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Top seeds: Harvard Law School entrepreneurs launch new ventures of service

It all started with a germ of an idea: Create opportunities for careers in public service by investing in entrepreneurial lawyers with a passion for social and economic justice.

In 2012, inspired by Harvard Law School alumni who have used their degrees and experience to pursue innovative methods of social change, Dean Martha Minow and the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising at Harvard Law School (OPIA) created the Public Service Venture Fund (PSVF), awarding up to $1 million in grants every year to Harvard Law graduates pursuing careers in public service.

Through a rigorous application process, the PSVF committee identifies entrepreneurial students and recent alums and invests in their proposed ventures. The Office of Public Interest Advising, which administers the Fund, awards about 20 fellowships and two start-up grants annually. Programs like these are critical, said Alexa Shabecoff, Harvard Law School’s assistant dean for public service and director of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising, because they expand the pie of public interest jobs, and create new resources to support disadvantaged communities and critical issues.

Since 2013, PSVF Seed Grants have been awarded to support nine separate ventures, including three this past year. In addition to PSVF Funding, seed grant recipients have attracted other foundation support, including Echoing Green Fellowships, which were awarded to three out of six of the grantees.

Since their inception, the start-ups seeded by PSVF all have taken root and flourished, with most garnering significant national attention for high-impact work.

Harvard Law School’s first seed grant recipient, Equal Justice Under Law (EJUL), has influenced reform in the criminal justice system, significantly reframing the manner in which courts consider the imprisonment of those with civil fine debts.  Community Activism Law Alliance, founded to bring legal services to disadvantaged communities that do not otherwise have access to legal assistance, recently opened its sixth clinic in Chicago. The Muslim Justice League continues to build on existing anti-oppression work to directly take on anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination, and the Promise of Justice Initiative recently filed a federal class action complaint on behalf of a class of prisoners in Louisiana.

While Seed Grants provide “seed money” for startup public interest ventures, the Public Service Venture Fund also offers postgraduate support through Organization-Based Fellowships.  These fellowships offer salary support to graduating Harvard Law School students who do not otherwise have funding, allowing them to pursue postgraduate work at nonprofits or government agencies in the United States and abroad.

As the Fund enters its fourth year, HLS is looking back on all that its students and recent alums have accomplished since the first awards were conferred in 2013 — the organizations they have established; the changes they have brought about through direct action, legal advocacy and litigation; and the formation of collaborative relationships on a local and global scale.


PSVF Seed Grantees

Equal Justice Under Law (2013)

Credit: Brooks Kraft Alec Karakatsanis ’08 (left) and Phil Telfeyan ’08 are the founders of the nonprofit civil rights firm Equal Justice Under Law. Karakatsanis recently left EJUL to launch a new organization, the Civil Rights Corps. Telfeyan continues to serve as EJUL’s executive director.

Alec Karakatsanis ’08 and Phil Telfeyan ’08 challenged the role of the profit motive in the criminal system through their nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law (EJUL). EJUL has been highly successful in challenging money bail systems in eight states through class action lawsuits. Based in Washington, D.C., the organization has helped end the use of money bail in dozens of jurisdictions around the country, and the organization has reached landmark settlement agreements keeping thousands of people from illegal jailing, and getting compensation for thousands of illegally jailed people.

As part of Equal Justice Under Law’s fight to end abusive private probation practices, the organization filed a landmark RICO and constitutional class action lawsuit in federal court in Nashville challenging the pervasive extortion and debtors’ prison conspiracy. Their six-month investigation — initially led with a team of Harvard Law School students on spring break — exposed rampant corruption, racketeering, and constitutional violations pervading the Rutherford County probation system.

In 2016, Karakatsanis received the Stephen B. Bright Award for contributions to indigent defense in the South by Gideon’s Promise. He and several of his co-counsel in the early bail cases received Public Justice’s 2016 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award.  

Last fall, Karakatsanis left Equal Justice Under Law to start Civil Rights Corps, an organization that specializes in cases and advocacy concerning prosecutorial and police misconduct, mass incarceration and the myriad ways in which the pursuit of profit have corrupted the basic delivery of justice.

Telfeyan continues to lead Equal Justice Under Law as executive director in the organization’s fight to end wealth-based discrimination in the criminal justice system.

