Diksha Iyer | CIIP 2023 Blog Portfolio

Orientation Week

The most challenging thing about orientation this year was going in within the peer mentor role. I felt more apprehensive about orientation, like there was more that I could mess up since there were more eyes on me. I was nervous about having to direct/facilitate discussion, create a safe space for my mentees, and make sure that I was also reflecting on my unique experiences and positionality within the room. As a peer mentor, I had listened to all of the presentations before and had formed my own thoughts, opinions, and takeaways – therefore I assumed that I wouldn’t take much away from this week and the focus should be placed on making sure that my mentees benefit from this experience. However, I was surprised – orientation challenged me beyond what I thought I would be facing. I learned to be a better listener, an exuberant talker, and a comfort to myself and others. I wanted to ensure that my mentees were motivated to learn more about Baltimore, could see the value in the different perspectives brought by the various speakers, and apply their lived experiences as well as their reflections on orientation to their placement.
I particularly enjoyed the scavenger hunt – I think I was able to learn a lot more about the dynamics of my peer mentor group and see how we could all support each other and problem-solve. Funnily enough, I loved being able to create art with my mentees that described our feelings about Baltimore! We ended up creating a wacky collage that very much encapsulates all of the various personal experiences we have had with Baltimore: community gardening, music, sports, food, and social innovation. I had a great time seeing how my mentees expressed their experiences with Baltimore, and included each other’s visions in creating a greater piece of art.
While I was initially apprehensive about my ability to be a good peer mentor, I learned so much about facilitation, reflection, and my cohort through orientation that I feel like I’m on my way to being a better peer mentor!

Week 1

This week consisted mainly of getting acclimated to the space that I’ll be in this summer – I went to the nearby shops, tried out a few cafes and bakeries with my colleagues, and even got to go to the Baltimore City Circuit Court and file some motions! I never have gotten to see how the legal system works on the “backend” – my large understanding of it comes from an academic sense, where we get to postulate and argue about various different cases, arguments, ethical dilemmas, and philosophical statements. However, by getting to go to court, preparing various case documents and binders, and meeting with the clients of the organization, I was able to understand the “behind-the-scenes” work that happens in an attorney’s office and how it can contribute to the public service sector.
I also recently was able to attend a panel for veterans through the Pro Bono Resource Center, where we could learn more about the impact of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on veterans who had been dishonorably discharged from the military under that ruling and were therefore unable to claim benefits. I didn’t previously understand how complex and tight the law is regarding veteran’s rights, since they often are not covered in the media.
I now have also been exposed to the failings of the legal system, such as a reliance on physical, paper files, high cost of actually filing a motion, and high barriers to entry in the legal field (for example, the average person will not be able to afford an attorney for a case that may stretch over a longer period of time).
As to the last point, the average person requires several legal documents to be in order, such as IDs, wills, addresses, estates, power of attorney, etc. to be in order. This is especially significant for marginalized communities, who may be exploited by people in power through legal loopholes, such as the government claiming properties that had been kept in families throughout generations because of an incorrect will. In the case of LGBTQ+ couples who were previously not afforded the same benefits as heterosexual couples, the difficulties of retaining family wealth is especially pressing. It wasn’t until I was able to meet some of the clients at FSJ that I realized how being a member of the LGBTQ+ has effects on the legality of partnerships and can affect many aspects of our lives (child custody, parental rights, right to property, being someone’s agent/representative in a hospital setting, etc). Because many of our clients are low-income and/or simply do not understand how they can close these legal loopholes/ensure their rights are respected, FSJ provides essential services.

Week 2

The biggest challenge that I had to face this summer (at my placement so far) is the lethargy that I feel every morning and evening. I think that a large part of this is derived from the isolation that springs up each summer when I’m not interacting with my peers as frequently or I have to plan an outing to see them. I feel less motivated to socialize with other people, and find it easier to just revert to being remote all the time. However, while being remote does have its benefits (for one, I can do my laundry during the day and cook myself a fresh lunch and use the bigger monitors that I have), it also makes it difficult for me to focus on the task at hand, since I immediately fixate on the random things throughout the room, or I stop a task once it gets too difficult since I am not immediately able to consult my colleagues. I also generally have been feeling pretty tired and removed from the work that I am doing (through no fault of my partner, they have been doing a great job in making me feel included and appreciated!) but I think that the removal from the schedule of school, the terrible weather, and the aimless/lost feeling that comes with the summer has contributed to this feeling. It’s been a challenge to get up in the morning to get ready for work, but I genuinely enjoy the work once I’m in the thick of it. I just find that it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the other tasks that come with living such as cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and looking presentable in front of other people (etc.). Working remote sometimes alleviates and sometimes exacerbates these struggles and I honestly think it is because I depend on routine to manage myself. Without a schedule, I find that I just rely on my books and my TV shows and isolate myself because I don’t know what else to do. I need to create a schedule like I did last year; for example, going to the gym every Thursday evening, or heading to a new music store every Saturday morning helps reduce my tiredness and make me feel like I achieved something. Taking a daily walk has proved to be extremely helpful, especially when I break down the steps I need to take before going out on a walk (for example, make myself breakfast, wash my face, change my clothes, etc).


