Reflections by Recipients of the Environmental Law Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship
Edited by Miles Hogan, Executive Committee, Environmental Law Section
One of the CLA Environmental Law Section’s key programs is the Environmental Law Diversity & Inclusion Fellowship Program, which is co-sponsored with the California Lawyers Foundation. The Fellowship Program is designed to help foster diversity within the Environmental Law Section. The Program gives law students a chance to spend 8 to 10 weeks over the summer practicing environmental, energy, land use, and/or natural resources law at a participating government agency or public interest organization. Currently, each participant receives a $6,500 stipend. The Section assists students with placement at the governmental agency or public interest organization and matches the Fellows with mentors who practice in the field. The Section also coordinates gatherings and provides opportunities for Fellows to meet other Section members and attorneys who practice in environmental, energy, land use, and natural resources law fields, and it invites each Fellow to attend the Section’s Environmental Law Conference at Yosemite® in October following the Fellowship with free conference registration. The Section strongly encourages applications from law students from diverse or underrepresented backgrounds, as well as from students from backgrounds that may have presented obstacles to accessing the legal profession. The Environmental Law Section asked four recent recipients of the Fellowship to provide a reflection on their Fellowship experience. We hope you enjoy the reflections by these incredible Fellows, which demonstrate the importance and value of this Program and other programs focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Environmental Law bar. If you would like to learn more about the Program, please visit https://calawyers.org/section/environmental-law/fellowships/.
Reflection by Marjan Kris Abubo1
For my Sustainability Law class this semester, we were tasked with presenting on our paper topic. One of my peers shared her research on the I-710 Freeway expansion project and its impacts on environmental justice communities. Hearing about the high air pollution along freeways and how the quantitative data reinforced those claims was very sobering. Not because I was shocked or surprised, but it was just another moment in my educational career where my lived experience was reflected in someone’s research. My pursuit of an environmental legal career is informed not from an “outside looking in” lens; rather, it’s the subtle but profound experiences I witnessed growing up that compelled me to pursue this career path. I was born in the Philippines, where my earliest memories were the numerous bandanas that folks carried around with them. Growing up in Metro Manila, it was all too common to smell and taste the smoke and pollution emitting from factories and automobiles. I remember our favorite pastime was to frequent the immense malls, so as to escape the smoke and inhale the cold air provided by the buildings. I don’t remember much about my family’s decision to immigrate to the United States, but I do remember how even when I left the Motherland and stepped out of the LAX terminal, the taste and smell of gas remained. Growing up in the Los Angeles area meant relying on either automobiles or public transportation to get around. As I spent the first few years in the United States memorizing the English language, I also began internalizing the many freeways that cut through neighborhoods in order to connect one side of Los Angeles to another. And while tourists flocked to the Walk of Fame, the Hollywood sign, and the bright and shiny regalia of Los Angeles, the sights that consistently ran through my head were the oil wells bowing down to greet me as we drove past them, the refineries coughing out dark clouds, and the congested freeways that yelled a dissonant symphony of honks and local radio. Residing in particular parts of the city meant that we were more likely to have oil and gas derricks as our neighbors than the celebrities I saw on cable television. Oddly enough, it didn’t occur to me what it meant to live in an environmental justice community until I left. I decided to attend college in Santa Barbara because of the environmental science education that it offered, but I was moreover drawn in to the area’s proximity to the beach, crisp air, and skies so clear you could see the stars at night. It was also within my coursework where I was again reminded of the community I left behind. The juxtaposition of leaving the polluted community I grew up in to study in the birthplace of the modern environmental movement was humbling, and it taught me what it meant to leverage the privileges I would be receiving with my environmental education. Within my time at UC Santa Barbara, I learned to hone in on what it means to be a student leader, critical thinker, and, most importantly, a radical environmental steward. And even when I left back for Los Angeles to complete my undergraduate education, it was that environmental ethic that I committed to polishing and developing. By the time I completed my bachelor’s degree and in the fellowship year working on environmental management projects in Long Beach, I formed and fostered a student-led and student-run organization of other environmentalists of color dedicated to amplifying the voices and experiences of other climate activists and climate leaders who do this work not out of choice but out of necessity. Making sure that environmental