Jason Langberg (’10) Dismantles School-to-Prison Pipeline for Students from Low-Income Families

Jason Langberg is an alumnus of the 2010 Equal Justice Works Fellowship class. Equal Justice Works caught up with Jason to learn more about his accomplishments at the Advocates for Children’s Services in Wake County, North Carolina.

What inspired you to work in education and with children?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in public education and children’s rights. I didn’t experience one defining moment; instead, my passion has snowballed over the last 15 years of volunteering and working as a tutor, teacher, mentor, guardian ad litem, and advocate. In the process, I’ve been continuously inspired and sustained by young people who are full of life and resilience in the face of tremendous obstacles.

What made you decide to apply for the Fellowship?

I was already working at my host organization on a one-year Clifton W. Everett, Sr. Community Lawyer Fellowship. Nevertheless, I chose to apply for an Equal Justice Works Fellowship for three reasons. First, I wanted to continue and improve the work I was doing as an Everett Fellow, but was uncertain as to whether my host organization would be able to hire me. Second, I really liked the idea of being on a fellowship that would allow me to do more innovative, holistic work and partially shield me from the traditional pressures at a legal services organization (e.g., caseload expectations). Third, Equal Justice Works offered name recognition and credibility, a national network of like-minded, supportive colleagues, and trainings that would help me be a more effective advocate.

What was your 2010 Fellowship project in detail? In what ways did you implement the project?

My Fellowship host was Advocates for Children’s Services (ACS), a statewide project of Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC). My project involved a three-prong approach to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline in Wake County, North Carolina:

1)    Providing legal advice and representation to students from low-income families who were being pushed out of school by unaddressed academic failure, unmet special education needs, suspension, expulsion, mistreatment by school security personnel, and discrimination;

2)    Educating the community about students’ and parents’ rights and the school-to-prison pipeline through presentations, trainings, publications, and media outreach; and

3)    Collaborating with service providers (e.g., mental health agencies, after school programs, mentoring organizations, and social services), court system actors (e.g., probation officers, defense attorneys, and judges), advocates, and others.

How did Equal Justice Works support your efforts to implement your project?

Equal Justice Works supported my project and me by providing funding, training, and accountability. Supplemental funding from Equal Justice Works enabled me to publish a “Know Your Rights” book for students and parents, and to obtain a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Duke University. Equal Justice Works’ annual trainings held in Washington, DC helped me develop crucial advocacy and project management knowledge, skills, and connections. Finally, the Fellowship reporting requirements helped me stay goal-oriented and maintain documentation of activities and successes that would later become valuable for strategic planning and fundraising.

What were you able to accomplish during the Fellowship?

During my Fellowship, I handled over 60 cases, including some systemic impact cases, and conducted over 60 presentations and trainings in my target district. I also built deep and meaningful relationships with community organizations; published lettersto the editor, op-eds, fact sheets, issue briefs, reports, newsletters, and self-help materials; and was quoted in dozens of news articles.

During the school year before my Fellowship (2009-10), my target district had 19,392 short-term suspensions, 837 long-term suspensions, and 10 expulsions. During the school year after my Fellowship (2012-13), my target district had 15,378 short-term suspensions (a 20.7% decrease), 337 long-term suspensions (a 59.7% decrease), and 8 expulsions (a 20% decrease).

Finally, I applied for and my organization was awarded a three-year, $280,000 grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies to continue and expand the work that I started under my Fellowship, and to become part of a national school-to-prison pipeline Legal Strategies Collaborative. Last month, I learned that my organization will receive another grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies – this time for three years and $300,000 – to, in part, replicate in other North Carolina school districts the campaign work I started under my Fellowship.

How did the Fellowship support your career and help you get to where you are today?

My Fellowship advanced my career by providing me with opportunities to develop skills (e.g., research, writing, client interviewing and counseling, oral advocacy, public speaking, supervision, etc.), build knowledge, make connections, successfully fundraise, become more confident, and prove myself as a relatively new attorney.

What are you doing now? How does it relate to your previous experiences when you were an Equal Justice Works Fellow?

I am currently the supervising attorney at ACS. My job responsibilities include:

  • continuing the work I performed as an Equal Justice Works Fellow and staff attorney (i.e., legal advice and representation for low-income families, community education, and collaboration);
  • recruiting and supervising ACS staff, interns, externs, and volunteers;
  • coordinating the expansion of LANC’s advocacy in education cases through its field offices throughout the state; and
  •  fundraising and grant management.

Outside of my job at ACS, I also serve on the board of directors of Youth Justice North Carolina (YJNC), on the advisory board of Public Schools First North Carolina (PSFNC), and as the vice-chair of the North Carolina Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice and Children’s Rights (JJCR) Section. Since starting my Equal Justice Works Fellows, I’ve also served as an adjunct professor in the North Carolina Central University School of Law’s Juvenile Law Clinic and published a few journal articles.

What advice would you give to current Equal Justice Works Fellows or prospective law students who aspire to work with children or in education?

I encourage aspiring and new public interest lawyers to:

  • Study history and recognize intersectionalities. You can’t fully understand current social issues without understanding history and how issues relate to one another.
  • Ignore haters and stay true to your conscience and vision. There’ll always be people who tell you to be less idealistic and more realistic, as if you can’t be both. Remember the words of Emma Goldman, “Every daring attempt to make a great change in existing conditions, every lofty vision of new possibilities for the human race, has been labeled Utopian.”
  • Think outside the box and think of yourself as an activist before you think of yourself as a lawyer. Despite the message conveyed by bar exams and most law schools, “non-traditional” lawyering – e.g., using the media, organizing, community education, and public policy advocacy – may be as effective, if not more so, than a litigation approach. Throughout history, courtroom advocacy is most successful when it’s paired with a movement that involves a multi-pronged approach.
  • Broadly define success. As Arthur Kinnoy wrote, “The test for a people’s lawyer is not always the technical winning or losing of the formal proceedings. The real test is the impact of the legal activities on the morale and understanding of the people involved in the struggle."
  • Maintain perspective and humility. Understand your role in the broader historical and present context. We need fewer public interest attorneys who set out to “save the world” or develop savior complexes, and more who humbly serve people most impacted by injustice as they lead the movement for progress.
  • Be aware of your privileges, whatever they may be – e.g., ability, class, education, gender, race, sexuality, religion, etc. Reflect regularly on how you externalize them and how they impact your power dynamics and relationships.
  • Who you work with matters as much as, if not more than, where you work. In other words, people matter more than pay or prestige. My colleagues at ACS (my “work family”) are brilliant and creative, hard working and effective, passionate and committed, friendly and fun, and incredibly kind and caring. They inspire me, help sustain me, and push me to be a better person and advocate.
  • Make time for spiritual Gatorade – those activities that recharge and nourish your spirit by giving you joy, peacefulness, and hope. For example, exercising, listening to music, hiking in the mountains, reading, and spending time with my wonderful partner and son are some of my spiritual Gatorades. My friend, mentor, and former boss, Lewis Pitts, taught me about spiritual Gatorade and regularly reminded me to drink it in abundance.

This blog was prepared by 2014 Equal Justice Works Intern, Alexis Crooks.

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