After having studied law during my first year of law school, having an opportunity to see real-life issues play out in a legal context has been eye-opening for me in many regards. It is one thing to read cases in textbooks and quite another to be confronted with an individual living in your community who has legal problems students have only ever read about. It is far too easy in law school to lose sight of the fact that there are people who are adversely affected by the law and instead focus on legal concepts and doctrine. Working with the St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO) has made apparent the individual component of the law and the ways people can be empowered by it.
HREEO receives complaints from individuals who feel they have been discriminated against primarily in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodation. I have had the opportunity to become involved in the investigation of several cases and have even been able to write a few decisions. By doing this, not only do the legal issues come to life, but the impact lawyers can have on a community becomes apparent as well. Although many times our office is not able to issue the decision an individual is hoping for, we play an important role in empowering the individual and mediating a resolution. At all stages of the process, an open line of communication is created and mediation is encouraged throughout. Often times, an individual feels they have been wronged and they need to be heard. Our office provides a medium through which individuals can express their grievances and also have a platform to highlight discriminatory behavior. Even if at the end of the process they do not receive the decision they were hoping for, they have been given the opportunity to discuss the incident with our office and the offender, and still preserve their right to file a complaint in court. Our process allows for open dialogue and reconciliation, which often times is exactly what is needed in order for an offended party to feel vindicated.
This experience with HREEO reinforces all the reasons I went to law school. I wanted to empower the disadvantaged and provide assistance to those who are often not afforded the benefit of legal counsel. Even in a setting where I am not directly advocating for individuals and am instead acting as a neutral facilitator, I have the ability to assist those in need. By providing a listening ear and a helping hand, I am giving these individuals a voice they may otherwise not have found.
By Charles Moore, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015
Charles Moore is conducting his Human Rights Fellowship at the St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity.