minnesota Center for Community Legal Education taught a Street Law program at Hamline University School of Law. In January of 1998, she and Sharon Fischlowitz of the Minnesota Justice Foundation, Keith Ellison of the Legal Rights Center, Carol Batsell Benner of the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office, Peter Knapp of William Mitchell College of Law, and Sam Magavern of the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis began to develop a new Minnesota Street Law project.
Through volunteering with Street Law, law students receive training in teaching methods and resources for presenting a variety of substantive areas of law to middle and high school students. Each January, MJF hosts a two-day Street Law training over Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. Local legal aid and private attorneys provide lectures and resources concerning substantive areas of law including Constitutional, Consumer, Criminal, Education, Employment, Family, Housing and Juvenile Law. After training, volunteers are then placed in participating classrooms in teams of two or three. Volunteers work with the classroom teacher to find out what issues are most relevant to the students in the class. Together they develop a syllabus for the term that addresses those issues using methods that will engage the class.
[The students] really inspired me when they talked about the cases, what they would have done if they were the persons wronged and what the other parties' circumstances were. Their questions and their ways of assessing the situations showed how compassionate and understanding, how ready to forgive, they are. Their compassion was overwhelming given how unfair their lives were and what brought them there.
--Street Law volunteer
For anyone, the law can be a challenging body of information to navigate. Street Law’s curriculum has been tailored to present youth with information most relevant to their daily lives, and it is delivered in an accessible, engaging, and interactive manner. Much of what our volunteers teach can be called “preventative law”. Street Law educates youth not only about their legal rights and responsibilities but also helps inform them of the legal and social consequences associated with certain decisions. Street Law seeks to reach the students we serve before the law reaches them – whether it is in the form of criminal punishment for getting into a fist-fight or civil sanctions for failing to pay rent.
In addition to exploring the more philosophical concepts of American law – the competing roles of rehabilitation and retribution in the American criminal justice system, for example – Street Law’s curriculum is designed to provide young people with specific and concrete information that they can immediately begin using in their daily lives. Street Law volunteers instruct students on such matters as dealing with unresponsive landlords, their rights as young employees, government benefits available to them, and the collateral effects of criminal arrests, among many other lessons. Many Street Law volunteers hand out the “Legal Stuff” booklets developed and printed by the Hennepin County Bar Association as a community legal education tool. Street Law volunteers also hand out ACLU materials that provide information about interacting with the police. The work our volunteers do with their students has been complimented and praised by classroom teachers, school administrators, area lawyers, social workers involved with at-risk youth and the police. Street Law volunteers have been able to reach many young people who have traditionally been underserved by the legal system.
Street Law also helps to ignite the interest of young students in obtaining a higher education and in pursuing careers in the legal sector. Some classes visit the law schools and participate in mock trials in courtroom settings, and other volunteers arrange with local judges to bring their classes to observe court. Our experience indicates that these field trips open the eyes of youth not only to a legal education but also to post-secondary education in general. In recent years, we have collaborated with the Minnesota chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) to engage volunteer attorneys in serving as guest speakers or as mock trial coaches or judges.
[The law students were] great at creating engaging lessons about topics that interest the students. [They] facilitated some very profound discussions that kept the students interest.
Street Law is a popular volunteer opportunity for first-year law students. The law students who work with Street Law step outside of academia and enter an environment where they are given a chance to use their knowledge and training in real-world applications. While our volunteers may not and do not give legal advice to the students they work with, our volunteers do get to provide students with legal information, lead debates on pressing social issues and inspire the classes they work with to engage in the community around them. Street Law opens the door to public interest and pro bono legal work for future lawyers from all three of Minnesota’s law schools.
In Spring 2018, MJF worked with the following schools:
Brooklyn Center Secondary
Washington Technology Magnet
Transition Plus Services
High School for the Recording Arts
Lake Nokomis Community School
Field Community School
Minnesota Internship Center (Downtown and Rondo)
Augsburg Fairview Academy
Sanford Middle School
Hubert Humphrey Job Corps
Boys Totem Town
Community Learning Project
Franklin Middle School
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