From Persecution to Vindication: My Inspiration to Attend Law School—Part III

November 20, 2014

By: Joshua Valentine

Earlier this week I summarized just two of the custody cases that members of our church endured and the legal issues that arose from them.  Today, I will be giving a brief version of a federal civil rights action that our church brought in light of actions taken by Department of Social Services against our church.

Word of Faith Fellowship, Inc. v. Rutherford County Dept. of Social Services

In response to the falsified claims made by Mother (see Part II) and other disgruntled former members, employees of the DSS began unconstitutional “investigations” of WFF and its members.  These investigations included threats to remove all the children in the church, attacks against the children’s religious convictions, threats to close the doors of WFF, and urges for teenagers to leave their parents’ homes.  On any given day, DSS workers would appear at the Christian school unannounced and demand to speak with specified students.  Their meetings with the students were often conducted in offices and cars, with the doors locked.

As a result of these oversteps of authority, WFF filed a civil rights action in the federal district court for the Western District of North Carolina, claiming that the actions of the DSS violated the rights of the church and its members to the First Amendment free exercise of religion, to parental-child relationships, and to due process of law.  DSS filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the State’s interest in protecting the best interests of children must prevail over the rights of the church and the children’s parents.  In a lengthy reported opinion, the district court rejected the DSS’s argument, and held that the actions of the DSS, as alleged in the complaint, violated the constitutional rights of WFF and its members.[1]

Following this landmark federal court decision, DSS entered into a comprehensive settlement, in which it paid WFF $300,000, and agreed to an extensive set of severe restrictions on its ability to investigate church members.  These restrictions addressed specific illegal and unconstitutional actions in which its employees had engaged.  DSS also withdrew every finding of abuse or neglect against our church members, expunged their files of such findings, and closed all open investigations.  Furthermore, DSS recognized and acknowledged that the participation of minor children in the church’s religious practices of prayer and discipline is “protected by the United States and North Carolina Constitutions and does not and cannot on its own constitute abuse or neglect of children . . . .”  Although the North Carolina Attorney General was not a party to the lawsuit, their office reviewed and approved the settlement.

The Inspiration

Through every battle my church has faced, I have learned the greatest lesson from watching my pastors: never back down in fear, and always stand up firmly for what you believe.  For if we do not speak out, if we do not stand up, if we do not treasure and fight for our freedoms, they will be lost and we will be destroyed.  My experiences have placed within me deep convictions that will never leave.  This has been my inspiration to attend law school and to fight for justice in this generation.

Professor Huber, blog author Joshua Valentine, and CRC member Gabrielle Valentine at the WWF Holocaust Museum.  Much of the great work done at the museum resulted from the lawsuits discussed in this blog series.

Professor Huber, blog author Joshua Valentine, and CRC member Gabrielle Valentine at the WWF Holocaust Museum. Much of the great work done at the museum resulted from the lawsuits discussed in this blog series.

For more information . . .

About our church, visit: http://www.wordoffaithfellowship.org/

About our Holocaust Museum: http://theholocaustmuseum.info/

[1] Word of Faith Fellowship, Inc. v. Rutherford County Dept. of Social Services, 329 F.Supp.2d 675 (W.D.N.C. 2004).


From Persecution to Vindication: My Inspiration to Attend Law School—Part II

November 19, 2014

By: Joshua Valentine

The Legal Battles

Each persecution, investigation, and legal battle that my church incurred arose from disgruntled members who left the church and lied extensively about the church practices and beliefs.  As early as 1995, Inside Edition tabloid television aired a production that included distorted footage of our church services and prayer, as well as falsified reports of former church members concerning our church.  As a result of the program, our church was extensively ridiculed, mocked, and defamed, to the point that the public considered us to be a religious cult, which we certainly are not.  Attacking us from every angle, these people utilized the courts as a tool to harass, persecute, and wrongfully prosecute our church, its members, and our faith through civil and criminal cases.  Even custody cases sought to entangle our church’s beliefs and target them as allegedly abusive.  In this article, I will provide you with a brief synopsis of a couple such cases.

