Abraham writing on a white board in a classroom.

Paying it forward, with public interest

For Associate Professor Heather Abraham, her experience as an Equal Justice Works Fellow was a pivotal point in her career as an advocate for fair housing rights. Now, with her appointment to the organization’s newly established and highly selective Alumni Advisory Council, she’ll be in position to help the next generation of fellows find their place in public interest law.

Founded in 1986, Equal Justice Works (EJW) is a nonprofit organization and the nation’s largest facilitator of job opportunities that promote equal access to justice for communities in need. Each year, EJW funds dozens of full-time, paid, post-graduate fellowships across the country. 85% of EJW fellows remain in public service positions after their fellowship ends.

“Being an Equal Justice Works Fellow was formative for me,” says Abraham, who directs UB School of Law’s Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic. “Seeking to do public interest law in this country can be an uphill battle. Getting a legal education is expensive. You often take on extreme debt, and it’s difficult to find a way to get paid to do work for people who cannot afford an attorney. Equal Justice Works made it possible for me to find the path to where I am today.”

Beginning in 2016, Abraham, with fellowship support, created a Community Outreach Court in northern Michigan that offers homeless rural residents the tools they need to obtain stable housing and employment. The initiative adapts the urban “homeless court” model to the rural homeless, an often-overlooked group of people experiencing housing insecurity.

“There wasn’t a rural court like this anywhere in Michigan,” she says. “Rural homelessness is much less visible. People are often doubled up or living in the woods or abandoned farm homes—they’re much more difficult to find. It took an incredible amount of outreach and goodwill building to make this happen.”

Since then, Abraham has continued to be involved with Equal Justice Works. She regularly presents at the organization’s annual leadership development trainings for current fellows and has facilitated its discussions on effective legal advocacy in homelessness and housing law. This year she will present on career opportunities and strategies in clinical teaching and entering the academic job market. In this role, she has become a go-to mentor to recent graduates and advisor for current students across the country who are preparing post-graduate fellowship proposals.

Since arriving at UB, she has been an advocate for the program with her own students. Nicholas A. Ramirez ’22, a student attorney in the Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic recently applied for an Equal Justice Works fellowship. His proposal focuses on reducing police misconduct in overpoliced communities of color in the Buffalo Niagara region.

“I had not considered a fellowship until I mentioned a theoretical legal strategy to Professor Abraham,” Ramirez says. “She guided me on designing my proposal to fit my interests, goals and abilities. Because she had been through the process before, I was able to maximize my appeal to funders.”

In addition to advancing their prestigious fellowship program, Equal Justice Works established the 15-person Alumni Advisory Council “to build, strengthen and engage” their alumni network. Abraham is serving on a subcommittee that is looking at new ways to reach out to Equal Justice Works alumni and others connected with the program. “We’re hoping to come up with a strong engagement plan for prior fellows to get more involved,” she says. “This is an effort to engage alumni in a way that Equal Justice Works has never done before.”