Throughout her time in law school, Equal Justice Works Fellow Kate DiVasto L’21 has focused on the importance of advocating for and alongside young people.
“The support that young people get to empower them to their next goal really matters. I want to be a part of that,” said DiVasto.
DiVasto is particularly focused on supporting students targeted by the school-to-prison pipeline based on their race, ethnicity, disability, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation.
In May 2021, DiVasto was announced as one of 77 law school graduates selected to serve as an Equal Justice Works Fellow in the 2021 Fellowship class.
Seventeen other 2021 University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School graduates also received fellowships to pursue work with civil service organizations, government entities, and non-profit advocacy organizations following graduation. Supporting their work aligns with the Law School’s mission to assist students who choose to dedicate their careers to serving the public interest.
Equal Justice Works Fellowship work
As an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the EdLaw Project within the Youth Advocacy Foundation in Massachusetts, DiVasto will ensure that teens are connected to the personalized social and legal supports that are guaranteed by law, but often inaccessible. DiVasto will obtain Independent Education Plans (IEP) for students who have special education needs, appeal IEP denials, and ensure that students are benefitting from the social programs for which they are eligible.
Further, because Massachusetts has youth-led community groups working on issues related to youth advocacy in schools, DiVasto is looking forward to working with, supporting, and learning from those groups.
DiVasto chose to focus her energies on supporting young people who are preparing to transition out of the foster care system and into adulthood because she could see how low levels of support, mentorship, and stability that a person has at a young age relate to increased rates of traumas in adulthood like homelessness.
“Massachusetts is touted as one of the best education-quality states, however you see that young people in the foster care system have the lowest high school graduation rates in the state,” she said. “Nationally, less than 5% of kids in the foster care system end up going to college. Your access to so many things — finances, housing, healthcare — are very much wrapped up in what educational opportunities and mentors you get to build you up.”
The Law School’s influence
In preparing to support young people who are beginning their journeys into adulthood, DiVasto reflected on the mentors and teachers who helped her to grow into the lawyer she is today. Among them were George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights Dorothy Roberts, whose course “Reproductive Rights and Justice” helped DiVasto to better understand the often racist world of family regulation in the United States, and William A. Schnader Professor of Law, Emeritus Regina Austin, who supervised DiVasto’s research related to compassionate release.
DiVasto also credited her time in the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic and the Youth Advocacy Project with providing her with a vocabulary for the “client-partner” lawyering approach that she wants to embrace in her own practice. DiVasto further explored lawyering philosophies in Adjunct Professor of Law Catherine Carr and Lecturer in Law Debby Freedman’s Strategic Lawyering for Social Justice course and noted that what she learned there bled into her takeaway from the TPIC Fellow Capstone, led by Associate Dean for Equity & Justice and Chief Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) Officer Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, which focused on taking a critical look at race and class within the field of public interest law.
In considering the range of experiences she had at the Law School, DiVasto maintained an earnest sense of gratefulness for the opportunity to continually learn, not only from her professors and mentors, but also from her client partners and peers.
“The public interest students have been so focused on movement lawyering and the concept of how, in order for our work to be most effective, it must be done in conjunction with communities and community organizations,” DiVasto said. “We know how important it is to work directly with the community and for the lawyer not to always be an outsider, but instead to be part of the community. I have had so many wonderful examples from our own classmates.”
DiVasto noted that she was thankful for the sponsorship of her Equal Justice Works Fellowship by Dell Technologies and Baker Botts, LLP, which allowed her to pursue this work. Above all, DiVasto is eager to support young people while simultaneously encouraging them to develop the skills they need to advocate for themselves.
“I’m going to be right there and adding additional things, but I’m also going to highlight that they can speak up for themselves, too,” said DiVasto. “I think that alone is very powerful for a young person: to emphasize that your voice matters, your voice should be heard, you can speak up for yourself, and we can make change when that happens together.”