McGee v. McGee

In 2000, a WFF member engaged in a custody battle for her three children was ordered by a district court judge that her children could not participate in the church’s prayer.  This finding of fact was based solely on the unsubstantiated claims of the children’s father, who was not a church member.  In 2004, the father attempted to hold the mother in contempt for allowing her children to engage in the prayer after court-ordered mental health examinations found that there was no harm in it.  While recognizing the evidence that the church’s strong prayer was not abusive, the trial court still held that it was bound by the prior court order from 2000.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals did not agree that the trial court was bound by the prior court order and reversed the decision of the trial court.[1]

In Re Almanie

Also in the early 2000’s, a drug addict mother (Mother), who was very abusive to her children, came to WFF to get help with her addiction.  While Mother was clean from drugs for over a year, she eventually returned to both her drug addiction and physical abuse of her children.  After being told by the pastor and her relatives that her abuse of the children would not be tolerated, Mother left the church and gave written consent to place the children in the custody of another family, who were also members of WFF.  Mother repeatedly expressed that she never wanted her children in the first place, and she was glad to get away from them.

Subsequently, Mother became involved with so-called “anti-cult” organizations that prodded her to file a custody action for the return of her children, claiming that the children were being abused through the church’s doctrines and practices.  At Mother’s request, the Rutherford County DSS opened an investigation, but later transferred it to the neighboring county of Lincoln, who conducted an extensive investigation and found no abuse or neglect.  Despite this finding and without conducting any further investigation, Rutherford County DSS commenced a petition to remove the four children from the custody of the family Mother left them in and place them into foster care.  Following a highly sensationalized trial, with extensive press coverage, the four children were removed from the church family and placed in abusive foster care.

On appeal, the Court held that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, because the Lincoln County DSS investigation had established that there was no abuse or neglect, and therefore there was no authority for the removal petitions.[2]  The children were reunited with the family that Mother had initially given custody to, and that family was later awarded custody by the court.

North Carolina Court of Appeals

North Carolina Court of Appeals

I was a young boy at the time of these lawsuits and, as a result, I did not understand why things happened the way they did.  Yet watching my friends be unjustifiably taken from the parents and families they loved and placed in abusive environments, I wished I could do something to help—but I didn’t know what I could do.  As I got older, I began to realize that, as a guardian of the law, I would be able to help my friends and anyone else who found himself or herself deprived of justice.  This was my inspiration to attend law school.

Stay tuned to the Civil Rights Clinic Blog for the final installment of this three-part series.

[1] McGee v. McGee, 178 N.C. App. 742, 632 S.E.2d 600 (N.C. App. 2006)(unpublished).

[2] In re S.D.A., 170 N.C. App. 354, 612 S.E.2d 362 (N.C. App. 2005).


From Persecution to Vindication: My Inspiration to Attend Law School—Part I

November 18, 2014

By: Joshua Valentine

“If you don’t sign this paper that you will stop praying for your children, we will be back by eight o’clock tomorrow morning to take all the children in your Christian school.”  These were the words of a Department of Social Services’ (DSS) worker to my pastor, when I was only nine years of age.  My pastor refused to sign the paper, and the social worker did not take any of us children.  But it was a rather lengthy battle.  At the time, however, it was very difficult for me to understand how something like this could possibly happen in the United States, a country established on the very principles of religious freedom.

On an unexpected basis, workers from the DSS would appear at my school to challenge me and other students about our beliefs.  “Do you like your mommy?  Do you want to leave your family? Why were you reading your Bible?”  These were the absurd and offensive questions that I was personally asked as a boy who loved my life.  Daily, I feared that the government had the ability to separate me from my family, my friends, and my church; take us into custody; and deprive us of our faith.  These personal experiences, followed by years of intense persecution and litigation involving my school and church, placed a compelling desire within me to boldly fight against religious persecution and to stand for justice.  This was my inspiration to attend law school.

