MARSHALL-BRENNAN AT 20: Alumni Share Constitutional Literacy Project's Lasting Impact
April 5, 2019
April 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, a program that has made a major impact on the lives and careers of those who have participated in it.
Founded in 1999 by American University Washington College of Law Professors Jamie Raskin and Stephen Wermiel, the program offers talented upper-level law students the unique opportunity to teach courses on constitutional law and juvenile justice in public high schools, primarily in underserved urban areas. This push for constitutional literacy is rooted in the belief that teaching young people their rights as citizens and other fundamental constitutional principles will result in a more engaged and empowered citizenry.
“Steve and I had a gut sense that this would be a remarkable, although sometimes difficult, education for our students and an equally remarkable education for the high school students they taught,” said Raskin, who now represents Maryland’s 8th District in the U.S. Congress. “We had no idea it would end up touching thousands of people across the country. I’ve always seen Marshall-Brennan as a classic WCL project because it links law student and faculty service with a dynamic educational process and
“Steve and I knew that our high schools were missing a huge educational opportunity by not teaching students the Constitution, and we figured that WCL had as much responsibility as anyone to help make it happen,” said Raskin. “I continue to get emails and letters all the time from both law students and high school students telling me that the Marshall-Brennan experience changed their lives.”
A key component of the program is the annual moot court competition, in which the high school students prepare and present an appellate argument to a panel of judges. This is one of the only competitions of its kind in the country. Since its inception at AUWCL, the Marshall-Brennan Project
has expanded and now has chapters in 18 law schools throughout the U.S.
A Legacy of Engagement
“While AUWCL has long been known for its focus on social justice and advocacy, Marshall-Brennan has elevated the profile of the public spirit of this institution,” said Wermiel, who currently serves as the Marshall-Brennan faculty adviser. From 2005 to 2009, he taught the Advanced Constitutional Law class and seminar that accompany the program and co-taught them
with Raskin for several years before that.
“Most of the students who are attracted to the program already have a bent toward social justice, but the experience they gain from it heightens that social awareness,” said Wermiel. “They come to understand the needs of the D.C. community and how they, as lawyers, can make an impact.”
Wermiel notes that the benefits of the program are enormous for everyone involved, and, as every teacher soon discovers, “Nothing forces one’s disciplined learning of a subject more than to have to get up and teach it to someone else. The law students learn firsthand the important difference they can make in the classroom—and many go on to careers in education or education advocacy,” he said. “The high school students learn about their
legal rights as citizens—it opens their eyes and empowers them and demystifies the courts and legal system.”
“There’s also an important mentorship/role model component to the program,” continued Wermiel. “The value of the bonding that develops among the law students and the high school students can’t be overestimated.”
Influencing Career Choices
As a junior at Wilson High School in Tenleytown, not far from the AUWCL campus, Gabriella Lewis-White ’13 experienced firsthand the benefits of the program when she took a constitutional literacy class taught by an AUWCL student. “I didn’t know anything when I started, and the student teacher really opened my eyes to the possibilities in law.”
This led her to eventually attend law school at AUWCL, and as a 3L she returned to her high school alma mater as a Marshall-Brennan Fellow. “Although getting students motivated to pay attention and complete their assignments was a challenge, I ultimately saw the rewards,” said Lewis-White. “When the students were interested—when the course subject matter was relevant to their lives and how the law could affect them—they were engaged and excited.”
The insights Lewis-White gained from the Marshall-Brennan experience have had a major impact on her career. She is now a managing attorney at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, where she supervises all housing-related projects, including the Eviction Defense Program. She mentors attorneys in law firms throughout the D.C. area on how to litigate housing cases.
“Marshall-Brennan not only helped me realize how I could use my talents to make a positive impact on the lives of others, it also shaped the way I handle my clients and the people we advocate for—many of whom have similar backgrounds to the students I taught at Wilson. My experiences gave me a greater appreciation for what young people need and care about, including a safe and supportive home environment. I witnessed firsthand the direct correlation that a student’s home environment has on their success in the classroom and beyond. That’s a major reason I chose to focus on housing in my law career.”
Participating in the Marshall-Brennan Project also influenced the career choice of Eric Lerum ’03. As a 2L, he taught a Constitutional Literacy course at Caesar Chavez Charter High School in Capitol Hill. “During my third or fourth week teaching the kids, everything started to gel,” said Lerum. “When I realized that the kids had not gotten the education they deserved, that’s when the light went on for me. I knew what I wanted to do with my law degree once I got out of school.” He is now chief operating officer of the Denver-based organization America Succeeds, a national network of business-led organizations that advocate for educational policy at the state level.
“I saw what I did really made a difference with the kids. Since the Constitutional Literacy elective focuses on constitutional cases that impact high school students directly, they could really relate to what I was teaching them. One of the students I taught went onto law school.”
A Transformative Experience
“The experience was amazing—the chance to make an impact on kids’ lives while getting law school credit,” said Randal Seriguchi ’11, executive director of Urban Ed Academy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that mobilizes resources to improve educational opportunities for children of color. As a 2L, he taught at Dunbar Senior High School, located in the Truxton Circle neighborhood of Northwest D.C.
“I purposely wanted to work in a challenging school. But I wasn’t prepared for what I experienced,” explained Seriguchi. “Besides discipline issues and chronic absenteeism and truancy, there were significant academic challenges. Here I was trying to teach constitutional law to kids who couldn’t read the material we were teaching. I was able to break through to the kids because I came from a similar background, having grown up in a poor area of Asbury Park, New Jersey. They were great kids, with so much potential, despite their academic deficiencies. And they were turned on by the moot court opportunity, the chance to argue a case in front of people. For me, the mentorship aspect of the program was key—I spent lots of extra time outside the classroom so I could connect to them on a personal level.
“I don’t think I was a very good teacher, but I saw there was plenty of work to be done outside of the classroom,” noted Seriguchi. “After graduating from law school, with the encouragement and direction of Professor Maryam Ahranjani, I took a job with StudentsFirst in Sacramento, a political lobbying organization in support of education reform. Education policy turned out to be the right path for me—the chance to use my law degree to address what I feel is a national emergency.”
Beyond the Classroom
“Marshall-Brennan has a dual benefit,” explained Lisa Curtis ’11, associate director of the program, who teaches a specialized Advanced Constitutional Law seminar to the Marshall-Brennan Fellows.
“From the program’s very inception, it has appealed to students with a keen desire to contribute to their community. Not only does Marshall-Brennan fulfill that need, but it also provides opportunities for the students to develop concrete lawyering skills that they’ll use with their clients, like how to communicate effectively, problem-solve, and build rapport and trust. Our Fellows also receive unique insights into juvenile justice issues and a real glimpse into what’s happening in today’s urban classrooms and communities—an invaluable perspective.
“Our Fellows want to do everything possible to advocate for and empower their students, despite very real limitations,” continued Curtis. “Marshall-Brennan is a platform for our Fellows to deepen their learning and experience. Many of them take this transformational experience and do so much more once they go out into the community as advocates and practicing
lawyers. The Marshall-Brennan experience never leaves them.”
A Celebration of Service
The Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project celebrated its 20-year milestone with an event at the law school in early April, which included an address from Congressman Raskin and a gathering of current and former Marshall-Brennan Fellows.
If you would like to donate to support the continued success of the program, visit alumniassociation.american.edu/marshallbrennan.