Driving into DC the night before the first day of my internship was a surreal experience. I did not know whether I should be scared, excited, or nervous, but either way I was feeling all three, and a bit overwhelmed. This was not because I was not confident that I would do well in my internship, rather it was an affirmation that all the hard work I did in order to obtain my internship was actually worth it. I was about to spend three months in the “worst” neighborhoods of DC serving underprivileged clients.
The first week of my internship was a comprehensive training by the DC Public Defender Service (PDS). Unfortunately, I cannot go into great detail about the training, but it essentially covered all of the basics for how to be a successful intern investigator, whatever that means. Little did I know, but the training would all be overshadowed by real experience in my internship.
Following the week of training, we were assigned to our attorneys. I was assigned to the absolutely best attorney possible, James King. James was an attorney in the Juvenile Services Program (JSP) of PDS. This meant that we were working with juvenile clients in DC facing institutional disciplinary hearings and community status review hearings. Basically, a youth can be at three different levels of restriction in DC, from at home to a residential lockdown facility. When the district wants to raise a youth from one level of restriction to another, it must have a hearing as provided by the Constitution. That is where JSP, James, and I came in.
While he absolutely was the best attorney I could have asked for, there was a somewhat steep learning curve in order to get up to speed with James. This took the form of James asking me to interview the family of a juvenile he was representing on my first day. My partner (fellow Shepherd intern Kerstin Wright from Berea College) and I went, scared as ever, into some undisclosed neighborhood of DC and interviewed the family. We were flying by the seat of our pants. Returning to the office, we realized that we did exactly what we were asked to do. While it was a phenomenal first accomplishment, it left a multitude of unanswered questions. As a result, I asked James about these gaps in my knowledge of the case, to which he simply responded, “Go find out.” So we did. Once the case was called, we had invested hours upon hours in multiple witness interviews and a plethora of physical evidence. We clearly did our best to represent our client in the most zealous way possible. After all of our dedication and hard work on the case, we lost. It was absolutely unacceptable. Hearing the verdict was easily the best and worst part of my summer: worst because we lost a case that we should not have, but best because it lit the fire in me to do everything possible not to let that happen to anyone else while I was at PDS.
Over the following eight weeks, I became closer and closer to my partner and my attorney. At the two-month mark of the internship, my role in the office took a completely different form. At this point, my partner, the other interns, and the law clerks all left. It was largely just James and I. At this turning point, I truly was able to discover the immense significance of my internship. Even though I was living with a fellow Washington and Lee student, I was very much so on my own. It did not matter if it was 6AM or 9PM; if there was work to be done, I was doing it. If I did not complete a given task, it was detrimental for our clients. This responsibility was not to be taken lightly, and I would not have had it any other way. To provide an example of my heightened duty, one night I was cooking dinner and received a call that a youth was having problems with the staff in the juvenile facility. I immediately drove to the facility, and stayed there with the youth until we had resolved the problem. It did not matter that I did not eat that night; what mattered was that I was there for a youth who needed me.
Even though I am an accounting major, I would not have traded my experience at PDS for the world. Although I did not receive first-hand business knowledge, I obtained a far more valuable experience. I learned how to relate to individuals that, on first glance, bore no resemblance to me. I was forced to dig deeper into their lives, and there was always some degree of similarity. This realization will be invaluable in my approach to many relationships, as I now know that I am able to relate to and obtain relevant information from almost anyone. The relationships I formed also prove that completely different individuals, countries, and cultures can come together so long as they work at establishing some common ground and a true relationship before solving any problems.
The most valuable experience that I learned from working at PDS was by far simply getting out of my comfort zone. I recommend a similar experience to each and every person. It is so easy to go by in life and get into routines and static networks. However, when we escape from our everyday comfort zone, we truly realize what we have inside. This realization is not simple or immediate but dynamic and prolonged. For me, it took the form of realizing the brutal effects poverty places on individuals, especially the youth with whom I worked. I realized that I am able to thrive in situations where I am the minority. I realized the debilitating effect of race in the justice system. While I had read about these facts, texts cannot accurately convey these unacceptable realities we ignore and unfortunately condone on a daily basis.
While James and I ended up having an overall successful summer, my final hearing with James was the climax. I had become a stellar investigator, and James and I could not have been closer. I had interviewed everyone relevant to the case, going as far as an hour outside of DC to find out marginally more information. We had extensive exhibits, and were, frankly, a fine-tuned machine. We lost. The same rage that I found after the first loss was back. It was still unacceptable that such an improper verdict could be rendered, and I doubt that such a feeling will ever go away. Similar to the first trial, some good came out of the verdict in that it reminded me to never take anything for granted and to do whatever we can for those who do not have the means to do so themselves. Although my work with James and PDS wholeheartedly embodied helping others at all costs, such work is tiring and disheartening when such verdicts are rendered. Youths who have an incredibly bright future are placed in a system that treats them as though they are the criminals the system itself is supposed to help stop them from becoming. This paradox produces discouraged youths whose goals all too often shift from going to college and being successful to simply getting by on a daily basis in a troubled institution.
While driving out of DC after I clocked out of my last day, I was again visited by fear, nervousness, and excitement. Though this time I was scared to leave all the youth with whom I had become so close after several months, nervous that these young people would not get to where they wanted to go in life and excited about all that I had accomplished and learned in an incredible summer.