Always Fighting: Playing the Game, While Changing the Game

Zeenat Hassan
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law

“How do you make people uncomfortable in the seats that they are privileged enough to occupy at the exclusion of others, while still making it in law school?” Joni Carrasco asked the audience at this year’s LatCrit Conference. Joni was joined by fellow uRSA co-founders Edgar Aguilasocho and Irina Trasovan, as well as Orange County Human Rights Association (OCHRA) co-founders Dave Rodwin and Denisha McKenzie. Their panel, moderated by the dearly missed Professor Trina Jones (now at Duke Law School), focused on the dilemma faced by many activists: How do you change the system from the inside?

David and Denisha began the session by explaining the concept behind OCHRA. The student group was formed with the understanding that social change can most effectively be reached when activists connect domestic issues to global issues under the common framework of human rights. Dave explained: “In law school, we learn about Constitutional rights, Civil Rights, International Human Rights Law, but there is no unifying group of ‘rights’ that encompasses everything we believe we deserve as human beings. Human rights would give that to us because it focuses on dignity.” They asserted that using a human rights framework to address social justice issues would allow for the recognition of positive rights (e.g., the right to education), elevate domestic issues to the international stage, emphasize commonalities rather than divisions, and inspire new strategies for change. Perhaps most importantly, it would narrow the gap between what we believe we are entitled to and what the law says we deserve.

Joni, Irina, and Edgar brought the conversation on changing frameworks to our own backyard. “Law school is exclusionary and coerces conformity in those who access the institution,” explained Irina. The goal for student and faculty activists is to reconfigure the system to help the majority, rather than just the elite minority, succeed in school and in the profession.

Although UCI Law has been a great school, the fight has been difficult here too. “We realized that the ‘blank slate’ we thought UCI Law would be is not really blank. Tradition is often the default since we have all been socialized in elite spaces,” said Edgar. For example, law schools have traditionally valued Law Review and Moot Court over other, less prestigious student activities. That preference was made apparent here when the school allocated comfortable office spaces to Law Review and Moot Court, despite the lack of space and resources for other student groups. “We are by no means saying that Moot Court and Law Review should not have those spaces,” clarified Joni. “But we are saying that it should not have been assumed that they would get nice office spaces and others would get substantially less.” “It’s about expanding the pie, not taking someone else’s piece,” added Irina.

The school seems to be in the same predicament that students are: How do you create a law school dedicated to public interest in a culture that values status, wealth, and power? Despite its successes, UCI Law has certainly not yet gained the clout that Berkeley, Yale, or Harvard enjoy. We are not yet in a position where we can replace traditional measures of success, like grades and Law Review, with our own standards. We still have donors to impress, alumni to schmooze, and U.S. News to bribe (kidding). UCI Law, like its students, struggles to change the system while still operating successfully within it.

But, the school has a responsibility to meet its students halfway. UCI Law actively seeks students who are critical thinkers with the initiative to change what they did not like. “All the time spent on student groups, student-designed classes, speaker series, etc. is all time taken away from studying,” says Irina. “For professors, engaging in student projects outside the classroom detracts from their scholarship. The school has a responsibility to do some of the work of changing the institution so that the costs are not so high for students and faculty who want to make the system better.”

 

 

 

 

 

From left to right: Edgar Aguilasocho, Joni Carrasco, Irina Trasovan, Denisha  McKenzie, David Rodwin, and Professor Trina Jones. Photograph by Jennifer Chin.