By Andrew Cohen
With no shortage of environmental challenges facing California, the hiring of clinical fellows Britton Schwartz and Ana Vohryzek comes at an opportune time for Berkeley Law—and its students.
Schwartz will focus on water justice, splitting her time between supervising student projects at the Environmental Law Clinic (ELC) and assisting researchers at the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE). She spent the past four years as a clinical fellow with the International Human Rights Clinic at Santa Clara University School of Law.
Vohryzek will help ELC, now in its second year, train more students and increase its focus on environmental justice issues. In five years of private practice and as a consultant, she has focused on international arbitration matters that often trigger key environmental regulation concerns.
Outside the bubble
Before attending Harvard Law School, Schwartz spent years advocating for rural and indigenous communities in the United States and Latin America. An Arizona native, she recalls working on a Congressional campaign in an area of the state inhabited partly by the Navajo Nation. “What stood out was the inequity these marginalized communities faced, especially in terms of access to basic resources,” Schwartz said. “That sparked my interest in environmental justice.”
A year-long grant from the Berkeley Law Foundation, a fellowship program launched by the school’s students, enabled her to work at the Community Water Center, a nonprofit in the Central Valley. There, she helped low-income communities offset the barriers that intensive agriculture and dysfunctional water governance systems created to clean, safe and affordable drinking water.
“That grant had a profound impact on my work and Berkeley made it possible,” Schwartz said. “The experience showed me that water is so foundational. These communities face all kinds of issues, from gang violence to limited employment opportunities, but nothing can get better until they get safe drinking water.”
Working part-time with Berkeley Law students this school year, Schwartz wants to bring them outside the bubble.
“Living in the Bay Area, we’re often shielded from what’s happening elsewhere,” she said. “Most us don’t think about where our water comes from or whether it’ll always be safe, but there are a million people who lack access to safe drinking water every day in California. It’s important to expose students to those experiences and partner them with communities that confront these challenges.”
Schwartz will help coordinate one water justice project that focuses on concrete challenges facing California’s overburdened communities, and another on federal regulations to help increase access to clean, affordable drinking water and sanitation nationwide.
While attending a conference last year at Berkeley Law, she met ELC Director Claudia Polsky ’96 and discussed Polsky’s push to expand the clinic’s capacity to address water justice issues. The more she learned about the clinic and the expanding reach of CLEE’s Wheeler Water Institute, the more intrigued she became. CLEE Executive Director Jordan Diamond ’08 said Schwartz will advance synergies and collaborations between the center, which focuses on policy analysis, and the clinic, which focuses on legal advocacy.
“We’re grateful to have Britton join our team to help us grow our community protection work in the water arena and more broadly,” Diamond said. “Much of her work to date has aimed at helping underrepresented and underserved communities overcome daunting challenges to their health and well-being—an inspiring track record that we’re eager to support and strengthen.”
Back in Berkeley
For Vohryzek, a former UC Berkeley undergrad, returning to campus was an “easy decision. I have so much respect for this institution and its leadership on environmental issues. It’s thrilling to join a school that pushes the envelope, in a state that proudly goes its own way and often ends up being a model for progressive policies.”
After graduating from Yale Law School, her work on international treaty disputes often involved environmental justice issues. “I quickly realized that’s what really interested me,” she said. “It is meaningful, important and challenging, in part because environmental justice pulls from many different areas of law.”
Vohryzek will work with Schwartz on water access projects, and help broaden the clinic’s reach. Fluent in Spanish, she has significant experience at the intersection of trade and environmental issues—and has worked with clients and co-counsel from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
“That gives Ana a multinational, big-picture view of the drivers of environmental degradation and possible solutions,” Polsky said. “Her skills are directly applicable to the work she’ll be doing at the clinic: building a docket and client relationships that expand our work on issues such as drinking water quality and toxics exposure. Ana also has experience in clinical teaching, an ability to conceptualize and develop projects quickly and infectious enthusiasm.”
In addition to her global environmental law work, Vohryzek has tackled immigration and civil rights cases, micro-enterprise development for immigrant women in the United States and community economic development projects. In working to improve trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, she sought to incorporate human rights and sustainable principles such as protecting indigenous communities negatively affected by the impact of mines or a dam.
Vohryzek also spent two years coaching Harvard Law’s Foreign Direct Investment Moot Arbitration Team. “I think the experience will benefit me in this new position,” she said. “I helped students conduct legal research, write briefs, form persuasive arguments, work as a team … there are definitely parallels with what I’ll be doing here.”
One such parallel: finding areas of need that lack sufficient advocacy. “There’s a tendency to pile on hot-button issues in environmental work, but Claudia bucks that trend,” said Vohryzek, who just began her two-year stint as a full-time fellow. “She finds issues where the clinic can be an important voice in underdeveloped areas. Joining that effort is very gratifying.”