Who We Are

The Word of Faith Fellowship (WFF) is a Protestant, non-denominational church located in rural Western North Carolina.  Our beliefs are traditional, evangelical doctrines of the Bible—we strive to live our lives in accordance with the Scriptures.  We believe in preaching, teaching, praising and worshiping God, as well as the Biblical practices of strong prayer.  In addition, WFF maintains a private Christian school ranging from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and over 90% of the school’s students have excelled in higher education.  Inspired by the persecution we endured, the school created an internationally renowned Holocaust Museum, comprised of over 600 pieces of artwork, which has travelled widely both across our state, as well as out-of-state to Washington D.C., New Mexico, Texas, and Florida.  Our church also has outreach missions to prisons, nursing homes, our surrounding community, and other nations including Brazil and Ghana.

The Word of Faith Christian School Holocaust Museum

The Word of Faith Christian School Holocaust Museum

What We Endured

It is because of our Biblical beliefs and practices that we became the subjects of hatred, persecution, bigotry, and discrimination through Inside Edition tabloid television, local and international media, social media, hate crimes, and several heated lawsuits.  Church members’ personal businesses were boycotted; we experienced a drive-by shooting; mine and other members’ homes were sprayed with graffiti and egged; our pastor’s lives were threatened; we were called slanderous names in our local stores.  We were investigated by local law enforcement, the DSS, the State Bureau of Investigation, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Prominent lawyers, judges, and most of our community made a vigorous attempt to close our church doors and stifle our First Amendment freedoms.  Our legal battles took us to the North Carolina Supreme Court and even to the United States District Court.  Ultimately, after years of intense litigation, lower court rulings were overturned and we were vindicated with victory in every case.

My personal experiences caused me to realize that any of us can lose the freedoms that our forefathers sacrificed their lives to acquire.  They can be lost right here in the United States, in our courts.  As the assault on my church, my faith, and my religious freedoms continued to grow and intensify, I began to wonder, “If this is happening to us, in rural Western North Carolina, where else is this happening?”  But I soon realized that all over America, the right to pray, the right to say the name of God, the right to religious freedom is being challenged.  If we lose the fundamental rights upon which our nation was founded, what will we have left?  This was my inspiration to attend law school.

Check back in the upcoming days to learn specifically about a custody battle and a federal civil rights action that attributed to my inspiration to attend law school.


Undocumented Parents Struggle to Participate in the Classroom

October 17, 2014

By: Courtney Rudy

It is only natural for a parent to want to participate in their child’s life.  A major part of a child’s life is in their classroom education.  While most parents have the ability to participate in their child’s classroom, parents of undocumented children in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) do not have that right.

The Problem

An undocumented person is a person who has entered the United States illegally and is deportable if apprehended.  An undocumented person can also be someone who entered the United States legally but who has fallen “out of status” and is deportable.[1]  Currently, undocumented parents are not allowed to volunteer at CMS because the county’s volunteer application requires parents to have a social security number and a North Carolina driver’s license.[2]  Because undocumented parents are in the United States illegally and do not have either, they are not allowed to participate at their child’s school.[3]  However, even though the parents are undocumented, their children are entitled by law to enroll in school.[4]  Current guidelines enable the principal to utilize discretion in allowing the child’s parent to volunteer and interact with their child’s education.  However, this does not guarantee all parents the ability to see their children at school.[5]

Undocumented parents are seeking the right to be allowed into their children’s classroom so they can be more involved in their education.  They want to be able to go into their children’s classroom and participate in the same way other parents do.  They also want to be able to attend the school so they can be more hands-on with their children and help them if they fall behind.  Also, it has been shown that increased parental involvement will increase a child’s academic success.[6]  Other major cities, such as Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, New York, and Houston, allow undocumented parents to fully participate in their child’s school without submitting their social security numbers and driver’s license.  These cities allow the parents to participate by conducting a criminal background search using the parent’s basic information and by accepting passports as a means of identification.

