For the Good of the Gulf: UNC Law Winter/Spring Break Pro Bono Project

Friday, January 05, 2007

Did It Matter?

As my friends and classmates return to Chapel Hill for the start of classes on Monday, I’m often asked to tell my New Orleans story. I tell of interviews with inmates in Orleans Parish Prison, the hoops that we had to jump through to get interviews lined up, and the chaos that Katrina left on not only the legal system but also the city in general.

Often, the recipient of my story will ask, “Were you really able to help anyone?” or “Did you make a difference?”

Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer. Months later, the inmates that I interviewed will, unfortunately, still be sitting in jail, and the destruction that I witnessed will be far from gone. I didn’t change the world in a week, and it would be naïve of me to expect that I could. Having to answer this question has really made me think about what we accomplished in New Orleans and why we went in the first place.

One of our goals in going to New Orleans was to continue to make others aware that the devastation of Katrina has not gone away. A year and a half later, people are forgetting and New Orleans is no longer front page news. With our stories, we hope to remind others that the battle to rebuild is much more than just building houses and is far from over. At a university so engaged in community service, it is important for us to go beyond Chapel Hill, the Triangle, and North Carolina, and hopefully, we have spread this message.

Another way in which we helped was through our support, care, and understanding. Our presence alone told the inmates, the divorce and succession clients, and the attorneys that we want to help. One of the inmates that I interviewed didn’t realize that she had a lawyer, and when I explained to her that the state will provide her with representation, her surprised and relieved smile said it all. If our interview that afternoon brought that inmate some reassurance and optimism, perhaps we did make a difference afterall. Conducting inmate interviews also allowed the inmates to tell their stories. I will never forget the inmate next to me, pressing pictures from a photo album against the Plexiglas with tears in her eyes as she spoke to her interviewer. This was a woman dying to tell her story, and through the interview project, she finally had that opportunity.

Finally, working in New Orleans gave me a new perspective on the legal system. I understand now that change takes a lot of time, and problems cannot be solved in a day. I will never forget the horrors that the inmates in OPP faced (, and I will never again see an inmate as an orange suit with a number. These are lessons that I will take with me throughout my legal career and will hopefully make a difference in my interactions with clients for years to come.

No, we didn’t change the world, but we definitely did some good.


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