Minnesota Law

Spring 2021

Minnesota Law Students Get Hands-On Experience with Presidential Policymaking

Four 3Ls coordinated and participated in high-level policy discussions on civil rights issues with members of the Biden transition team and incoming administration

Journal of Law & Inequality Editor-in-Chief Navin Ramalingam, 3L, with Symposium Editors Maci Burke, 3L, James Holden, 3L and Marisa Tillman, 3L (Photo: Tony Nelson)

A group of students from Minnesota Law’s Journal of Law & Inequality (JLI) recently had the opportunity to experience policymaking from a unique vantage point, facilitating and participating in important discussions about policy with advisers and members of an incoming presidential administration.

While  coordinating the 2021 Summit for Civil Rights, held virtually on Feb. 11, the students connected with key members of the Biden transition team and other important national leaders, including Marcia Fudge, the newly confirmed secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  The discussions centered on housing policy and its relationship to education policy, racial segregation, and concentrated poverty.

JLI first connected with the Summit for Civil Rights in 2017, when it coordinated and hosted the very first symposium. Since that time, JLI has remained connected to this movement and organization through Professor Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity and a driving force behind the summit.

The 2021 summit was co-hosted by JLI and the Institute. In addition to HUD Secretary Fudge, prominent participants included: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison '90; Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California; Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio; NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson; and National Fair Housing Alliance President and CEO Lisa Rice. Dean Garry W. Jenkins, dean and William S. Pattee Professor of Law, opened the conference with welcoming remarks. 

Professor Myron Orfield

“It was a huge and complicated conference, and [the students] ran it flawlessly,” Orfield said. “They really stepped up to the plate and put together vast amounts of information in forms that lawyers really need to know how to do. They summarized documents, created memos, and pulled together the history of enforcement in all the administrations since the enactment of these laws. They produced substantive research.”

Orfield, who helped draft President Obama’s fair housing rules and defend them before the U.S. Supreme Court, and who has served as a fair housing advisor to HUD during five different presidential administrations, says there is nothing partisan about the work. “They are engaged with the new administration, the Biden Administration, but people from both parties are there.”

The students’ achievement in carrying off a successful summit was all the more noteworthy given that while they were prepping it, the U.S. Capitol building was stormed, a presidential impeachment trial started, and COVID cases spiked across the nation. 

For the JLI team that organized the event—symposium editors Maci Burke, James Holden, and Marisa Tillman, and editor-in-chief Navin Ramalingam (all 3Ls)—the experience provided a front row seat for seeing how policy gets made.

“Witnessing government officials, lawyers, scholars, and students come together with such passion to make positive policy changes was inspiring,”
Maci Burke, 3L

“Witnessing government officials, lawyers, scholars, and students come together with such passion to make positive policy changes was inspiring,” says Burke. “The legal knowledge and skills that I have gained from this experience will help me to become a stronger attorney, co-worker, community member, and citizen.”

The Work Behind the Summit

Last December, the  JLI symposium team started communicating and working with the consortium of  grassroots organizations that make up the Summit for Civil Rights and with the education and housing transition teams within the new Biden administration. The goal was to brainstorm ideas, policy proposals, speakers, logistics, and all other critical elements that go into facilitating a virtual national conference.

In a virtual meeting held on Jan. 6, civil rights leaders spoke with the transition teams and incoming administration officials about what topics they would like included in the 2021 summit. Leaders from across the country took part in this presentation, emphasizing the importance of enacting civil rights-focused housing, education, and transportation policies that they supported. While the meeting was in progress,  reports began filtering in that the U.S. Capitol was under attack.

“It was a pretty surreal experience,” recalls Tillman, a dual JD/Master of Public Policy (MPP) student who is looking to pursue a career in public policy and immigration law. “During the presentation, some were commenting about the events in the chat. It was a little distracting, but I think it also reestablished for everyone the importance of the subjects we were talking about.”

"Working with this transition team taught me that policy often happens with relationships between people and storytelling.”
Marisa Tillman, 3L

Holden, who would like to work in government one day, observes, “Even while the attack happened, people kept talking about how and workshopping steps to make America better, which makes me feel more secure about our future. No matter what darkness happens, you can still be part of progress.”

Lessons Learned

The students learned a lot from working so closely with policymakers to plan and execute a major conference, and took away inspiration and insight from the experience.

“Being a part of this event was inspiring for me, because it was a chance to help organize and learn from people who have already made their careers doing that work,” says Holden.

Burke, who would like to pursue corporate, business, tax, and real estate law, says, “Organizing this virtual event with Navin, Marisa, and James has taught me more about teamwork, planning, and policymaking than I ever imagined.”

Tillman, who has a longtime interest in public policy, says, “Working with this transition team taught me that policy often happens with relationships between people and storytelling.”

For Ramalingam, a budding civil litigator, the experience served as a reaffirmation of the importance of JLI’s mission. “As it has for the past 40 years, JLI will continue to play an important role in advancing the law and policy to not just highlight the existing inequalities but also advocate for good policies to make lives better for the marginalized communities in this country,” he says.