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EJUL in the Media

San Francisco Chronicle, November 7, 2016, “Say Goodbye to Government By the


Forbes, “Medical Marijuana Ruling Could Help Kettle Falls Five Defendants”, August 30, 2016

Los Angeles Times, “A California lawsuit over the cash bail system could prompt changes across the U.S.”

Arkansas City Accused of Targeting Poor from the Courthouse News


Probable Cause” (The Washington Post, 3/5/2016)

Court by Court, Lawyers Fight Policies That Fall Heavily on the Poor” (The New York Times, 10/24/2015)

President Obama’s Department of Injustice” (The New York Times, 08/18/15)

Is Bail Unconstitutional?” (Slate, 06/30/2015)

Behind the Burden of Bail: Reporter’s Notebook” (The New York Times, 06/10/2015)

LA Times “Justice Department Opposes Bail Without Regard to Pay.” 02/13/2015.

NPR. “Civil Rights Attorneys Sue Ferguson Over ‘Debtors Prisons’.” 02/08/2015.

The New York Times. “Ferguson One of 2 Missouri Suburbs Sued Over Gantlet of Traffic Fines and Jail.” 02/08/2015.


Essie Justice Group (2013)

With an unprecedented 2+ million people living behind bars in the United States – 90% of them men – millions of women with incarcerated loved ones are left behind. Today 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 2 Black women has a family member in prison.

Gina Clayton ’10 established the Essie Justice Group (Essie), a nonprofit in Oakland, California that is building a community for the millions of women who have loved ones behind bars to end mass incarceration’s harm to women. With their innovative Healing to Advocacy program, Essie breaks isolation and builds social capital among women with incarcerated loved ones to increase mental health, resources in families, and civic engagement. Informed by AA and Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, Essie has adopted a community-led, decentralized approach to healing and systemic criminal justice reform.


Credit: Jessica Scranton Gina Clayton ’10 is the founder of Essie Justice Group.

In under three years, Essie has conducted outreach in 34 prisons, received nominations from over 15 states, conducted healing retreats, hosted a national policy summit (convening over 21 organizations), launched Essie Fellows (a leadership development program for graduates of the Healing to Advocacy model), hosted briefings for thought and movement leaders nationally, developed Essie constituent leaders in five key states, facilitated the participation of women in national reports and documentaries, including John Legend’s Free America Campaign and Ava Duvernay’s acclaimed film “13th,” and launched five cycles of its Healing to Advocacy program in the California Bay Area serving 4,687 people to date.

In 2017, Essie will launch its Flagship Network, scaling the model across the California counties hardest hit by incarceration. With proof of concept in hand, the Flagship will help create a blueprint for national scale. Essie is on track for its model to be entirely decentralized and implemented by community members in living rooms and community centers nationally.

In addition to the Echoing Green Global Fellowship, Essie was a winner of the Soros Justice Fellowship in 2014, the JMK Innovation Prize in 2015 and the Google Bay Area Impact Challenge in 2015.

Credit: Essie Justice GroupIn the past two years, Essie has graduated 45 women from Essie support groups in two counties, resulting in a ten-fold increase in the size of financial and socio-emotional support systems for women directly impacted by mass incarceration.




Community Activism Law Alliance (2014)

In September 2014, Lam Ho ’14 established the Community Activism Law Alliance (CALA), a nonprofit in Chicago, to bring legal services to disadvantaged communities that do not otherwise have access to legal assistance. Among other things, CALA works to obtain green cards for undocumented immigrant survivors of brutal domestic violence, fight wage theft and discrimination on behalf of laborers, and represents sex workers who are fighting to keep or get back their children. CALA uses “community activism lawyering” to bring lawyers and activists together to produce more impactful services.

Lam Ho ’08 (second from left) and fellow CALA staff members on the streets of Chicago.

In August 2016, CALA opened its sixth community law office, in Lake County, in partnership with Mano a Mano. This October, CALA marked its two-year anniversary. Since its founding, CALA grew from a single attorney to a team of nine attorneys, with a growing roster of more than 75 volunteers. CALA has established six “community activism-law clinics” directly in — and directed by — the communities they serve. They have empowered and protected the rights of activists; supported activism campaigns that have impacted thousands of people, and have helped more than 3,500 clients—most of whom are undocumented immigrants, day laborers, and sex workers unable to obtain free legal aid from other legal aid organizations.