071210-N-4399G-169

The Proposal

A committee at CMS has drafted a proposal to help undocumented parents become more involved in their child’s schooling.  The proposal contains three levels of parental involvement.  Level one only requires that the parents provide their name and date of birth.  Once the parent has provided the information, the lobby guard system will run a background check to see if the parent has any sexual offense charges.  If the parent is free of charges they will be allowed access to their child, and their child only.  Level two allows the parent to interact under the direct supervision of a CMS employee with not only their child, but other children as well.  For this interaction to occur, the parent would need to present one form of a valid photo ID with their name and date of birth.  A license, passport, or consular ID will satisfy the requirements for level two interactions.[7]

Level three allows unsupervised access inside and outside the school.  Unsupervised access includes allowing parents to tutor or volunteer to be a field trip chaperone.  For level three, parents are required to have a social security number, valid North Carolina driver’s license, and pass a background check showing that they are free of felonies and sexual offenses.  The requirements of a social security number and North Carolina driver’s license will exclude undocumented parents from level three interactions.[8]

In order for these changes to be implemented, the proposal will need to be approved by the Superintendent of CMS, Heath Morrison.  There is no clear indication as to when this proposal will be implemented if approved.  If the proposal were to be approved it would be a huge victory for undocumented parents because it would grant them a greater ability to participate in their children’s education.  Stay tuned to the Civil Rights Clinic Blog to find out if the proposal is passed!

[1] A legal immigrant can fall out of status by violating the terms of their visa.  An example of this is a legal immigrant who has over stayed they term of their visa. http://www.irs.gov/individuals/International-Taxpayers/Immigration-Terms-and-Definition-Involving-Aliens.

[2] CMS Volunteer Application

[3] To obtain a driver’s license in North Carolina you are required to present two documents proving age and identity, proof of Social Security, proof of residency showing that you have a legal presence in the U.S., and proof of registration.  For a non-citizen to be approved for a social security card they need to have permission to work from the Department of Homeland Security.  If the non-citizen does not have a permit to work there needs to be a federal or state law that requires a social security number to get a particular benefit for which they have already qualified.  A non-citizen cannot get a social security number for the sole purpose of obtaining a driver’s license. http://www.ssa.gov/ssnumber/ss5doc.htm#work.

[4] Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982).  The Supreme Court of the United States case held that it is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for school districts to deny funding for education to undocumented children.  The application of Plyler v. Doe is limited to K-12 schooling.

[5] http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/08/17/5112354/solutions-elude-cms-on-undocumented.html#.U_gJpmM09EK#storylink=cpy.

[6] http://edsource.org/2013/parenting-classes-tailored-for-latino-families-show-promise-in-closing-achievement-gap/33022#.VC9G4kvtWzA.

[7] http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04881.pdf.   Consular ID’s are issued by some governments to their citizens who are living in foreign countries.  Consular ID’s contain the person’s name and date of birth.

[8] http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/09/24/5197429/cms-team-sets-path-for-more-immigrant.html#.VCSYskvtWzA#storylink=cpy


Income Inequality, Advocating for Change, and an Interview with Tyrel Oates

October 12, 2014

By Carla Vestal

Have you ever felt that you were being treated unfairly by your supervisor or maybe one of your professors?  Have you thought about telling the person who held a superior position over you exactly how you felt?  For many of us the answer is “Yes.”  You play the scenario out in your head during your commute or while sitting in class, and for some reason you never follow through with it.  Maybe it is because you do not want to seem unprofessional, or because you are scared of getting reprimanded or even fired.  For whatever reason, you never speak up for yourself.

Meet Mr. Tyrel Oates.  He is a Wells Fargo branch employee in Portland, Oregon, who decided to speak out about a problem plaguing America but few know little about: income inequality.  He not only spoke up for himself, he sent an email to the President of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf, and cc’ed 200,000 other Wells Fargo employees.  Since he sent that email the story has gone national, being reported in the Business Insider, The Huffington Post, and the San Francisco Business Times, just to mention a few.

