“It’s easy to say these things as platitudes, but it becomes so much more real when these simple things are actively lived.”
Our group of interns consisted of law students, undergraduate students, and a freshly-graduated high school student. I am a second-year law student at Washington University in St. Louis. Since high school, I’ve lived in five different cities, changed jobs multiple times, and made plenty of decisions I would change. People change over time. A lot. I’d be aggravated if someone treated me as if I was the same person I was at eighteen. But that happens way too often in the justice system.
A client was referred to us. A police officer harassed the client over a charge that occurred nine years ago. The officer then communicated a misrepresentation of that charge to the client’s neighbors. Those neighbors, previously friendly, turned against him. The neighbor’s children yelled names at him when they saw him. To the neighbors, the client became someone else in less than a day. Even though nothing had really changed.
OJPC’s motto is “don’t write people off.” Our job as community members is to understand where our clients are and where they want to be. Our job as legal aid is to identify how to overcome the hurdles, barriers, and burdens our clients face. Our job as people is to treat our clients with dignity. When you focus on what someone did in the past, or who they used to be, you write off who they are now. It’s easy to say these things as platitudes, but it becomes so much more real when these simple things are actively lived.
Leaving here after the summer, I’m going to head back to St. Louis and then probably end up in a different city after that. My life is going to be changing and I want to be treated as who I am. My time here is a reminder to make sure to extend that approach to anyone I interact with. I want to remember that the human element exists in everyone and seek it out.
Dan Cull, Washington University School of Law