USC Dornsife launches the country’s first undergraduate civil rights advocacy clinic
Ever wanted to get involved in working to improve civil rights and fight injustice and inequality but weren’t quite sure how to go about it? USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences has the answer. This semester it is launching the Agents of Change Civil Rights Advocacy Initiative, the nation’s first experiential undergraduate civil rights clinic.
The initiative, led by accomplished civil rights lawyer Olu Orange of political science and international relations, will enable students from across the university to work on the front lines of cutting-edge civil rights efforts.
Students will work with more than 30 community partners that Orange and Program Manager, Kath Rogers, former executive director of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and herself a civil rights lawyer, have brought on board to participate in the USC Dornsife initiative. Partners include activists such as Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and the Youth Justice Coalition, legal organizations such as the ACLU of Southern California and government agencies such as the city of L.A.’s Civil and Human Rights Department and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
For students, the program represents a two-year commitment, during which they will have the opportunity to participate in three facets of social change: community activism, legal advocacy, and government policy.
“When you think about what gets improvements in civil rights accomplished, it almost always involves those three areas,” says Orange, adjunct assistant professor of political science and director of the USC Dornsife Trial Advocacy Program. “We want students to be very well-versed in what it takes to effect change in the civil rights arena with regard to all three of them.”
The USC Dornsife Office of Experiential and Applied Learning, which oversees the initiative, is committed to making civil rights advocacy available to students, regardless of financial or other difficulties. Participating students receive training, academic credit and a $1,000 monthly stipend to support their work while they are in the program. The sum, Orange says, “is the exact number students told me would be required for somebody to be able to eat, have somewhere to live, study and do this program without having to work two or three jobs.”
Funding is a key component for students
Orange says he realized the importance of providing financial support for students participating in the initiative in order to ensure that everyone has equal access to it.
Civil rights attorney and USC Dornsife instructor Olu Orange. (Photo: Courtesy of Olu Orange.)
“It’s been my experience in the 20 years that I’ve done the Trial Advocacy program that many Black and brown students do not participate in activities, programs and opportunities that require a lot of time beyond their classroom hours because that’s the time they set aside to work to pay bills so that they can attend school,” he says.
“Funding is vitally important because it would be a terrible shame for Black and brown students to be excluded from participation in a program that addresses issues in their community because they couldn’t afford to do it.”
Orange expressed appreciation to several of USC Dornsife’s administrative leaders, “all of whom recognized the need immediately and gave the initiative their full support with no delays — even during the economic strain of the pandemic,” Orange said.
“This shows that USC Dornsife is deeply committed to civil rights.”
How it works
After students have successfully applied to join Agents of Change, they start by spending one semester in either the governmental or the activism cohort and then switch for their second semester before moving into the legal advocacy cohort for two semesters.
“We place students with our partner organizations to do field work related to their current cohort,” Orange explains. “We also create a pedagogical module that relates to that work and insert it into certain classes in that field.”
For example, a student working at L.A.’s Civil and Human Rights Department will be able to take a class on American government taught in USC Dornsife’s Department of Political Science and International Relations that will include a specially designed module that relates to their fieldwork.
In this way, Agents of Change will also build bridges between students’ education and the community.
“That bridge makes what the students are learning in class real for them,” Orange says. “It also serves to give them an edge in their fieldwork because they have an institutional perspective to apply to the reality of the work that they’re doing.”
A campus hub for community activism
Orange sees Agents of Change as a way to strengthen ties between the university and the community. To that end, a space on USC’s University Park campus where students can work with community members and organizations is currently under development.
“The community needs to start to see that they can come to USC with issues, problems, triumphs and victories and have a space to work with students and incorporate them into the work being done by community members,” Orange says.
He plans to extend the initiative to universities across the country, so students can do fieldwork in other locations and still receive the same academic credit.
“This program will enable our students to nurture their passion for helping others and help them see how they can turn that passion into a profession,” Orange says. “They will also experience firsthand what the benefits of engaging in such a professional life are to the community, as well as to themselves.
“Through Agents of Change, students don’t feel like they have to wait to bring to bear their passion and their talents and skills to help solve problems that impact their lives. They can do it right now.”