Every year, the Honors College at the University of Maine holds the annual John M. Rezendes Visiting Scholar in Ethics Lecture. This lecture series has been a tradition at UMaine since 2000 and also includes an ethics essay competition for undergraduate students.
This year the lecture was held on April 17 in Donald P. Corbett Hall Room 100 and featured guest lecturer and UMaine 2002 alumna Sally Curran.
Currently, Curran serves as the executive director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project and works as a pro bono lawyer of legal services. Honors Associate Eric LeVassuer introduced Curran and explained that the Volunteer Lawyers Project is a program that serves those in need of a legal aide.
The Volunteer Lawyers Project has over 700 volunteers and provides legal services to 3,000 community members a year.
During the lecture, Curran reminisced on her time at UMaine.
“So much of my social justice awareness started on this campus,” she said.
Curran said she considers herself and lawyers like her as “active participants in social justice,” and she clarified that the purpose of her talk was to explain how lawyers can be involved in social justice.
The three main components of her discussion were housing stability, immigration and transgender rights.
As Curran stated, pro bono lawyers, such as herself, can make an impact in several ways. Direct representation, education, advocacy in the community and creative advocacy and change are among the many ways these lawyers try to help individual communities.
Curran admitted that most people don’t know that the help legal aides can provide stretches far beyond just criminal law. Within the group of lawyers she works in, there is an emphasis on “addressing the fundamental rights of life.” In her eyes, pro bono lawyers account for the “gaps that other legal aid services aren’t able to meet.”
Her organization realizes that there is a “crisis regarding access to justice” as she worded it, and many people are going without help.
One of the major issues the organization deals with is eviction and housing equality. Curran noted that 30 percent of the organization deals with this community-based matter.
“Every year in Maine, about 6,000 families are brought into court for eviction, and one in three people in Syracuse are considered [to be in] poverty,” Curran said. “This directly plays into the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Curran said that the more children are moved around, the less likely they are to finish school and that a low graduation rate corresponds to a high incarceration rate. Curran’s organization is able to avoid or delay eviction in over 70 percent of their cases and is able to erase the money people owe entirely in 30 percent of the cases.
“[Our organization] tries to help people learn how to advocate for themselves,” Curran said.
Another problem that is receiving a lot of national attention at the moment that Curran’s group tackles are immigration cases. She acknowledged that there is “no more complex system than the immigration system” and explained to the crowd that those who are seeking asylum are being placed in holding cells and told that they are capable of representing themselves, no matter the age.
“People are fleeing their country due to violence and poor economic situations that are destitute and hold absolutely no opportunity,” Curran stated.
The volunteer group she works with focuses mainly on cases of those who are seeking asylum as well as child trafficking cases. But they also focus on another issue: transgender rights.
“26 percent of transgender people have experienced job loss, more than 20 percent of the homeless youth is LGTBQ,” Curran said. She also noted a relatively high rate of suicide among this demographic.
Curran said that her volunteer group is working to “try to change the attitudes in addressing harassment and helping to recognize the dignity and right for someone to define who they are.”
The Rezendes Lecture Series also incorporates an ethics essay contest in which undergraduate students at UMaine may submit an essay in response to a specific prompt. Don Biethe of the philosophy department introduced the topic and announced the winner.
“[The] finalists and winner have done an excellent job showing the multilayers of sensitive issues that arise [within the topic],” Biethe said.
The 2019 essay competition topic was “Advocacy and Accountability.” Biethe explained that was intended to get students to think about “how to speak for someone who can’t speak for themselves.”
The winner of the 2019 competition, fourth-year women’s, gender and sexuality studies and zoology student Meghan Frisard, wrote an essay titled “Help I’m Trapped: Ethical Advocacy in the age of TRAP laws.”