I reached out to Mr. Oates and expressed to him how I admired his tenaciousness in sending an email to the president of one of the most profitable corporations in the United States.  Surprisingly, he responded to my message and agreed to let me interview him for the Charlotte School of Law Civil Rights Blog.  The following is a transcript of our conversation:

Carla Vestal (“CV”): Had you thought about writing that email for a while, or was it more of a spontaneous event?

Tyrel Oates (“TO”): Finding a way to create positive change in the workplace has been something I have thought about for a long time.

CV: What was going through your mind when you were cc’ing the Wells Fargo Global address book to your email?

TO: When the decision was made to address the issue, it was clear that the only way there was a chance in creating change was to make everyone aware of the scope of the issue, and to let everyone know that they are not alone in their thoughts.

CV: Are you this assertive in everything you do?

TO: Having a passion for something and remaining idle accomplishes nothing, [so] when you feel strong enough about an idea, you just have to go for it.

CV: Have you always been so forward thinking about income inequality or is your focus on this issue something that has developed throughout your years of service to a corporation?

TO: I’ve been monitoring the topic of income inequality off and on since the recession hit.

CV: Other than the raise you asked for, what other intentions did you hope that the email would have both internally and nationally?

TO: Internally, the secondary intention was to let my fellow team members know that their voice matters and [they] should not fear retaliation for constructively voicing their opinions.  Now that this has gone national, my biggest hope is that a larger awareness has been created regarding the importance of this topic.

CV: Did you think that this email would garnish as much national attention as it has?

TO: I didn’t even think that it would even leave the company.

CV: What do you want people to internalize the most from this experience?

TO: That this is a much larger issue than our nation realizes, and the solution should not be primarily tasked to our government to address, but primarily be the responsibility of the major corporations controlling the majority of income distribution.

CV: Would you consider yourself a political activist?  If so, what inspires you to be vocal about income inequality in particular?

TO: I would not consider myself to be a political activist; however, if this issue is not brought into a more prevalent light, our economy will only get worse.

CV: In an era where there is very little job security for people who choose to speak-out against the corporation that employs them, what was your “breaking point?”

TO: There was no particular “breaking point,” it was more a matter of choosing the right time.

CV: Did you send the email because you were just fed up or was it based on altruism?

TO: This was definitely an action based in altruism.

CV: Do you feel that the corporation scheme devalues and dehumanizes the people who make the profit margin for them?

TO: Absolutely.

CV: What are your next steps?  Do you intend to stay employed at Wells Fargo?

TO: For now, I plan to stay with the company.

CV: What do you feel would happen if there was a movement to unionize?

TO: With Wells Fargo, any attempt to unionize would be shot down.

CV: Do you feel the reaction would be the same from Wells Fargo as the reactions that Wal-Mart workers have faced?

TO: The health care premiums at Wells have slowly increased over time already; on the other hand, the company continues to grow and I do not see them needing to scale back hours to make up for the increase in compensation.

CV: Do you think that our generation is involved enough in the workforce movement for equal pay?

TO: Not nearly enough.

CV: What does it take to get people involved in these issues (other than emailing the President or cc’ing the world)?

TO: Choosing not to remain ignorant to the issues we as a nation face, and to overcome the notion that one person has no impact, like I said in the email: While the voice of one person in a world as large as ours may seem only like a whisper, the combined voices of each and all of us can move mountains!

