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UCLA Law Students Provide Legal Assistance in New Orleans

Fourteen UCLA Law students traveled to New Orleans in January as part of the UCLA Law Critical Race Studies (CRS) Program’s ongoing efforts to  respond to the urgent legal needs of communities affected by Hurricane Katrina. UCLA Law students enrolled in the Critical Race Studies concentration and the Program in Public Interest Law  worked under the coordination of UCLA Law alumna Jennifer Lai ’03.  
The trip was funded in part by alumni donations and the School of Law. “It’s fantastic when our students are able to apply their knowledge and skills to participate in the judicial process,” said UCLA School of Law Dean Michael H. Schill.  “I am enormously proud of the work our students and alumni have done, and will continue to do, in New Orleans.”
During their five day volunteer trip in New Orleans, UCLA Law students provided legal assistance to civil rights lawyers who successfully filed lawsuits to stop the city of New Orleans from bulldozing homes without notice and to stop evictions of Katrina evacuees from a New Orleans hotel.  They also investigated working and living conditions of immigrant workers, many of whom encountered environmental hazards, inadequate accommodations and unpaid wages.   African American survivors also were interviewed regarding the many barriers, including lack of housing, schools and jobs,  that are impeding their return to their neighborhoods. 
One of the most emotionally and physically exhausting, but important tasks the students undertook was to help gather factual information to stop the bulldozing of homes without notice to the property owners.  While  thousands of homes originally  were slated for destruction,  the city was proceeding against several hundred homes all concentrated in the predominantly African American Ninth Ward.  Gathering specific information about each home was a gargantuan task. Teams of students combed the area, meticulously matching GPS coordinates to properties in order to properly identify which homes were going to be bulldozed.

As 3L Yvonne Ballesteros explained, “Some homes were found blocks away from the GPS locations and some clearly had memories that could be saved.   We found pictures, phone bills, dolls, shoes, toys, records . . . people’s lives.”

Later, they spent hours combing Hurricane Katrina survivor websites to find homeowners and notify them of the city’s plans.   As one student noted, "We the students were in effect doing the work that the city should have done before proceeding to demolish people's homes."    The students were called to the scene of a site where bulldozing was about to begin,  despite the fact that the lawsuit  filed by the supervising lawyers had successfully enjoined the city from taking action until further court proceedings.  The students, along with the lawyers, played an instrumental role in preventing a violation of basic due process rights.

Professor Cheryl I. Harris, Faculty Director of the Critical Race Studies Program noted,  “Our students were able to get valuable training as future racial justice advocates.   The volunteer work provided a first hand experience in applying to real life situations the insights of critical race theory relating to the impact of social and economic differences in fully vindicating one’s constitutional rights.”
The volunteer trip built on a major conference and public educational forum convened by the CRS program at UCLA in November. “From the Gulf Coast the West Coast: A Cross Regional Consultation” was designed to facilitate strategic thinking and shared learning among UCLA Law faculty, civil rights lawyers and community practitioners. 

And the fight for justice continues. The students are hoping to go back to New Orleans over Spring Break to continue their work.  This semester, students are engaging in Katrina-related independent projects or research under the auspices of the CRS and PILP faculty and staff and they have organized a public panel presentation about their volunteer work as part of an on-going monthly workshop established by the students when they returned.  Additionally, a CRS-sponsored student panel on the application of critical race theory to the Hurricane and Reconstruction, will be the plenary presentation at the 4th Annual Western Law Professors of Color Conference at Cal Western School of Law in San Diego this March.