By Andrew Cohen
Pitch The Stephanie Llanes Story to Hollywood producers, and they’ll probably ask you to come back with something more believable. Just 28, her young life has already seen more twists and turns than a roller coaster—and more achievements than many twice her age.
Llanes ’16 is one of 12 new Berkeley Law graduates (see list below) to receive coveted nationwide fellowships, giving them a valuable head-start on their social justice careers.
For Llanes, the next stop is New York City, where she will work for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on a prestigious two-year Bertha Fellowship. One of just four people selected from nearly 250 applicants, she made a powerful impression while interning at the organization last summer.
“Stephanie demonstrated a passionate commitment to social justice, an insistence on completing high-quality work in service of the clients and communities CCR represents and a relentless hunger for learning and engagement,” said Legal Director Baher Azmy. “She has a deeply rooted belief in the power of organized social movements to produce meaningful change and a grounded understanding about how lawyers can contribute to that broader purpose.”
Focusing on racial justice and government misconduct, Llanes will tackle issues such as immigration detention and police stop-and-frisk procedures.
“I want to use law as a tool to support social movements to shift power,” she said. “CCR understands that lawyers should support these movements, not merely direct them. As lawyers, we often incorrectly think we’re the skilled problem solvers who should lead the way. But people-centered work is not always about winning lawsuits; it’s about improving people’s lives.”
A native Puerto Rican, Llanes is the first member of her family to go to college. Before that, however, she was signed to a record label and released three reggaeton albums—as a teenager—under the stage name Felina.
Glimpses into the music industry’s ugly underbelly and a “drive to fight and live for marginalized communities” prodded Llanes to ditch a music career and enter college. At the University of North Georgia (formerly Gainesville Community College), she flourished in and out of the classroom—holding myriad leadership positions and landing on USA Today’s All-USA College Academic Team—one of just 20 students so named.
After transferring to Emory University in 2011, she co-founded the Change at Emory Racial Justice Student Coalition and expanded the school’s annual State of Race event into a week-long forum focused on race, culture, diversity and human rights. Graduating with a 3.97 GPA, Llanes was one of four students named to Emory’s College Council Hall of Fame based on her leadership and service.
“I’d like to think I inherited some of the fighting and loving spirit of my mom, grandma and great grandma,” she said. “My great grandma was a tobacco field worker in Puerto Rico who started in the fields when she was 5 years old. Around 60, both of her legs had to be amputated due to the amount of tobacco in her system. Even so, she stayed very active in her community and helped people in any way she could. That resiliency runs through the women in my family.”
It was certainly evident during Llanes’ time at Berkeley Law. Among her countless activities and student group involvements, she served as co-president of the La Raza Law Students Association and articles editor of the Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy. She also showed her litigation chops by winning last year’s prestigious National Institute for Trial Advocacy Tournament of Champions—which features the country’s top mock trial programs—on a team with Jerel Dawson ’15, DeCarol Davis ’17 and Salah Hawkins ’15.
Her most meaningful law school experience? “Having the ability to work with john a. powell and the team at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society,” Llanes said of the Berkeley Law professor and institute’s director. “It was truly transformative. He taught me about using legal strategies and the law to shape structures that can serve people.”
Working with the Post-Conviction Advocacy Project, she also represented a life prisoner who last month was released on parole. “My partner Asher Waite-Jones (’16) and I worked with him for a year and a half,” she said. “He was Latino, and working with him touched home for me because I saw myself and my community in him.”
As her fellowship approaches, Llanes admits that these are “daunting and often scary” times to be working on racial justice issues.
“People are asking what America do we want to live in, that we want our children to live in,” she said. “For me, it’s an America where my type of racial justice work doesn’t need to exist, an America that prioritizes love and community. We should aspire to a world where children are free, from Puerto Rico to Palestine to Flint, where governments actually serve their people—all of them.”
While charging full steam toward her legal career, Llanes’ creativity and sense of humor remains in full bloom. At New York City’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in June, she donned a full costume to portray Somos Arte comic book heroine La Borinqueña—who discovers her superpowers when she visits Puerto Rico and fights against social injustice. Her appearance led to a profile article in the New York Daily News.
Other Class of 2016 graduates to begin major fellowships this fall include:
- Guadalupe Aguirre, Immigrant Justice Corps Fellowship. Working at the Empire Justice Center in Westchester, New York, Aguirre will provide legal assistance for immigrants seeking citizenship and fighting deportation. She will also help shape strategies to reduce the justice gap for immigrant families and reduce their barriers to social and economic opportunity.
- Madeline Bailey, Equal Justice Initiative Fellowship. Working at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, Bailey will assist condemned prisoners, children in the criminal justice system, people wrongly convicted or sentenced and the poor and vulnerable facing imprisonment. She will also promote remedies that address prisoner mistreatment and the impact of racial subordination and exclusion.
- Camille Dodson, Law Students for Reproductive Justice Fellowship. Working at the Positive Women’s Network in Oakland, Dodson will help inform and mobilize women living with HIV to advocate for changes that improve their lives and uphold their rights. She will also serve as a policy advocate and provide support for community organizing while also leading educational campaigns.
- Shanita Farris, Capital Appeals Project of Louisiana Fellowship. Working at the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, Farris will represent capital defendants from the time they are sentenced to death through their appeals and post-conviction process. She will also assist in ongoing civil litigation within the organization’s Promise of Justice Initiative.
- Fanna Gamal, Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Working at Berkeley Law’s East Bay Community Law Center and sponsored by the Arnold & Porter Foundation, Gamal will challenge the collateral consequences of school expulsions—which disproportionately impact black and Latino students—in Berkeley and Oakland through direct representation and local policy reform efforts.
- Cristiana Giannini, Gideon’s Promise Fellowship. Working at the DeKalb County Public Defender’s Office in Atlanta, Giannini will help defend indigent clients and work to accelerate indigent defense reform. In doing so, she will advocate for strategies that positively impact such defendants and remove pressures to quickly process them through the criminal justice system.
- Andrea Obando, Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Working at Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco and sponsored by Viacom and the Munger, Tolles & Olson Foundation, Obando will work to eliminate barriers to economic security for low-wage women of color in California by enforcing equal pay laws—and by using legal advocacy and community outreach to expand their access to high-wage jobs.
- Margaret Tides, Michael P. Murphy Public Law Fellowship. Working at the San Mateo County Counsel’s Office in Redwood City, Tides will provide advice to County departments, school districts and special districts. She will also litigate civil cases in state and federal courts and before administrative agencies, and assist on complex and high profile impact litigation as well as public policy matters.
- Brittany Tyler, Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Working at Bay Area Legal Aid in Oakland and funded by Fenwick & West, Tyler will provide on-site legal services to victims of domestic violence in Alameda County’s Highland Hospital through a medical-legal partnership. One-third of the hospital’s female trauma patients are treated for domestic violence-related injuries.
- Asher Waite-Jones, Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Working at Legal Services for Children in San Francisco and sponsored by American Lawyer Media, Waite-Jones will provide area homeless youth between ages 13 and 21 holistic representation in low-level infractions. He will also bolster the organization’s traditional practice areas of immigration, guardianship, dependency and school discipline.
- Richard Weir, Human Rights Watch Finberg Fellowship. Working at Human Rights Watch in New York City, Weir will work with the group’s Asia Division and focus mainly on human rights abuses occurring within Burma as the country transitions from a military dictatorship to a quasi-democracy. He will research and document such abuses—conducting field interviews, writing reports and providing targeted advocacy.