This year, the Black Law Student Association traveled to Ghana to engage with local lawyers as they worked to build their firm’s pro bono practice.
Each year, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Black Law Student Association (BLSA) leads a trip to give back to the Black diaspora and learn about different issues Black communities are facing around the world. This year, on the group’s first in-person service trip since the COVID-19 pandemic, nine Penn Carey Law students traveled to Ghana.
BLSA student leadership worked closely with the group’s members to determine what types of service activities would be of most interest to them. Ultimately, BLSA worked with partner law firm B&P, which is located in Ghana, to arrange projects that would both serve as learning opportunities for Penn Carey Law students and have meaningful impact on the local community.
“Students in BLSA really take the helm,” said Frank Deese L’24, who serves as a BLSA Pan-Africa Co-Chair. “People are given a responsibility within BLSA itself and within our specific roles to take on a lot of responsibility and flesh out what we wanted that pro bono part of the trip to look like.”
Organizing the Trip
BLSA members have been traveling to and working in Ghana since the early 2000s. Notably, one of B&P’s goals is to change the legal community culture in Ghana, where economic disparity contributes to deep inequities throughout the country. Especially in rural locations, many people cannot access legal representation and may not know their legal rights, making intentional outreach efforts essential.
This year, over their Spring Break, BLSA students traveled to Ghana to assist B&P in establishing and growing the firm’s pro bono practice.
“A trip like this is a luxury and an opportunity to help members reach their pro bono requirement and expose them to what the legal systems look like outside of the United States,” Deese said. “The support that BLSA gets from firm partners and alumni across the country and world puts BLSA is in a great position, enabling us do something like this.”
Chisom Nwakama L’24, MBE’24, who also serves as a BLSA Pan-Africa Co-Chair, noted that this Spring’s service trip represented the beginning of a meaningful partnership between BLSA and B&P.
“We had a great week working with B&P,” said Nwakama. “B&P is a unique firm and will always be a lifelong community partner of BLSA. Whether we go back to Ghana next year or in three years, working with B&P was an enjoyable, memorable, and educational experience that BLSA will treasure for a long time.”
Feeling its Impact
Several BLSA members reflected that participating in the service trip held immense value for them in gaining perspectives on how the law functions differently around the world.
Toll Scholar Asja Towns L’25, who participated in the trip. “For me, what was most invaluable was the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the American prison system from a global perspective and to exchange this insight with knowledgeable Ghanian lawyers. I am grateful to B&P Associates, to the student organizers, and to Penn’s BLSA for this once-in-a-lifetime experience!”“Under the pressure of summer jobs, final exams and grades, I felt that I needed to reconnect with my purpose in coming to law school, and the Pan-Africa service trip over spring break was both timely and restorative in this sense,” said
“I chose to spend my spring break doing service work because of my deep passion for community service,” Awono said. “The PanAf trip was organized in a format that allowed for meaningful service work while exploring a new culture.”
TPIC Public Interest Ambassador Yaried Hailu L’24 noted that this trip was an “amazing opportunity” to both engage in public service while simultaneously immersing oneself in a new culture.
“The visit to Nsawam Medium Security Prison had a significant impact on me,” Hailu said. “I not only had the chance to speak with an incarcerated individual and hear about his experiences and thoughts on reducing the recidivism rate in Ghana, but I was also surprised to see the seemingly respectful relationship and trust between the guards and the prisoners despite the lack of resources and difficult living conditions.”
For Nwakama, organizing this trip felt “semi-personal.”
“My parents are originally from Nigeria,” Nwakama said. “Giving back to Ghana, to West Africa, and seeing where my parents came from, this is important to me because it’s important to know who you’re going to help. It gave me perspective on what the situation is like beyond the United States.”
Deese, who will work for a firm after law school, said that this service trip allowed him to experience what firm culture looks like where limited resources necessitate community service be built into the legal profession.
“Our work with B&P and visits to the Supreme Court, Parliament, and other government institutions allowed us to see both the effects limited resources can have on a community and the direct impact we can have as a result,” Deese said. “My only firm experience prior to our trip was with a large, well-resourced firm, and that dynamic has the potential to create separation between the work you do and the product of it. But in Ghana, when they talk about community service and pro bono work, they mean right there, locally. It’s not as abstract.”