Sept. 26, 2008
UI law student recognized for commitment to public interest work
It's been three years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, but the struggles and turmoil continue in the city despite declining national attention.
University of Iowa law student Daniel Zeno said that the situation in New Orleans is just as bad, if not worse than it was three years ago.
"Post-Katrina, thousands of mostly poor black residents still have not been allowed back in the city," he said. "Initially these residents were physically not able to come back because of the widespread damage in the Lower Ninth Ward and other areas. More recently, these residents have been locked out because of the massive demolition of public housing in New Orleans, as well as the devastation of many homes and development policies that exclude poor and working class peoples."
For the past two years, Zeno has spent his spring breaks in New Orleans helping those displaced by Hurricane Katrina by building Habitat for Humanity homes. This experience has been a personal one for the Louisiana native.
"To be able to help people in my home state made it that much more satisfying," he said.
This fall, Zeno's commitment to public interest law led to his appointment to the Equal Justice Works (EJW) National Advisory Committee, a group that provides advice and support to Equal Justice Works in its efforts to mobilize the next generation of lawyers committed to equal justice.
Zeno believes that implementing law and public policy is the best way to bring about social change, and has been actively involved in student organizations and policy advocacy at the law school.
"I believe every law student and every lawyer has an obligation to engage in public interest work, whether in nonprofits or pro-bono work at a big law firm or government work," he said. "Law students and lawyers are educated in and understand the language of law, which is the language of power. With this knowledge comes the responsibility to use that education and access to power to ensure equal opportunities for all by advocating for individuals and communities and by attacking structural inequities that deny some an equal opportunity."
Affordable housing and equal opportunity education are some of his main interests. He said that growing up in Lafayette, La., he witnessed the challenges of inequities and injustices within his own community and knew that he wanted to change what the larger community believed about social justice.
Last year Zeno was the chair of the law school's Black Law Student Association (BLSA), and this past summer, he worked at the Advancement Project (AP) in Washington D.C., partnering with local organizations to advocate for voter protection, immigrant rights, education reform and inclusive development in New Orleans.
Zeno spent time researching various City of New Orleans programs designed to deal with blight to understand the impact of the policies on low-income communities of color, as well as the extent of voter power dissolution in New Orleans and its possible impact on local politics and policies, specifically redevelopment policies.
He also attended community meetings in southeast Washington, D.C. to support community efforts to resist displacement and to demand to be included in the development process.
He also requested and analyzed suspension and arrest data from school districts across the country to understand and highlight how school districts are dealing with "problem children," and participated on a nationwide conference call about the educational experience of immigrant children and if and how immigrant children are being pushed out of school by being forced to drop-out.
Zeno's goal is to work as a fellow at Advancement Project assisting communities in their efforts to demand decent and affordable housing and to fight slum conditions and displacement.
After that, he says he'd like to return to the South, maybe Louisiana and engage in community lawyering to support communities in their efforts to develop and inspire community-based solutions in the areas of racial justice, housing and inclusive development.
"This is an honor not only for him, but for the school," said Linda McGuire, associate dean of public engagement in the law school, about his appointment to the EJW National Advisory Board. "As a professional school we try to work with our students to encourage them to do pro-bono work, because the profession is about serving the community and helping low income citizens obtain access to the justice system. Daniel has been a very good example of those two principles for everyone at the law school."
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell), email@example.com; Writer: Caroline Jones