Wednesday, March 18, 2015

          Public Interest Influencers: Meet the Abascal Fellows

          Current and incoming Abascal fellows Ann Munene ’14 and 3L Jessica Cassella discuss their passion for public interest law.
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          3L Jessica Cassella and Ann Munene '14.

          You know an Abascal Fellow when you meet one.

          They are passionate about public interest law. Both the current Abascal fellow, Ann Munene ’14, and incoming fellow, 3L Jessica Cassella, are dedicated to representing underserved and vulnerable populations.

          Munene’s background as a Kenyan immigrant prompted a lifelong desire to assist individuals from vulnerable populations and, she said, "What better place to do that than in my new American Community, Marin County."

          Cassella’s participation in an undergraduate immersion program, which required her to live in the shoes of a homeless person for a week – searching for food, standing in line to get into a shelter, asking for change – fueled her passion for housing matters.

          Munene works for Legal Aid of Marin (LAM) and specializes in employment law. Of the numerous internships and clinics she took part in while at UC Hastings, her student internship at Legal Aid inspired her fellowship application. She proposed to introduce the African American and African immigrant community living in Marin County to LAM, focusing on employment law issues. “The organization was successful at serving the Latino community, but I wondered why other minority and at-risk groups weren’t coming in for assistance. I realized that we needed to build trust with the populations we wanted to serve to get them through the door,” recalled Munene. 

          “When I immigrated to the U.S., I encountered a lot of social, economic and educational barriers. I was able to adapt, but I had friends who had a harder time.” Although Marin County is generally affluent, minority and vulnerable populations reside there, too. “They may seem invisible, but they’re not,” she explained.

          Six months into her fellowship, she has brought in several new clients from the target population. “After a few months of foundational work and educational outreach, I’ve established an intake location in Marin City and will open another in Novato this month. I’m very grateful for this fellowship. I love what I do. It’s not really a job. It’s a career, a calling, a passion,” enthused Munene.

          From a young age, Cassella was drawn to charitable work. Her mother served as the director of a local food bank where she spent many weekends volunteering. More recently, her work as a City Hall Fellow analyzing San Francisco’s sit/lie ordinance, which prohibits people from sitting or lying on the sidewalk during certain hours, and her participation in UC Hastings’ Community Development Clinic also helped shape her current focus on affordable housing matters.

          When Cassella begins her Abascal Fellowship in the fall, she’ll be working on the rollout of a HUD program at the National Housing Law Project, which she learned about when she interned there last year. “The Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program seeks to convert public housing units across the country to Section 8 while continuing to preserve tenants’ rights. RAD will also provide more funding flexibility for maintenance and upgrades to the housing units,” explained Cassella.

          The timing of her fellowship couldn’t be better. “The project will first focus on San Francisco. What we learn will serve as a model for other jurisdictions nationwide that are converting to RAD. It’s incredible that I have this opportunity to gain such technical knowledge of a program that’s really going to change the face of public housing.”

          The Abascal Fellowship was endowed following the death in 1997 of Ralph Santiago Abascal ’68, a longtime UC Hastings professor who devoted his inspirational legal career to public interest law. Designed to launch the public interest career of UC Hastings graduates, the fellowship lasts one year and funds an advocacy project that is intended to create a new nonprofit legal position. To learn more about Abascal and the fellowship, click here.

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