Natasha Baker is the third student in the history of GW Law to be awarded a Skadden Foundation Fellowship. Described as a “legal Peace Corps,” the fellowship was established almost 30 years ago for law students who wish to pursue public interest work. All fellows are provided a salary and benefits as they complete work over the course of two years.
A dual American and Brazilian citizen from California, Ms. Baker came to Washington, D.C. to pursue a career in the legal profession. She knew that if she wanted to be in a position to change the law, knowing how the law worked would need to come first. With a focus on criminal justice, Ms. Baker interned at various organizations, including the Santa Clara County Office of the Public Defender in California, for Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Equal Justice Under Law, a civil rights non-profit legal organization. She has also served as a student-attorney in the Neighborhood Law and Policy Clinic and is a board member of Street Law.
During the summer after her first year at GW Law, Ms. Baker interned with Open City Advocates (OCA), a D.C.-based non-profit legal organization that provides post-disposition representation to youth who are committed to the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. “That summer convinced me to pursue a career in criminal justice. I immersed myself in DC’s racially and economically segregated juvenile justice system and (although to a lesser degree) adult criminal justice system. I provided holistic representation that addressed many of the collateral consequences of system-involvement and gained tremendous perspective on what it actually means to be indigent and to be under the control of the criminal justice system,” she recalled.
While looking for fellowships after her 2L year, Ms. Baker reached out to OCA and learned that D.C. was undergoing a dramatic shift in its juvenile justice system. For the first time in D.C.’s history, the juvenile prison was housing females. Recognizing that keeping youth closer to home facilitates rehabilitation, D.C. decided to open a female unit in its juvenile prison in 2016. Previously, “high-risk” females – or females that needed to be in secure detention – were sent to out-of-state facilities. As a result of this shift, OCA would begin receiving female clients starting fall 2017. Ms. Baker talked to the founders of OCA about developing a foundation to address the needs of incarcerated females. “My proposal aimed to help OCA adapt its post-disposition advocacy strategies to female clients, providing them with legal representation both while they are incarcerated and during their transition back into the community,” she explained.
To meet the requirements of the Skadden fellowship, Ms. Baker’s proposal had to encompass an innovative project that could be completed over the course of two years at an existing non-profit legal organization that provides civil legal services to vulnerable populations. She submitted her fellowship proposal to the Skadden Foundation after receiving help from several of her GW Law mentors, including Alan B. Morrison, Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest and Public Service Law; Jessica Steinberg, Associate Professor of Clinical Law and Director of the Neighborhood Law and Policy Clinic; and Phyllis Goldfarb, Jacob Burns Foundation Professor of Clinical Law and Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs. Ms. Baker was selected for the Skadden Fellowship in December 2016 and will begin her fellowship in fall 2017.
“The Skadden Fellowship is the gold standard in public interest fellowships and I could not be more honored to have been selected. The foundation I create will allow OCA to continue to serve females once I leave and to train generations of new law students. I came to law school to do public interest law, and I am starting off my career on excellent footing. I didn’t plan on this opportunity from day one, but I was prepared when the opportunity came to seize it,” Ms. Baker said.
Once she completes her fellowship, Ms. Baker hopes to pursue a career in public defense.