From My Perspective: A Law Professor Creates Her Own Domestic 'Peace Corps' Volunteering At The Pro Bono Project

Professor Susan Waysdorf

Professor Susan Waysdorf

In the Spring of 2008, Professor Susan Waysdorf of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), David A. Clarke School of Law took a six month sabbatical to work at The Pro Bono Project.

She had come on several previous trips with UDC law students prior to this time and felt called to devote more time, expertise and effort to helping The Project rebuild the lives of the many underserved residents of this community. Displaced by Katrina, they were in desperate need of pro bono civil legal services to return home, a fact that became more evident as time passed.

After the first six months sabbatical ended, Professor Waysdorf signed on for another six months – giving The Project and the City of New Orleans an entire year of service. After that, she continued to work with The Project through the Board’s Resource Development Committee for the next several years.

Professor Waysdorf comes to New Orleans each Spring to celebrate Jazz Fest and check on the progress of the recovery and rebirth, which the City has undergone over the 10 years since Katrina. The Project has officially adopted her as a true New Orleanian at heart. We are grateful for her passionate service and that of the many UDC law students she inspired and inspires to come here and lend their expertise and their hearts to the Crescent City.

This commentary by Professor Waysdorf originally appeared in the Spring 2008 Pro Bono Press newsletter. We thought this remembrance was a good way to bring home the message that “pro bono service matters” and close out our Katrina 10 Retrospective series. We will continue to post stories, comments and other related information during the year.

by Professor Susan Waysdorf, UDC David A. Clarke School of Law

Okay, I admit it – it’s not every day that a law professor chooses to use her sabbatical leave to volunteer in the recovery of New Orleans.  

The Spring 2007 UDC Group with Professor Waysdorf (r)

The Spring 2007 UDC Group with Professor Waysdorf (r)

But after taking a group of my law students from Washington, DC to work at The Pro Bono Project and other volunteer agencies in March 2007, I knew that I would be returning, not just once or twice, but to spend substantial time here during my sabbatical in the Spring 2008 semester.  

Why? Because legal services that protect poor peoples’ legal and civil rights are a critical aspect of a Katrina survivor’s ability to move forward, to recover from the trauma, disruption and losses of this disaster, and to return home.    

It really began in August 2006, after watching the Spike Lee HBO documentary, "When the Levees Broke," I knew then that I had to do something meaningful to assist in the recovery of New Orleans.  

See Spike Lee's HBO Documentary, "When The Levees Broke ... ": Parts 1 & 2 and Parts 3 & 4 on You Tube

My initial response resulted in several colleagues and I at the University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law creating a new course on disaster law and government responsibility, called "Katrina and Beyond." As part of the course, students were asked to participate in a week of volunteer service in New Orleans during their March 2007 break and were accompanied by our law school dean, alums, and several professors.  

During that week, we volunteered at the Public Defenders’ office, helped immigrant workers with their employment rights, worked succession and other cases at The Pro Bono Project, and helped to rebuild a home in St. Bernard Parish.

While all our volunteer activities were productive and rewarding, I was particularly impressed by The Pro Bono Project’s quality and scope of work. The Project’s staff is dedicated to using the power of legal rights to achieve social justice on the many civil legal issues that affect the poor and displaced.

That alternative spring break of “Katrina service” sealed my ongoing involvement with New Orleans and most notably, The Pro Bono Project. Devoting my sabbatical to Katrina volunteer service took some serious thought, arrangements and personal fund-raising. But deciding where to volunteer in New Orleans was the easy part

Choosing The Project

Of the many volunteer possibilities that were available to me, I quickly chose to work with The Pro Bono Project. Of course, the people a volunteer is going to work with also make a huge difference, and with the support of The Pro Bono Project staff, I found ways to use my various skills as an activist lawyer and law teacher to complement The Project’s goals and mission.
My time here has been enormously productive - like my own personal Peace Corps - in the midst of this unprecedented national disaster. It’s not often that a law professor or attorney has the opportunity to be a part of this type of concrete, activist and humanitarian service in the face of crisis and disaster, particularly here in our own country.

Every day, The Project’s volunteer attorneys and staff empower those returning to the area, by informing them of their rights and options, and by advocating for their legal rights to services, funds, housing, insurance, FEMA claims, property restoration, jobs and wages, government benefits and programs, like The Road Home and family law protections. As a result, since Katrina, The Project has played an invaluable role in re-populating and rebuilding the city and surrounding areas.  

The need for civil legal services was always tremendous in New Orleans. But these needs have grown exponentially since Katrina. Now, they are a matter of survival for Katrina survivors.  Protecting the legal rights of the poor and disenfranchised in New Orleans is essential to the re-building of this gravely wounded city.  

How Does The Pro Bono Project Do All This?  

In large part because of its dedicated, committed and highly skilled staff and its corps of local and out-of-state volunteer attorneys. Since Katrina, The Pro Bono Project has also wisely welcomed law students who flocked to the city from all over the country to help in the recovery. These law students, many who have returned two or three times, could not have had this opportunity if it were not for The Pro Bono Project, which opened its arms to thousands of students, and provided invaluable direction, training and supervision.

As a law professor, I know that these law students will each be stronger, more effective, and more ethical advocates and members of the legal profession as a result of this experience. We could never provide this type of legal education in the classroom alone.  

It is clear that the experience here in New Orleans with The Project is changing a future generation of lawyers – how they will choose to practice law and how the practice of law will be viewed by others. That is just another way that The Pro Bono Project has made an indelible mark on the situation here in New Orleans.

Now, as my sabbatical comes to a close, I am already finding ways to return to New Orleans and The Pro Bono Project. The work here is so far from over that it can be mind-boggling. The “recovery” of this city and the entire region has been painstakingly slow, disorganized and largely unfunded and unsupported by government.  

As we creep towards the three-year mark since Hurricane Katrina struck and the levees broke, the potential for recovery that will make a real difference in peoples lives becomes further from the grasp of the struggling people of New Orleans.  

Yet, with every person that I meet in New Orleans, and every time I walk into The Project’s office, I am inspired by the affirmation of the human spirit that stands in the face of the most dire of circumstances and odds.   

It is clear to me that without the work of The Pro Bono Project and other non-profit service agencies, Katrina survivors would not be able to return here and get their lives back together. Recovery of this city would be even less of a possibility, and even further delayed.  

Every day, the staff at The Project thanks me for my volunteer service. But I really think that it is all of us who should be thanking them for everything that they do for those most in need.