The Sheller Center for Social Justice at the Beasley School of Law connects law students with people and organizations involved with social justice throughout Philadelphia.
The center, which Provost JoAnne Epps came up with while she was still dean of the law school, has been running since 2013 to provide pro-bono representation to clients.
The center was named after Stephen and Sandra Sheller, who pledged a $1.5 million gift in 2012 to support the legal office. The Board of Trustees approved $500,000 of the future pledge payments by the couple to be fully spendable by the office at its meeting on Oct. 10. The center was recently relocated from the Student Center to the fourth floor of Klein Hall.
But what does the Sheller Center actually do, and what are its recent projects?
WHAT IS THE SHELLER CENTER FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE?
It is comprised of two clinics: the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic and the Justice Lab, which both provide students with experiential learning in their field by allowing them to represent clients. In these clinics, some students represent low-wage workers and immigrants, while others create campaigns and services to make advocacy more accessible.
Co-Legal Director Jennifer Lee, who teaches at the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, said students in her clinic represent workers in wage-theft cases who haven’t been paid fully or at all.
Students in the lawyering clinic have taken cases across industries. They have represented construction workers, laundromat and restaurant employees. Students file complaints and write demand letters, question witnesses and even go through hearings with their clients.
“In those cases, students act like traditional lawyers do when [clients] may need help negotiating a case, or they take it to court,” Lee said.
Throughout a semester, students also take on advocacy projects in collaboration with, or on behalf of a community social justice organization. She said these projects often focus on systemic reform issues.
Students in either clinic, which contain eight students, earn six credits each.
The Sheller Center is involved in other community-oriented projects. In partnership with North Philadelphia community organization Ceiba, law students that are trained by tax law professors to work with low-income Philadelphia residents to properly file their taxes.
The center also offers a student disciplinary advocacy service in which law students work with Philadelphia families whose children are facing disciplinary action at school. Law students help families navigate disciplinary hearings and, in some cases, even attend them.
WHAT ARE RECENT PROJECTS BY THE SHELLER CENTER?
As the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy has been threatened by President Donald Trump’s administration to deport illegal immigrants who came to the United States early in their childhood, the Sheller Center has made itself a resource to Temple students and community members who may be affected.
“I think there was actually a pretty fantastic response from the local community here in terms of providing people with legal resources and information sessions,” Lee said. “The best thing we thought we could do was be a resource for those issues in terms of making sure that people on campus knew that there were all these clinics going on and where they could call.”
In March 2017, the Justice Lab students wrote a report that the city’s Department of Human Services filed lawsuits against parents to recover the cost for the time their child was incarcerated, almost always targeting low-wage parents. The report was addressed during a City Council hearing, which the students attended.
Students also recently partnered with the Youth Organizing Project of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition to determine a way to protect children from immigration raids and create an accepting environment in schools. Students created a toolkit that is now available on the Sheller Center’s website for people interested in presenting this issue to their local school districts.
WHAT DO LAW STUDENTS THINK OF THE SHELLER CENTER?
Rebecca Daily, a third-year law student and co-author of “Pennsylvania Workers in Jeopardy: The Hidden Problem of Temporary Employment”, said the Sheller Center provides students with real-life lawyering experience.
“I think the Sheller Center tries to expand Temple law students’ idea of what lawyering looks like and also what tools a lawyer has at their fingertips,” Daily said. “A lawyer might have a reputation for wanting to litigate, get into a situation and tell people what to do, but the Sheller Center is all about collaboration and listening to a community’s needs and coming up with creative solutions.”
Anne Bonfiglio, a third-year law student who took Lee’s clinic during her second year, said she thinks the Sheller Center is a good tool for law students because it gets them outside the classroom.
“I feel like the Sheller Center tries to be responsive to things that come up in the news,” Daily said. “The professors are really plugged into the community. I feel like they know so many people at different nonprofits.”
WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF THE SHELLER CENTER?
Program Coordinator Len Rieser said the Sheller Center aims to increase its interdisciplinary interactions with other university departments and strengthen the community connection between the center and community residents near Main Campus.
“The law school exists in its own space and sometimes it’s hard for other people to figure out how they could connect with it,” Rieser said. “Certainly some of the projects that students have done have been relevant to the needs of North Philadelphia, but I think it would be nice if we could create an even closer connection. More networking, more joint projects, more service to this community.”