Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Jessica Ryckman, Director of Fellowships at Equal Justice Works.
Q: What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
A: Right now our nation is facing an unprecedented wave of setbacks that threaten basic human rights previously protected by law. Millions of Americans cannot afford legal assistance when facing life-changing situations, and a 2020 study found that there is only one legal aid attorney for every 10,000 people living at or below the poverty line. This is leaving a gap in our justice system at a time when access to legal aid is more needed than ever.
When I began my career, I was aware of so many attorneys who dreamed of working in public service but were hindered by finances, equity, and accessibility. The cost of a legal education precluded many from entering public interest law upon graduation – or even discouraged attending law school at all. There were also fewer resources at law schools for first generation graduates, like me, who were interested in public interest law but lacked familiarity and mentors to help navigate the legal landscape and make educated choices about how to achieve a career in public service.
Now at Equal Justice Works, I am working with our funders, host organizations, and law schools to ensure that there are passionate public service leaders like lawyers and community advocates who are positioned to respond to the needs of underserved communities. For over 35 years, Equal Justice Works has focused on building a stronger pipeline of passionate public interest lawyers, kickstarting thousands of careers in public interest law and instilling a long-term commitment to public service—a career path vital to moving communities closer to true equality.
Q: What is your current greatest professional challenge?
A: Public servants are our society’s nurses and doctors, teachers and school counselors, social workers and firefighters, and public interest lawyers, many of whom are encumbered with years of undergraduate and graduate student loans required to enter their professions. In order to make a legal career in public service more appealing and accessible, we need to deepen investments in opportunities and incentives such as fellowship programs and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) that make public interest law a more accessible career option.
We also need to reach students at the start of their careers. In my role, I work with law schools around the country (in fact, over 90% of ABA-accredited law schools are Equal Justice Works law school members) to bolster the pipeline of public service leaders who have the skills and passion to help. That means securing funding for our Fellowship programs, distributing those funds to host organizations, and connecting the host organizations with passionate public service leaders who are driven to create change.
By doing my part to foster a nationwide community of law students, lawyers, and organizations that are working toward equal justice, we are seeking to address urgent and critical civil legal issues that affect individuals.
Q: What inspires you most about your work?
A: I am lucky enough to work directly with many of our Equal Justice Works Fellows who have a deeply rooted passion for public service and a willingness to provide individuals with better access to justice. Each year, we have the privilege of helping to launch the careers of these passionate public service leaders who lay the groundwork for sustainable solutions to issues like housing justice, disaster relief, elder abuse, immigration reform, LGBTQ+ rights, and more, ensuring that equal justice can become a reality for all.
Our Fellows are working to protect the rights of those that otherwise would not have an advocate. For example, 2020 Fellow Dana Bolger is working to enforce workplace protections for pregnant and parenting people in the Bronx so they can stay healthy and on the job. Thanks to the work of Dana and her host organization, A Better Balance, pregnant people in New York City no longer need a doctor’s note for such minor accommodations such as adjustments to uniforms or dress codes, additional water breaks, or being closer to a bathroom. This work has long-term implications for the health and safety of both parents and their children.
More than 85% of Equal Justice Works Fellows remain in public service and continue to make an impact long after their fellowship ends. That, to me, is inspiring.
Q: How does your gender identity inform your work?
A: Across the world, people are still being marginalized for their gender, living without the rights to marry who they want, express themselves the way they want, and maintain autonomy over their bodies. For over a decade before joining Equal Justice Works, I focused on the challenges that women faced abroad, working to improve access to justice and rule of law. I saw the way women were treated and respected – or not – around the world and I empathized. Reproductive rights, lack of paid parental leave, gender-based violence and discrimination – these are universal issues that women face. For those who insist on equal rights for all genders, I am doing my best to ensure that they have access to the legal representation needed to win their case and create long-term change in their communities.
Q: Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?
A: Throughout my career, I have been privileged to work with strong women trailblazers such as Judge Ann C. Williams, the first woman of color on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Seeing the pure energy, determination, and sacrifice of women as they work to break down barriers – both at home and abroad – reminds me every day of the progress that has been made, the work left to do, and the effort we must continue to make to be sure that any setback is temporary. Working with amazing women who lift others up has inspired me to try to do the same with my career – to reach out, lift up, and support individuals and the community as a whole.
Q: How can philanthropy support gender equality?
A: At Equal Justice Works, we believe that building a stronger pipeline of public service leaders is critical to ensuring gender, racial, and economic equality for all. Our unique funding model relies on the generous support of private companies, law firms, foundations, and even individuals to grant to host organizations where Fellows are then embedded for two years, supporting the needs of local communities.
We’re living in a time when our communities need increased support, and that requires an increase in funding and investments. Equal Justice Works builds talent pipelines and impactful programs for public interest lawyers that benefit individuals, communities, and society as a whole.
Q: In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?
A: My hope is that ten years from now we have gained back the reproductive rights so recently lost. I hope we also have confirmed the right for all to access paid parental leave, equitable parental health outcomes, safety from harassment, and freedom from gender and identity-based violence. None of this will be possible without continuous and dedicated action at the local, state, and national level each and every day and a corps of dedicated, strategic lawyers to defend and establish the rights of those in need.
Equal Justice Works Fellows are doing this work every day, but more public interest lawyers are needed in every community across the country. I hope that we can come together as a legal and philanthropic community to make this vision a reality. Ten years is too far away—we need action now.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about Equal Justice Works on their website.