This summer Michelle Wiener ‘ 14 is helping low-income Mainers navigate the legal system at the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project in Portland, Maine. To support her internship, she received a fellowship from the Preston Public Interest Career Fund, which provides Bowdoin students with a 10-week stipend so they can afford to work for organizations serving the disadvantaged.
Wiener, a sociology and government major, says she works mostly with family law cases at the organization, but also assists clients in matters such as bankruptcy and foreclosure. “For many people, we’re their only legal representation,” she explained. The Bowdoin Daily Sun contacted Wiener to ask her about her summer job and how it’s solidifying her personal aspirations.
Bowdoin Daily Sun: What was the impetus for your internship this summer with the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project?
Michelle Wiener: I took both of Prof. Craig McEwen’s classes — Sociology of Law and Criminology & Criminal Justice — and they made me aware of the vast inequities in our justice system. These classes helped me understand how limited access to justice both creates and perpetuates other social issues. It is very important to me to not just learn about issues in a classroom but, once those issues are identified, to take action in addressing them.
BDS: What’s been the most fulfilling part of the job so far?
MW: The most fulfilling part of my job is getting to talk with clients and providing a space for them where they can feel comfortable talking about the issues that have prompted them to seek legal aid. It is always a privilege if someone allows you access to the intimate details of their life. Even though our clients are in some ways obliged to give us that access in order for us to provide help, I also feel when I’m on the phones or talking to someone at CHAP (Courthouse Assistance Project) that I may be the only person or one of just a few people that the client has to talk to about their situation. So I hope to be able to give them legal assistance from our organization and also a place to tell their story. Getting to hear those stories is fulfilling in and of itself — it’s of course most fulfilling when we can really help them.
I hope to be able to give them legal assistance from our organization and also a place to tell their story. Getting to hear those stories is fulfilling in and of itself — it’s of course most fulfilling when we can really help them.
—Michelle Wiener ’14
BDS: And what’s been the most challenging? How do you cope with this?
MW: Social justice work can be very emotionally challenging. It’s not easy to hear the stories that I hear every day. I’m fortunate enough to be working at an organization that recognizes this challenge and seeks to create a positive and supportive working environment where we can process everything we deal with. And I also work at self-care, meaning reaching out to other activists and other social justice communities, talking to friends, and sometimes, just curling up on the couch with a movie and cup of tea.
BDS: Do you think that you personally have the potential to make an impact on the individual level, i.e. in people’s lives, or on the systemic level?
MW: I believe that everyone has the potential to make an impact on the individual level and on the systemic level. Every day we make an impact in other people’s lives, whether positive or negative, and every day our actions can reinforce, perpetuate, or challenge and chip away at systems of oppression. One of the things that I find hard about dealing with issues at the individual level is that you see the same problems come up repeatedly and can’t change the overarching system that’s creating that problem. I believe it’s crucial to work at the individual level, and all of my experience with social justice work thus far has been at the individual level. I also believe that it’s important for people to have experience at the individual level before they try to address issues systemically. For myself, I would like to eventually focus on addressing issues at the systemic level. However, I also never want to lose my connection to what’s happening on the ground in people’s lives. Ideally, I’d like a job that allows me to do both — to work at a more systemic level, perhaps in policy or advocacy, but to also not be constantly separated from the daily lives and lived experiences of people.
BDS: How do you see the work you’re doing this summer helping you at Bowdoin and beyond?
MW: I think I maybe answered some of this above, but I know that I want to do social justice work for the rest of my life, and this summer is giving me a lot of experience with that. I’m gaining a much better understanding of the difficulties low-income individuals face in our society.