Enlace Chicago is an organization working in cooperation with CALA, that is dedicated to changing the lives of residents of Chicago’s Little Village community by focusing on four pivotal areas: Violence Prevention, Community Enrichment, Economic Development, and Community Education.



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Kindness in Action: Lam Nguyen Ho Brings Justice to the Underserved

Credit: Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

CALA’s executive director and founder is one of seven winners across the country being recognized by The KIND Foundation, a 501(c)(3) started by KIND Healthy Snacks. The Foundation is awarding $1.1M to these individuals who are championing inclusivity and serving as beacons of empathy in communities nationwide.

Lam’s organization works strictly in underserved communities providing legal assistance to immigrants and low-income families who otherwise would not have access to legal counsel. The team works to obtain green cards for undocumented immigrant survivors of brutal domestic violence, laborers, and sex workers who are fighting to keep or get back their children.

During the 2008 financial crisis, the economic downturn meant significantly less funding for legal aid. Lam realized he needed to do things his own way. “In some ways I was compelled, if not coerced into creating CALA so that I can do the work that I believe needed to be done in order to help the people that I believe need to be helped.”

Read the full story on Lam Ho%SQUOTE%s recognition by The KIND Foundation in GOOD Magazine online »



The Promise of Justice Initiative (2014)

Mercedes Montagnes ’09 established The Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), a nonprofit in New Orleans, to advocate for humane, fair and equal treatment of individuals in the criminal justice system, and the abolition of the death penalty. PJI helps litigate constitutional violations, educate the community through speaking engagements and outreach, expose systemic problems through public record and media work, and provides direct outreach and assistance to incarcerated men and women and their families.

Credit: msppmoore via Flickr PJI won a federal lawsuit on behalf of three death row inmates who were struggling with the extreme, inhumane heat conditions on death row tiers at Angola prison, and they filed a federal class action complaint on behalf of a class of prisoners who are subject to Angola prison’s provision of medical care.

Mercedes Montagnes ’09 established The Promise of Justice Initiative, a nonprofit in New Orleans.

Recently, PJI has litigated against Louisiana’s lethal injection protocol, executions are now on hold in Louisiana until January 2018. They won a federal lawsuit on behalf of three death row inmates who were struggling with the extreme, inhumane heat conditions on death row tiers at Angola prison, and they filed a federal class action complaint on behalf of a class of prisoners who are subject to Angola prison’s provision of medical care.

They’ve also engaged in community work, including participating in voter education in Shreveport on issues of criminal justice, and helping to support and protect people in Baton Rouge participating in demonstrations against police brutality.


Muslim Justice League (2015)

Credit: Said AhmedShannon Erwin ’10 (right) speaks with members of United Somali Youth, an organization that aims to provide social, economic, educational and career empowerment for inner city refugee and immigrant youth in Greater Boston.

Shannon Erwin ’10 has used her PSVF grant to establish The Muslim Justice League (MJL), a partnership of lawyers and scholars who educate, organize and advocate for human and civil rights that are violated or threatened under national security pretexts.  One of the areas in which MJL focuses its work is on educating communities, press, state and local agencies and education and health professionals about “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE), a campaign driven by national security, intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies to steer people off pathways to “radicalization” or “extremism.” MJL has provided pro bono consultation and representation for persons approached by the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), and conducted community education, advocacy, and coordination.

Credit: Muslim Justice LeagueIn September 2016 Muslim Justice League teamed up with several Boston-area nonprofit organizations to host “Train the Trainers: Challenging Islamophobia,” a workshop is designed for organizers, activists, advocates, and educators interested in building on existing anti-oppression work to directly take on anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination.

Shannon Erwin ’10 has used her PSVF grant to establish The Muslim Justice League

In the past year, MJL has successfully helped stop FBI/JTTF overtures in 12 of 13 cases and they’ve raised awareness about Countering Violent Extremism among activists, students, and interfaith allies, presenting information about CVE and human rights concerns at forums from Northeastern Law School, Tufts University, Harvard Law School and to the broader community through Quincy public access television.

