Health Advocates, Mentors, and Community Organizers: Meet the 2011 Peter M. Cicchino Award Winners

The Annual Peter M. Cicchino Awards for Outstanding Advocacy in the Public Interest program is held every year in honor of a beloved former Washington College of Law Professor, Peter M. Cicchino, who passed away in 2000. Professor Cicchino was both a brilliant scholar and teacher, and a brave and creative public interest lawyer.

The program honors a current student who has demonstrated a remarkable commitment to public interest during their time on campus. There are also two alumni awards for remarkable public interest work, both domestically and internationally.

View the details for this year's event here.

From Airport Law to Health Access Advocate

Javier Vasquez ‘96 has spent the last 12 years training government officials and public health workers in human rights obligations for the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

But this wasn’t his original plan. In 1992, Vasquez had aspirations of being an air and space lawyer, fascinated with the legal regulations around airplanes and airports.

He landed a job at a psychiatric hospital in Panama and spent two years promoting a literacy campaign on human rights and working closely with patients, nurses, and doctors. Seeing the poor conditions in the hospital helped Vasquez make the connection between human rights and the right to health and high level medical care.

“It was very isolated and remote, with patients living in deplorable conditions,” Vasquez said. “This is where I heard the call to use human rights to promote health in all situations.”

He came to American University Washington College of Law because of the school’s reputation for producing excellent human rights attorneys. After earning his International Legal Studies LL.M. in ’96, Vasquez went to work for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, where he was selected as a fellow. His field work at PAHO involves educating public health workers, police, and other government actors about their human rights obligations. He also applies these lessons in context of hospitals and health clinics, in areas that include mental disorders, elderly in long term care, sexual and reproductive health, the rights of women, LGBTI groups, and the health of young people.

When he learned of receiving the Peter Cicchino Award designated for an alum doing international work, Vasquez was quick to apply credit to others for the honor.

“It is an award that involves many agencies, and many areas of work that are starting to be more significant in the agendas of governments and human rights agencies,” Vasquez said. “It is a collective joy.”

Student Organization Becomes Non-profit Career

As law students, Whitney Louchheim ‘05 and Penelope Spain ‘05 were interested in public defense reform for juveniles. Spain had an internship with the Public Defender Service of Washington, D.C., and the Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel, Md.

Spain and Louchheim started a student group at the law school called “Students United”, with the original goal of tutoring at-risk youth.

They soon discovered that the kids they were working with had deeper problems than their flagging academic performance. Many of them faced harsh conditions at home, including going hungry and possibly even homeless.

“When we saw how much work had to be done to keep them on track – food, housing, school – we realized that our program had to do more,” Spain said. “Just having someone out there caring about them made a huge difference.”

After running the program for two years at the law school, Spain and Louchheim took the organization off campus and earned 501c3 status. Students United became Mentoring Today. This year’s crop of mentors is comprised entirely of American University Washington College of Law students.

“We’ve served 46 young people, with over 40 mentors. It’s always a one-on-one match,” Louchheim said. “We’ve seen kids be the first in their family to go to college. We’ve seen kids start their own families, get out on their own.”

The duo have been nominated for the Peter Cicchino Award for their domestic work previously, but this year the law students got involved in the process, and had the mentored kids write letters about the success they’ve seen as a result of Mentoring Today.

“What I’ve learned about Peter Cicchino is that he was really focused on developing law students into whole people who really understand giving,” Spain said.

Bringing the Power of the Law Back to the Community

Richael Faithful ’11 came to law school to empower the communities that she had been helping to organize in her career after college while working at Virginia Organizing – a grassroots community building organization from her home state that has done important work around racial profiling, payday lending, and other racial and economic justice issues.

“As an organizer, I saw a need for these community groups to have access to legal expertise and services,” Faithful said. “I had the opportunity to attend law school, and felt it was incumbent upon me to bring these skills back to the communities I had been a part of, to help them find ways for the law to work for people.”

Faithful came to American University Washington College of Law because of the “genuine public interest commitment that I wouldn’t have gotten at other schools.”

Faithful has pursued her interest in underrepresented communities, taking on issues ranging from transgendered prisoners to land liberalization for Native American tribes. She also led the student publication The Modern American through a re-dedication and new strategic plan to make the publication more scholarly and increase visibility. She’s been active in the Progressive People of Color Caucus – a group that works with the law school on issues of diversity on campus – and the National Lawyers Guild, and after graduation will be pursuing an Equal Justice Fellowship at Advancement Project, a community lawyering and racial justice foundation based in Washington, D.C.

“I felt very humbled and honored when I learned I had won this award,” Faithful said. “Especially when I read about Peter Cicchino. He had a very ideological and spiritual connection to people. It’s what I strive for, to remember people and the law, and do work that honors their humanity. His legacy is so large, and to do any work that is regarded as anywhere near what he had done in his lifetime is an honor.”

Read about last year's winners.