justice communities aren’t just consulted but proactively represented on initiatives and campaigns became my mission. Advocating for multi-disciplinary collaboration within the traditional confines of the legal field can make it a bit more challenging to accomplish that effort. For the longest time, the legal profession has served as a roadblock for many communities impacted by environmental harms. And even today, the law has been the medium for transacting climate change and injustice. Channeling my frustration into action, I maximized my Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship to work with the Center for Biological Diversity and spent my remote summer dedicated to environmental and climate justice via impact litigation. Working with such a reputable organization as my first actual legal experience was harrowing and overwhelming at first. There were many times throughout my summer where I began doubting myself and questioning whether I had taken the right career path. Luckily, and for many of my co-Fellows, the amount of guidance I received from both my mentors, supervisors, and the broader Environmental Section’s Executive Committee was affirming and incredibly rewarding. I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of the imposter syndrome, but at least now I know who I can confide to when those instances of self-doubt and uncertainty arise. From this experience, I’ve met mentors, future colleagues, and a lifetime network that I will always defer to for questions, concerns, and advice when navigating this intimidating profession. When it comes to researching and presenting on environmental justice communities, such as the one my colleague presented on in my Sustainability Law course, I still reflect on the historical inequities that have propagated this grave environmental injustice. Simultaneously, these case studies are my personal call to action -- legal disputes where I hope to be integral to solving. With this degree, and with the community I’ve formed through the Section, I am confident that I can use my legal education to better advocate for an equitable, more sustainable future.
Reflection by Jina Kim2
During my second year of law school, I was fortunate to receive the California Lawyers Association Environmental Law Section’s Diversity & Inclusion Fellowship. I have a background in environmental health, and I had switched my career to pursue public interest environmental law. But not having any connections to the legal community, I wasn’t sure what that looked like. The CLA fellowship allowed me to gain a summer experience that dramatically shaped my professional trajectory and my vision for the future. I worked in government for three years before law school, and I had an excellent 1L summer experience at a “big green,” so I was interested in exploring grassroots nonprofit work. The CLA fellowship helped me secure a position at my top choice: Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), a well-known environmental justice organization in California. Importantly, the fellowship also provided a stipend. The stipend not only helped me pay for rent and other living expenses in the Bay Area, but also enabled me to choose the internship I found most inspiring without needing to worry about my finances. The fellowship also included other invaluable benefits, like a mentor in the environmental community (Ellison is the best!), access to educational and networking opportunities, and free admission to the Environmental Law Conference at Yosemite. I wanted to work at CBE because it is one of the preeminent environmental justice organizations in the Bay Area with a legal shop. CBE has legal, organizing, and research wings, so although I was on the legal team, I had the opportunity to interact, collaborate, and learn with organizers and researchers. This triad organizational structure gave me important exposure to on-the-ground work advocating for communities, and a glimpse into effective and respectful community lawyering. CBE’s organizational structure also helps it to be especially comprehensive and effective in its advocacy, which in turn provided me with a wide range of work experience. For example, my first assignment was a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to EPA for more information about the agency’s enforcement and compliance policies for pollution during the COVID-19 national emergency. A nationwide coalition of environmental justice organizations had come together to advocate for communities disproportionately impacted by both COVID-19 and environmental degradation. The FOIA request was part of the multi-pronged efforts of this broad coalition. I also had the opportunity to participate in policy campaigns, such as the Reclaim Our Power for Utility Justice Campaign, a coalition of environmental justice groups focusing on utility justice; and educational opportunities, such as trainings and workshops on public interest litigation, movement lawyering, California Public Utilities Commission proceedings, and understanding air quality data. My internship began during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic and amidst national reckoning for racial inequity, quickly joined by another devastating wildfire season in California. Although the circumstances were demoralizing and challenging, they also demonstrated so clearly how the communities who suffer racially discriminatory police brutality and disproportionately severe impacts of COVID-19 are oftentimes the same communities for whom pollution, climate change, and our extractive economy have the most