Mr. Oates does not consider himself a political activist, just a concerned worker taking a stand; however, the topic of income inequality is without a doubt one of the most politically charged debates that is happening in our country.  Income inequality is measured by the Gini co-efficient, which is a statistical dispersion model of how income is distributed in a nation.  Although a full discussion of income inequality is outside of the scope of this article, here are just a few startling facts and statistics about income inequality and the United States:

  1. United States income inequality is the highest it has been since 1928.[1]
  2. The income disparity between Caucasian and African Americans, commonly referred to as the Black/White Gap, has persisted by growing from $19,000 in 1967 to $27,000 in 2011.[2]
  3. Wealth inequality is even greater than income inequality with the highest earning fifth of Americans earning 59.1% of the income, and the richest fifth of Americans holding 88.9% of the nation’s wealth.[3]
  4. In 1965, a CEO made 24 times what the average production worker made. In 2009, a CEO made 184 times more that the average production worker.[4]
  5. The United States has more children living in poverty than any other developed nation at 21%. [5] [6]

What does all of this mean?  It means that we live in a society where the rich are getter richer, and the poor are getting poorer.  But it does not have to remain this way.  To stop, and possibly reverse this disturbing trend, it takes ordinary people—like Tyrel Oates and people like you and me—to find our voice in our respective community, and to organize, and to speak out against these injustices.

In a time when people will camp outside an electronics store for the latest technology, but refuse to make it to the ballot box to cast their vote, this seems like a daunting task.  What is the use of having the latest phone or computer if we, as a society, aren’t using them as tools to advocate for social change?  Imagine the impact on this country’s current political and social paradigms if we all made a conscious effort to speak up and speak out.  The most powerful tool we have for change is one that was framed by the founding fathers of America: the power to vote.

With North Carolina facing one of the most nationally watched senatorial campaigns in the nation this year, I challenge everyone reading this to make it a point to vote on November 4.  If you aren’t registered to vote in this state, then find a cause in your home state, write a letter to an elected official, or sign a petition for something in which you feel passionately.

In the words of Tyrel Oates, a man who challenged a global economic powerhouse, I will leave you with this:

~ While the voice of one person in a world as large as ours may seem only like a whisper, the combined voices of each and all of us can move mountains! ~

[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/01/07/5-facts-about-economic-inequality/

[2] http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/08/22/kings-dream-remains-an-elusive-goal-many-americans-see-racial-disparities/4/#chapter-3-demographic-economic-data-by-race

[3] http://www.nber.org/digest/apr13/w18559.html

[4] http://web.stanford.edu/group/scspi/cgi-bin/fact2.php

[5] http://web.stanford.edu/group/scspi/cgi-bin/fact9.php

[6][6] For twenty telling charts about income inequality: see The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality at: http://web.stanford.edu/group/scspi/cgi-bin/facts.php


Attend the next Charlotte ACLU Meeting!

September 30, 2014

The Homeless Prevention Team of the Charlotte ACLU, in cooperation with Legal Aid of North Carolina, will provide the programming for the ACLU’s general meeting on October 5th at Unitarian Universalist Church of Christ at 7:00 p.m.   The Charlotte ACLU’s general meetings are open to the public and the public is encouraged to attend.

At the meeting, District Court Judge Rebecca Tin will present her perspective on the courtroom process where tenants at risk of losing their home must represent themselves without an attorney.  Former Civil Rights Clinic member and current Legal Aid staff member, Isaac Sturgill, and Shanae Auguste from Legal Aid will join her in that presentation.  They will show a film that depicts a woman facing eviction and how she prepares for her court appearance.  Following the presentation will be a question and answer session.

For more information:  http://www.aclu-charlotte.org/events.html.


Passion in the Law: Interning in Costa Rica with an Unexpected Ending

September 29, 2014

By: Brandon Pierce

Many law students are not sure which legal path they wish to pursue.  Until recently, I was one of those students, searching for my passion within the law.  Fortunately, I found that passion 5,000 miles away nestled in a Costa Rican rainforest.

THE REPUBLIC OF COSTA RICA

Home of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Costa Rica is a pluricultural and multiethnic country with a diversity of scenery, languages, and people.  [1]  But with that diversity comes an assortment of communal problems with generational impacts.  Those problems need attention, which is why I decided to work in such a diverse country.