Credit: Muslim Justice LeagueIn April 2016, MJL activists held signs raising concerns about Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs’ impacts after delivering a collaboratively sponsored petition with over 1000 signatures to Massachusetts’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS). The petition urged EOHHS to end its CVE collaboration with federal prosecutors.



Community Justice Project (2015)

Alana Greer ’11 launched the Community Justice Project, Inc. with her PSVF grant alongside co-founders Meena Jagannath and Charles Elsesser. Concentrating its efforts in South Florida, Community Justice Project supports grassroots campaigns led by activists of color like the Dream Defenders and Power U Center for Social Change, to envision innovative approaches to racial justice and human rights challenges, like community safety and relationships between police and communities.

Photo courtesy of Community Justice ProjectIn November 2016, Community Justice Project was awarded a $25,000 grant by the Knight Foundation as part of its Arts Challenge for a project called “Voices: Poetry for the People.” The goal of the project is to engage new audiences in the literary arts by bringing workshops (led by poet Aja Monet) to grassroots leaders involved in social justice issues.

Alana Greer ’11 launched the Community Justice Project, Inc. in 2015 alongside co-founders Meena Jagannath and Charles Elsesser.

In its first year, Community Justice Project worked with students at Power U Center for Social Change to secure a Restorative Justice pilot program in their schools; advocated on behalf of the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward County after members faced discrimination at a Donald Trump rally; and supported the New Vision Drivers Association to ensure that workers’ rights are part of the ride sharing conversation. They also supported leaders at FANM in winning the official designation of Little Haiti, a community under serious threat of gentrification and displacement.

Community Justice Project has worked with leaders on the ground in Miami, Ferguson and across the Movement for Black Lives network to capture and submit testimony of civil and human rights abuses, with a special focus on police brutality and state violence, to bodies including the Organization of American States, U.N. human rights bodies, and U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights.



Transcend; Advocates for Community Alternatives; Climate Defense Project (2016)

Since being selected last spring, the 2016 PSVF seed grant recipients have begun work on projects ranging from environmental litigation and advocacy to transgender healthcare and identity issues. The 2016 Public Service Venture Fund seed grant recipients are: Kelsey Skaggs ’16, Alice Cherry ’16, and Ted Hamilton ’16, for their Climate Defense Project; Jonathan Kaufman ’06, for his new venture, Advocates for Community Alternatives; and Noah Lewis ’05, for his start-up, Transcend Legal. Read more about the 2016 grantees.



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Filling the Justice Gap: PSVF Organization-based Fellows

Since 2013, PSVF has awarded nearly 80 Organization-based Fellowships, including 18 for the 2016 – 2017 academic year. These Organization-based Fellows have helped fill the “justice gap” throughout the world by providing host organizations with a year of critical support, and helping many students launch careers in public service. In contrast to the Seed Grants, the Organization-based Fellowships offer HLS 3Ls, LL.M.s and judicial law clerks a way of breaking into public interest fields by working with existing nonprofits and government agencies.

Since the Fund’s inception, Organization-based Fellows have provided over 175,000 hours of legal work to over 90 public sector organizations across the globe.

Of the first two inaugural classes of PSVF fellows, more than 90 percent have remained in the public interest sector. Nearly 40 percent have remained with their PSVF host organizations.

“In addition to providing badly needed help to under-resourced organizations and the communities they serve, the PSVF org-based fellowships have played a critical role in launching the social justice careers of outstanding HLS graduates,” said Alexa Shabecoff, assistant dean for public service and director of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising. “Despite a difficult job market, virtually all of the funded fellows have been able to remain in their chosen field and many have been able to stay on at their host organization.”

See the full list of recipients below, or visit the PSVF website for more information about each of the fellows.

As my PSVF Fellowship draws to a close, I just wanted to extend my sincerest thanks to you for all the advice and counsel I received from each of you in my job search. It has been a fantastic year working in an organization whose mission I believe in and whose clients are doing amazing work that I am honored to support. I leave work every day with an incredible sense of fulfillment because I am confident that what I am doing is making a difference in this world. I am pleased to report that I have been offered a full-time, permanent position at Lawyers Alliance for New York as a staff attorney with oversight over the workforce development priority area within the economic development practice

Faith Alexander, 2014 PSVF Fellow

2016-2017 PSVF Organization-based Fellows


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