devastating consequences. I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be in a space where people truly live their values and “fight the good fight” every day, especially during a time when inequity and injustice were so apparent in our daily discourse and experiences. Channeling my time, energy, and ability to advocate for communities of color and low-income communities was both fulfilling and motivating in such trying times. My experience at CBE confirmed my then-nascent ponderings that environmental justice lawyering might be the career I had been seeking all along. I applied for project-based fellowships with CBE as my host organization. Even during the arduous process of fellowship applications, my supervisor and colleagues were overwhelmingly kind and generous with their time, feedback, and support. After graduating, I am deeply grateful to have the opportunity to continue advocating with CBE for energy self-sufficiency, community resilience, health, and racial justice through an Equal Justice Works fellowship. Working in public interest requires not only innovative legal strategy and creativity, but also a willingness to dream big, and the courage to envision something greater. Receiving the California Lawyers Association Environmental Law Section’s Diversity & Inclusion Fellowship helped me to unlock this vision and pursue my goal of contributing to a more just society, and I am truly grateful to have had the experience.
Reflection by Elias Rodriquez3
My name is Elias Rodriguez, and I am currently a 3L at Santa Clara University, School of Law. During the summer of 2019, I participated in the California Lawyers Association’s Environmental Law Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship. Navigating the legal profession as a first-generation college and law school student comes with its challenges. Programs like CLA’s Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship support first generation students, like myself, by providing opportunities to students to learn important values and lessons about working in the legal field. As the grandson of a bracero farmworker and son of a single mother, I experienced the injustices that my family members endured in our country’s social and economic systems. Coming to law school provided me with a pathway and outlet to transform the flaws in our economic and social systems. Upon entering law school, I witnessed the power of the law to hold corporate actors accountable for decimating the environment. I saw latinx environmental leaders, like Alberto Ayala and Belinda Faustinos, use the law to protect communities and the environment. I began to see that advocating for environmental justice would not only make an impact for climate change, but also for underrepresented communities, who often are directly impacted by the negative effects of climate change. With this perspective in mind, I applied to the Fellowship program. Through the fellowship program I was placed with Earthjustice because I knew that environmental justice is where I wanted to build my legal practice. With Earthjustice, I researched and advocated for strategies to supply communities with wider access to electric vehicle charging equipment. I analyzed and advocated for solutions to improve air quality in urban areas from both building and vehicle emissions. I learned how to wield the power of the law to empower communities’ access to environmental justice and find solutions for a better climate. Equipped with the skills I honed at Earthjustice, I went on to intern at Santa Clara County’s, Office of the County Counsel in their Finance, Government Operations, and the Environment section. Currently, I assist clients with their employment claims at the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the Katherine and George Alexander Community Law Clinic. The CLA Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship not only provided me with an opportunity at Earthjustice, but it also provided me with a network of mentors and colleagues that continue to remain a large part of my professional life. The Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship also reinforced my belief in the value of diversity. Diversity is vital because it inspires more innovation and creativity. More importantly, diversity is vital because it brings justice to communities who have been harmed due to underrepresentation. An emphasis on diversity and inclusion provides an avenue of opportunities regardless of one’s race, gender, economic, physical, or sexual identities. Programs like the Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship are thus crucial in a legal world that is built on connections. Diversity and inclusion do not mean prioritizing one culture over another. Cesar Chavez said it best, “Preservation of one's own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.” Diversity and inclusion are an active acknowledgement and understanding of other’s differences. These differences allow us to create value because in accepting one another and providing safe spaces for everyone’s ideas, we are able to see different perspectives and empathize with other’s challenges. The Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship helps diverse professionals, like myself and many others, enter into the environmental law field. As I graduate from law school, I will take with me the lessons I have gained, not only from my law school experience, but also the first-hand experiences I learned through the California Lawyer’s Association’s Environmental Law Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship.
