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Dwayne Bensing GEd’09, L’12: From Philadelphia public school teacher to civil rights advocate

August 10, 2021

Dwayne Bensing GEd’09, L’12 is a Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Delaware focusing on policy advocacy.

Even as a middle school teacher in the Philadelphia public school system, Dwayne Bensing GEd’09, L’12 always knew he wanted to help his community and others achieve equal rights. That desire had been solidified early in his life, “growing up poor on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ in rural Arkansas as an openly gay young man when discrimination was being written into state constitutions across the country.”

When Bensing left teaching to enroll in law school, he aimed to become a civil rights attorney, but he didn’t necessarily think he’d “continue advocating on behalf of students.” One of Bensing’s first major successes in this area of law actually came while he was still in private practice.

“My first major pro bono case was the first federal district court complaint regarding a transgender student’s access to gendered facilities under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause,” said Bensing. “That experience prepared me to join the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice and continue advocating for transgender students in policy and litigation, as well as work on the Educational Opportunity Section’s massive desegregation docket.”

After working in the Department of Justice for two years, Bensing transitioned into the Department of Education as an Advisor Attorney. There, he deepened his understanding of federal civil rights and used techniques he learned as a mediator from the Law School’s Mediation Clinic. In addition to the clinic, Bensing also acknowledges several Law School at Penn professors and courses that have influenced his career path.

“I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to take Professor [Howard] Lesnick’s “Legal Responses to Inequality” my 1L year,” said Bensing. “It was the first course that addressed the reasons I went to law school and explored the ways in which the law can both help but often come up short. I loved my clinical experiences at Penn (Mediation with [Morris Shuster Practice Professor of Law] Douglas Frenkel L’72 and [Adjunct Professor of Law] Michele Goldfarb and Legislative Clinic with [Practice Professor of Law] Lou Rulli), which taught me skills and provided opportunities to build relationships that have lasted throughout my career.”

He gives credit to Professor of Law and History Sophia Lee for influencing his duty to continue to advocate for others.

“Professor Lee was most instrumental in my thinking about the law in her seminar, “The Constitution Outside the Courts,” and on our work together on my journal comment. I have carried with me our role as attorneys and advocates in effectuating the promises of our Constitution that I learned from her seminar throughout my career.”

Bensing left the DOE still zealously advocating for students. In what has become a public matter, he challenged the DOE’s treatment of cases involving transgender athletes. He is currently a Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Delaware focusing on policy advocacy while awaiting a post-pandemic opportunity to take the Delaware State Bar Exam. Bensing is working on building a statewide voting rights coalition to support legislation that expands voting access.

“I’m really excited to watch our education funding litigation settlement be enacted by our General Assembly,” he said. “For decades, Delaware has tried and failed to make its education funding system more equitable. Our settlement ensures that the State provides millions of dollars annually specifically to students who are English language learners, from low-income households, and K-3 special education learners. We’re also reassessing properties in the state for the first time in decades so that people contribute to property taxes to local school districts more equitably. It’s great to watch Delaware put meaning behind our Constitution’s Education clause.”

Outside of work, Bensing likes staying physically active. He and his husband Christopher Howland L’10 frequently go running on the Brandywine Creek River Loop, and they have a row machine for cold days.

Bensing said he didn’t expect to work for a civil rights organization like ACLU or even really what it meant to become a lawyer. He’s thankful he continued the journey, however.

“I’ve been unimaginably fortunate to practice law in ways that are deeply meaningful to me and that have had immeasurable impact for the communities and clients I have had the honor to serve,” he said.

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