By Andrew Cohen
When talking with Desiree Ramirez ’09, it doesn’t take long to realize why she won this year’s prestigious Francine Diaz Memorial Award, given annually to a student who shows an outstanding commitment to social justice and community service.
“It’s the work that has to get done,” says Ramirez, “and that makes it feel like the work I should be doing. There’s a personal connection for me, having seen first-hand the damaging effects the criminal justice system can have on impoverished families. I just feel compelled to be part of the movement that helps transform the type of communities I came from.”
Ramirez’s list of student activities runs long: California Law Review, Street Law, Juvenile Hall Outreach Program, Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, La Raza Law Students Association, La Raza Workers’ Rights Clinic, and the Coalition for Diversity. But her most intensive endeavor outside the classroom came during three semesters with the Death Penalty Clinic, where she helped draft amicus curiae briefs and interviewed almost 30 witnesses and family members in capital cases.
“As someone about to become a public defender and who’s interested in reforming our criminal justice system, the Death Penalty Clinic felt like a natural place for me,” Ramirez says. “That’s where the biggest injustices occur, especially to members of the black and Latino communities. You’re talking about people’s lives, and the ultimate extension of a serious systemic problem.”
The quality and tenacity of her work earned Ramirez an honorable mention award for the Sax Prize for Clinical Advocacy—and allowed her to forge valuable mentoring relationships. Ramirez credits Death Penalty Clinic director Elisabeth Semel and associate director Ty Alper for “changing the way I experienced my legal education. They showed me how to take it from the classroom to the field, and made me more prepared than I ever imagined.”
It’s a long way from five years ago, when Ramirez prepared to embark upon an engineering career. She excelled in math and science in high school, attended MIT as undergrad, and earned a master’s degree in chemical engineering at UCLA. But Ramirez saw engineering more as a means of effectively helping her mother rather than a career passion.
“Our family struggled economically and my mom was in a domestically violent situation that I wanted to help her escape,” she says. “Engineering is a high-paying profession, and I figured that’d be the best way to solve those problems.”
But after helping her mother relocate to a new apartment free from domestic abuse, Ramirez began to think about her true calling. Long drawn to social justice and minority rights issues, at MIT she founded the school’s Latino Cultural Center, worked to get more Latinos involved in engineering, and pushed for the faculty to hire more minorities.
Following grad school at UCLA, Ramirez worked for a year and a half as a technical consultant, but it left her “feeling incomplete” and she began to think about law school. Once Ramirez came to Boalt, she hit the ground running and never stopped until graduating two weeks ago.
After her first year, she worked as a judicial extern for Justice Kim Wardlaw on the U.S. Ninth Circuit, developing appeals regarding employment discrimination, social security benefits, and claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. The following summer, she clerked with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. This past spring, she worked with the Southern Center for Human Rights on behalf of indigent prisoners in Georgia and Alabama.
“The disproportionate number of minorities who get arrested and incarcerated has a devastating effect on minority communities,” says Ramirez. “When someone goes to prison, it’s often a father and a husband who leaves behind a family that will face extreme repercussions. Until these inequities are adequately addressed, that domino effect will continue to wreak havoc.”
While her engineering background will come in handy as criminal trials increasingly use scientific research, testing, and methodology, Ramirez is committed to a career in public defense and “feels content” leaving science behind. This fall, her new career will begin in earnest with The Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal representation to indigent Bronx residents charged with crimes.
Ramirez is eager to experience New York’s vibrant Latino culture—and to help make the legal landscape a bit more diverse.
“I’m excited to help people who have lived something similar to my life experience and that of my family,” she says. “There are very few Latino lawyers and few Latino public defenders. The Bronx Defenders tackle their cases holistically, and help clients beyond the parameters of their criminal case. That definitely resonates with me.”