Reflection by Idalmis Vaquero4
As a young teen, I grew up in public housing playing in the shadows of the former Exide battery facility. For several years, my family and neighbors were unaware of the lead contamination accumulating in our backyards and the long-term health and developmental damage lead could have on children. Gaining awareness of this issue as an undergraduate intern at Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) propelled me to attend law school to ensure that my family and community would have access to information and the decision-making power needed to secure the immediate and comprehensive cleanup of our homes. In the summer of 2019, I joined the legal team at CBE with the generous support from the CLA Environmental Law Section, Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship program. As a Latinx woman from a working-class family, accepting the Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship opened up a plethora of opportunities. From the very beginning, the Fellowship committee provided me with advice to help me pick an externship placement that aligned with my career goals. I quickly noticed the caliber of resources and the tightknit community of lawyers in the Environmental Law Section dedicated to supporting my vision of becoming an environmental justice attorney. As a first-generation student and a 1L navigating the summer externship search process for the first time, the individualized support I received from the Fellowship committee was incredibly helpful and it allowed me to finish my first semester strong, knowing that I had secured a placement at CBE. At CBE, I had the opportunity to return to advocacy work to push for the cleanup of homes contaminated by Exide. This time using a legal lens. I worked closely with community organizers and impacted residents to understand the issues and legal questions they encountered on-the-ground. Given the lack of communication between the Department of Toxic Substances Control and the community, community members were especially interested in obtaining updates about the funding available for the cleanup process and possible legal strategies to hold Exide accountable. With the guidance of my supervising attorney, Jennifer Ganata, I immediately dove into Westlaw and created infographics to make the information accessible to community members. Working alongside organizers and residents drew me closer to community lawyering and helped me find my role as an attorney in the fight for environmental justice. My experience at CBE and the mentorship support I received through the Fellowship Program allowed me to see myself in the environmental law field. I was able to use my legal education to work on issues I deeply care about and connect with environmental lawyers at the Yosemite Environmental Law Conference. The Fellowship has also given me the opportunity to connect and build community with other Fellowship recipients. Together we are ensuring that attorneys with diverse backgrounds and experiences feel welcomed and represented in the environmental law field in California. Now as a 3L, my summer at CBE was also instrumental in my job search process. With the support of the legal team at CBE, I decided to pursue post-graduate fellowships that could fund my position as an attorney at CBE. In developing my fellowship project, I focused on the ongoing Exide issues I worked on during my externship. I am excited to return to CBE as an Equal Justice Works fellow, sponsored by the Ottinger Foundation and Stern-Hughes Family Fund, after graduating from law school. As I reflect on my time in law school, I am incredibly thankful to the Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship for helping me build my support network and gain the skills needed to succeed at CBE. I know that the Fellowship is fostering the next generation of environmental lawyers who can resonate with the lived experiences of the communities they represent.
1 Marjan Kris Abubo (he/they/siya) is a law student at UC Davis (unceded Patwin land) pursuing a certificate in environmental and tax law, with a penchant for land use law, renewable energy development, and green taxation. After studying environmental history and urban planning at UCLA, Marjan Kris spent a fellowship year before law school building capacity for local energy conservation projects. He is interested in the manner in which law, policy, and economics inform and regulate the natural and built environment. 2 Jina Kim is a third-year law student at the University of California, Berkeley. After graduating, she will be an environmental justice lawyer at Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) through an Equal Justice Works fellowship. Jina worked at CBE for her 2L summer through the CLA Environmental Law Section Diversity & Inclusion Fellowship. 3 Elias Rodriguez was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California. Obtaining his Bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, he is the first in his family to graduate from college. He lived in San Diego, California after graduating, serving the communities of San Diego and Chula Vista through his work with nonprofit agencies. He is currently in his third and final year at Santa Clara University, School of Law. 4 Idalmis Vaquero is a 3L at UCLA School of Law specializing in the Epstein Program in Public Interest Law & Policy. She was a 2019 recipient of the Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship, externing at Communities for a Better Environment.