Brandon on the judges’ bench at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Brandon on the judges’ bench at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

DIVING IN HEADFIRST

I had the privilege this summer to intern with the C.R. Office of the Ombudsman, a public institution that protects the rights of Costa Rica’s citizens.  My assignments dealt with citizens’ rights in four areas: (1) education, (2) disability, (3) LGBTQ relations, and (4) minority groups, e.g. afro-descendants, indigenous tribes, etc.  My first day on the job included meeting with community leaders and attending sessions to educate citizens on the laws that impact them.  Work within these areas included visiting rural towns on high mountain peaks, interviewing foreign diplomats, and even sitting before the seven judges of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

THE UNEXPECTED “AHA!” MOMENT

Costa Rica consists of eight indigenous groups that inhabit twenty-four territories and utilize seven legally recognized languages.  It wasn’t until I reached the small indigenous community of Shiroles that I realized the power of passion.  As my colleagues and I found ourselves trekking through a muddy Costa Rican rainforest, I never expected to find that “aha!” moment that inspired my future career path.

A bridge leading into the Shiroles Community.

A bridge leading into the Shiroles Community.

Man-made houses, handwoven clothing, and raw nature made up the community I visited.  Instantaneously upon arrival, community leaders, students, and parents assembled to hear our group.  These individuals were concerned for the future of their community.  They wanted to voice their concerns on the threat of losing their culture, the contamination of their natural resources, and the government’s illegal deprivation of their land.  My job was to document their stories and educate them on the law that protects their culture.  Their stories involved matters we take for granted or may never experience.  In many instances, indigenous students are prohibited from using their native language in school, many domestic violence disputes go unreported, and agricultural companies pollute the natural water sources used to nourish communities.  Most indigenous communities inhabit their lands without legal title, that is, a government-issued document that demonstrate they own land.  Their lack of title is reasonable considering they have inhabited these lands for centuries, even before any form of government existed.

This lack of legal title makes these communities vulnerable to unlawful foreclosures.  Consequently, foreign corporations, tourists, and even the government, has illegally taken land from indigenous territories to develop more infrastructure.  This information we gathered was used to draft a complaint against the government.  Most of my initial interactions with the Shiroles people consisted of me speaking and receiving confused, unwelcoming stares in return.  Though discouraging at times, I continued to work with the people and tried to make some sort of connection.  After working for a week in the community, something remarkable happened on the last day.

Brandon interacting with members of the Shiroles community.

Brandon interacting with members of the Shiroles community.

That day a student pulled me aside.  He explained to me the struggles of growing up feeling this his government does not care about his culture, ancestral history, or rights as a living being.  In the end, the student thanked me for being “a voice for us who have no voice.”  I was speechless.  The gratitude and satisfaction in knowing that I helped make a difference in someone’s life stays with me today.  With that humble encounter, I realized how I wanted to move my legal career forward.  It was there that I determined I would be a human rights attorney, a voice for those without a voice.

ADVICE FOR CAREER PASSION SEEKERS

Oprah Winfrey once said, “Passion is energy.  Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”

This euphoric quotation informs us all that our energy is derived from our passion.  If you believe the author, you would agree that without passion there can be no energy.   In a field that requires long work hours, such as law, there is undoubtedly a great amount of energy required.  Therefore, finding passion in one’s work is imperative.

I was privileged to sit with indigenous people, converse with community elders and sing with school children.  I was so blessed by those encounters while interning abroad and received more than I think I gave to them.

Brandon touring the Shiroles indigenous community.

Brandon touring the Shiroles indigenous community.

I discovered that we are more alike than different, full of compassion rather than hate, and full of peace, not violence.  Through this internship, I discovered that human rights can awaken us to the power and worth of our own lives.  Then, it is our responsibility to use that power to fulfill our life’s purpose.

Ask yourself:  What job excites me?  What is the one thing I can’t stop thinking about?  An even harder question: If I had to do it for free, would I still do it?  Your passion lays in the answers to those questions.  My experiences in the Shiroles community helped to find my answers.  What will it take for you to find yours?

As you step onto your mark, and get set to find your career passion, there is only one thing left to say as you take the first step.  “Go!”


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