Advocating for American Indian Mothers in Minnesota: The Equal Justice Works Fellowship

Oct 23, 2019
Marlee Torrence (second from left) at an Indian Child Welfare Act Flag Ceremony, where three Minnesota tribes presented their tribal nation flags to Minnesota Supreme Court Members

The Equal Justice Works Fellowship gives fellows the opportunity to design their own programs to address an unmet legal need in an underserved community. Fellows leverage their law degree in service of a community or cause of their choice. Throughout the two-year project term, fellows receive the support they need to focus on helping their community, including a competitive salary, health insurance, and fringe benefits, up to $5,000 in loan repayment assistance per year, and Annual Leadership Development Training.

We talked to Marlee Torrence, a licensed attorney and a current Equal Justice Works Fellow, to learn more about the program and get some application tips.

1. What inspired you to apply for the Equal Justice Works Fellowship?

In law school, I was introduced to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) Law Center, a non-profit legal services agency that provides legal services and advocacy for Indian families, through an organization called the Minnesota Justice Foundation (MJF). MJF’s main goal is to link volunteer law students to attorneys focused on meeting the legal needs of low-income communities. I volunteered for over four years with the ICWA Law Center. I was able to connect with the clients easily and had a passion for the issues they faced. However, I was aware that funding for attorneys working in public interest is difficult. I wanted to be able to help my organization in any way I could and began to look into different options, including fellowships. I researched the Equal Justice Works Fellowship in depth prior to applying. What attracted me the most about the “Design Your Own” Equal Justice Works Fellowship was the ability to choose my own host organization, which meant that I could continue working with the ICWA.

Also, I loved the ability to create my dream job. Candidates can create a Fellowship Project of their own design as long as it is dedicated to serving a specific population or addressing an unmet legal need. For example, my Fellowship Project provides legal advocacy and outreach services to low-income American Indian mothers who struggle with opiate addiction and are involved in the child protection system.

Lastly, an Equal Justice Works Fellowship is an opportunity to transform your passion for equal justice into a career. This Fellowship has given me the opportunity to raise awareness for issues that I am passionate about. For example, American Indians in Minnesota die of opiate overdoses at rates of up to five times higher than other races. American Indian children have higher rates of disparity and disproportionality than any other race. In Minnesota, American Indian children are 22 times more likely than white children to be placed into foster care even though they make up only 1.5% of the population.

Marlee Torrence (center) with the Sampson Brothers who are Native Hoop Dancers who performed at a fundraiser for the Division of Indian Work in Minneapolis, MN

2. What are the benefits of the fellowship?

An Equal Justice Works Fellowship offers many different benefits. The program has a two-year term and a competitive salary that is equivalent to similarly qualified lawyers at the host organization. A donor, either anonymous or named, funds the Fellowship and supports the Fellow’s Project. U.S. Bank and Dorsey & Whitney LLP have sponsored my Fellowship. The host organization offers health insurance and fringe benefits. Equal Justice Works will offer up to $5,000 in loan repayment assistance per year.

One unique aspect of a “Design Your Own” Equal Justice Works Fellowship is that sponsors may want to be involved in pro bono opportunities related to the Fellowship Project. For example, my sponsors have engaged in a pro legal research assignment as well as legal clinics for my client population.

Also, Equal Justice Works Fellows are required to attend a Leadership Development Training and Annual Dinner in Washington, D.C. each year of their Fellowship. Equal Justice Works pays for flights, hotels, and food. This training has allowed me to connect with other current Equal Justice Works Fellows in the field and learn from past alumni. The training offers different sessions related to public service and new lawyers. At the end of the training, Fellows attend an Annual Dinner with sponsors and donors. Equal Justice Works also provides individual ongoing support throughout the Fellowship.

Lastly, my Equal Justice Works Fellowship has given me the opportunity to live out my dream job. I have created everlasting relationships with both of my sponsors, my coworkers at the ICWA Law Center, community service providers, and other Equal Justice Works Fellows. My Fellowship will have an everlasting impact on my career and the community that I work with. I have met many different people and made connections that were never possible during law school. This opportunity has only reinforced by confidence to pursue a career in public interest law.

Marlee Torrence (left) with David Stern, the Executive Director Equal Justice Works at the Annual Equal Justice Works Leadership Development Training in Washington, D.C.

3. What tips would you give others applying to the Equal Justice Works Fellowship?

The most important tip I would give others applying to the Equal Justice Works Fellowship is to spend time narrowing the scope of your project, focusing on a specific client population that has unmet legal needs. Do not mirror current staff attorney positions, as this is not something that can be funded. For example, my Fellowship focuses on mothers that are 25 or younger who are struggling with opiate addiction. I only represent clients that fit my narrow scope.

Also, be creative when thinking of project goals. It may be beneficial to include goals that are not related only to direct representation. For example, my project goals included connecting my clients with culturally appropriate resources, pro bono involvement from my sponsors, raising awareness for cultural healing ceremonies, hosting trainings on the ICWA, and creating a support group for American Indian mothers. Lastly, utilize staff at Equal Justice Works. They can assist you with the application and interview process. Do not be afraid to reach out to both your host organization and Equal Justice Works with questions.

Marlee Torrence is a licensed attorney and a current Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by U.S. Bank and Dorsey & Whitney LLP. My employer is the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) Law Center, a non-profit in Minneapolis, MN. She obtained her J.D. from Mitchell Hamline School of Law in May 2017. She is the mother of a 4-year-old little girl named Aurora.

Interested in applying? Bookmark the Equal Justice Works Fellowship to your ProFellow account.

© Victoria Johnson 2019, all rights reserved.