By Crighton Allen
Mr. Allen is an associate with the Atlanta law firm Hall Booth Smith, P.C. where he assists in the defense of high-exposure cases in a variety of practice areas, including catastrophic injury, product liability, wrongful death, trucking, professional negligence & malpractice, and construction. Mr. Allen grew up in Thomasville, GA and majored in European History at Washington & Lee with a minor in Poverty & Human Capability Studies. He earned his law degree from the University of Georgia School of Law.
“I count my times spent on the front lines of indigent criminal defense as some of my life’s most fulfilling,” writes Allen (W&L 2011).
In growing up in a well-sheltered cocoon in the picturesque small town of Thomasville, Georgia and attending the privileged Washington & Lee University, I walked into the first day of Introduction to Poverty Studies having not seen or learned very much about the broader world and the lives of those who lived in it who were different from me. Starting that day, however, my ignorance was driven from me by a combination of classroom readings and discussions that have remained with me and a series of summer internships, through which I was given the chance to apply my classroom lessons to real people challenged by poverty.
Via the Shepherd Program, I interned as an investigator with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia the summer after my sophomore year and, the following summer, had another incredible internship, this time with the Georgia Justice Project in Atlanta. Through summers spent amidst tempests of crime, poverty, violence, drugs, failing schools, and broken families, I saw human suffering up close and personal. For the first time in my life, poverty and human desperation were not something I saw on the news headlines or read about in the comfortable confines of the University library. In words of Atticus Finch, I was learning what it was like to see things from another’s point of view and to walk around, however briefly, in the skin of people who were unlike me in almost every conceivable way.
These internships have seen me stake out an apartment complex at twilight, cry alongside a teenage boy as he told me the story of his felony assault charge, assist on a capital appeals case before the Supreme Court of Georgia, and talk with a gang of meth-addicted robbers about their hopes to turn everything around, all experiences unthinkable to the sheltered, naive young man who walked into that poverty studies class. Even to this day, I count my times spent on the front lines of indigent criminal defense as some of my life’s most fulfilling.
Today, while I currently do not practice public interest law, the lessons of the Shepherd Program are never far from my mind, or heart. Through my law firm, I volunteer twice a week at an inner city high school in Atlanta, helping coach their mock trial team. After practices, many of the students need rides home, as the school buses have stopped running and their families lack the means to come collect them. In these car rides, and in my conversations with the students, the lessons of Amartya Sen come rushing back to me. These student are universally bright and diligent, yet started the proverbial race far behind many other high schoolers, through no fault of their own. It is my hope that in some small way, our volunteering with them can increase the students’ freedom of opportunity; if, through our influence, just one student is inspired to try to attend law school, or even college, that chance at higher education will increase the opportunities for his or her life exponentially.
The Shepherd Program undoubtedly made me a better person, and I remain profoundly grateful for my time in it. It taught me to seek first to understand, to fight the temptations to judge others for their poverty and to assume their circumstances are a product of their choices. My experiences in the Program opened my eyes to the reality that the massive inequalities in our country are frequently caused and reinforced by a society whose social, economic, educational, and legal structures are unfairly stacked against the poor. It is my firm belief that every student should seize the chance to participate in the classes and service-learning opportunities offered by the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty. They will open your eyes, soften your heart, and challenge you to think more deeply and more critically than perhaps any other experience you could have in college will. At times, you will feel uncomfortable, and maybe even scared, as you learn about and serve people who are very different from you. But I promise it is worth it. Have the courage to have your worldview changed; you will not regret it.