Sam Pickett ‘21
For law students, especially 1Ls, pro bono opportunities present an important opportunity to escape the “Law School bubble” and the doldrums of black letter law in order to interact with the Charlottesville community at large. One of the best, most hands-on projects presented to students this year is the Migrant Farmworker Project (MFP). Students who participate will work with Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) attorneys to perform outreach to farmworker camps and speak to workers about their legal rights. While the program had to cease operations indefinitely last year, it is back this year under the guidance of 3L Miranda Russell (’20) and her co-director 2L Gia Nyhuis (’21), who hope to make it a triumphant and impactful return to UVA Law.
Prior to law school, Russell worked with Student Action with Farmworkers as a part of South Carolina Legal Service’s efforts to conduct outreach to farmworker camps across South Carolina. Her experiences speaking to migrant farmworkers about their legal rights and looking for issues such as wage theft, inadequate housing conditions, and pesticide waiting times motivated her to continue her work at UVA’s MFP as a 1L trip leader and summer intern. During her experience as a summer intern, Russell had the opportunity to see different types of communities across the entire state, ranging from southwest Virginia, where farmworkers farm tobacco, to the Eastern Shore, where farmworkers cultivate tomato and potato crops.
Along with an important lesson in Virginia’s diverse agricultural elements, however, Russell emphasized that the MFP presents students with a completely hands-on pro bono opportunity, where you get to actually use the legal skills you learn in class and work with LAJC attorneys doing interesting, substantive, and meaningful work. For Spanish-speaking law students, it is an opportunity to practice not only your Spanish, but your legal Spanish (although speaking Spanish is NOT mandatory to join the organization). In her work with the MFP, Russell has found all that and more, remarking that the experience has given her the skills to make her a better lawyer:
“The project helped me become comfortable translating legal language into everyday vocabulary. Because we speak Spanish on outreach, I had to train my brain to translate a legal concept from ‘legalese’ to plain English language then finally to Spanish. I realized that I had to fully understand something to successfully explain it in my second language. This has been a really useful skill as a future attorney, because if I can’t explain something in plain language, then I probably don’t understand the issue.”
MFP also taught Russell to approach problems with a whole-picture perspective; the LAJC emphasizes “incorporating the practice of law with other strategies for social change, such as community organizing.” Regardless of whether students hope to enter the public or private sector, the lessons learned from an organization such as the MFP are invaluable and can introduce students to the types of pro bono work they may want to incorporate into their future practice.
Perhaps the most important lesson that shined through my conversation with Russell was a greater recognition of the community around her. She reminded me of the power and privilege we have simply by being UVA law students and how important it is to seek out opportunities to better the world around us. “Farmworkers feed the world,” Russell remarked, “we all deserve a just agricultural system.”
On a personal level, I am very excited for the return of MFP, because it was one of the pro bono opportunities I most wanted to be a part of last year. I knew the chance to perform substantive legal work in Spanish would push me to be a better lawyer and a better person. I also find the program’s return to be particularly important given the United States recent (let’s be frank here, it’s not exactly recent) hostility towards immigrants. For law students who often feel stuck in the classroom, unable to make a difference in the world around them, the MFP can provide a meaningful way to help those who are particularly vulnerable to having their rights stripped away.
While the organization has already had its mandatory training session, I encourage everyone to keep an eye out for other information about the program. If you’re interested, please reach out to Russell and Nyhuis as they continue to build the organization and help members of the Law School community leave their comfort zones in order to make a difference in the lives of others.
 Sadly I procrastinated on this assignment and did not get the opportunity to interview Nyhuis, but can assure you that she is a similarly remarkable individual committed to the service of the greater Charlottesville community.