Week 3

As I assumed, it took me the first week to really get used to the new workplace that I was now a part of and establish my weekly schedule. What I like about FSJ is their flexibility regarding my schedule – no singular day is the same at all. If fact, I never know what I’m going to be doing until I walk in (except for the meetings already posted on my calendar). Each week we have a legal team meeting (usually on Thursdays) which can go up to 2 hours long but leaves me completely enraptured the entire time. The attorneys at FSJ discuss the variety of cases that we need to work on: worker discrimination, name changes, divorces, and settling wills, for example. Describing a case and brainstorming it together using our lived experiences and legal exposure is refreshing, because I am able to see the “behind-the-scenes” glamour of law firms. I used to not know how lawyers would construct their arguments, comb through evidence, prepare investigations, and use these experiences to construct policy platforms. I have to say I still don’t really know. For example, many of these policy platforms were foreign to me, because I had never experienced the negative consequences of them, and had previously believed that if the policy didn’t directly affect me or the larger system that I operated within, then it was not something that I should dedicate my time to understanding (especially if it might challenge the constructs that I have). However, through the discussions with various policy coalitions (like the decriminalization of HIV coalition), I was able to get a more well-rounded understanding of how these policies impact vulnerable populations in ways that aren’t completely clear.

My job allows me to learn about the daily tasks of a law firm: drafting legal documents, preparing timelines for investigators, liaising with clients to provide clarity on their statements, preparing trial binders, as well as opening and closing statements, etc. (essentially, there’s a plethora of tasks to complete). However, with FSJ being an advocacy organization, I also learn about how to find and analyze policy for detrimental impacts, construct policy platforms that positively impact disadvantaged populations, prepare and disseminate this information to grow a grassroots movement, collaborate with other organizations to create coalitions, and educate lawmakers on how these policies can impact their constituents (and eventually persuade them to support our cause). I didn’t know how rewarding I could find advocacy to be – I had previously found it to be a really emotionally draining and tiring line of work. However, I find that I belong in this world of policy analysis and legal team meetings. I truly enjoy hearing others talk about their cases, because it helps me challenge my worldview and also makes me feel grateful for the opportunity I have to touch and learn from others.

Week 4

Because of July 4th, we had reduced hours this week – and a much-needed recharge from the entire month of Pride. While I loved being able to work at the various booths and hear about the stories of different individuals within the LGBTQ+ (and see how my interests in Public Health, Economics, and Law intersect within this community), I was EXHAUSTED and took a trip up to Boston for the five day weekend!
At a recent PBRC event, we were able to consider meeting with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on rectifying the status of veterans less-than-honorably discharged from the military for being members of the LGBTQ+ community. Being dishonorably discharged immediately cuts off individuals from receiving healthcare benefits from the VA, for example, which is a direct example of how policy can impact the health of a vulnerable population. This example was one of the first in which I was able to start connecting what we do on a daily basis with the larger public health context.
My goals, in this case, really channel the public health interests that I have: I want to craft research projects that examine our impact on our clients through tactics similar to legal epidemiology. I want to collect data on our clients, organize and clean it, and start to analyze it for various trends, such as issues that they are coming in for, their average education, race, age, location within Maryland, etc. Having their information can allow us to be more educated in our outreach efforts and have more measurable impacts on our community. Furthermore, when arguing for a particular policy, we need to have evidence that it is helpful, or argue that the current law is harmful, which goes beyond witness testimonies. Statistics are largely what drives lawmakers towards a particular course of action, and being able to gather data on LGBTQ+ communities through FSJ’s outreach and legal work has been extremely helpful since LGBTQ+ communities already are lacking in data. In this way, we hope to contribute to the larger public health context by both gathering data to contribute to public health discussions, and analyzing it to have meaningful impacts on the health of the community we service, whether that be physical, psychological, etc.

This placement has made me feel more hopeful about the connection between law and public health. Though I was aware of public health policy (such as insurance policy and interactions between hospitals and their surrounding communities), I did not initially see how advocacy groups that work to amend legal wrongs against vulnerable populations could also contribute to the public health space. I love working with data but I also love analyzing policy. I have expanded my goals to learn how to educate others on policies such as HIV decriminalization through policy analysis and data collection and analysis. It is a perfect combination of qualitative and quantitative data analysis that I would like to take into my career. I still would like to go to law school, but would not like to ever actually argue for something in court, so that’s a change in the goals that I had going into the summer. Rather, I would like to use my law degree to advocate for policies, advise lawmakers, and perform studies using legal epidemiology. This summer has definitely shown me what I would like to have in the future for my career: a non-litigious lawyer who uses their experience with the law to track its impact on the health of vulnerable populations. I understand so much more about how seemingly logical policies are actually harmful against LGBTQ+ populations because of the way in which they are enforced. I would not know about those had I not planned to engage with the community through my data collection efforts. Therefore, in my future career, I will prioritize being able to engage with the community I would like to impact.

Week 5

At this internship, I have learned how to explore the various pathways available to people interested in the law, how to collaborate with other organizations and movements to create intersectional coalitions, and how nonprofits operate. Nonprofits often have to worry about qualifications and documentation that normal corporations would not have to do, and they hold a service to their communities that a normal law firm would not have to consider (such as policy platforms and advocacy, community engagement and outreach, etc). These approaches inform much of the work that my colleagues do – while I have learned how a law firm typically operates in terms of drafting legal documents, going through the order of business with the court, and communicating with clients, I also realized that the nonprofit nature of our work allows us to have a wonderful connection with the people that we serve – I meet the families of our clients, hear their stories, and help them achieve their goals. Furthermore, our nonprofit status allows us to advocate for policies that affect our clients. From this, I have learned to look at the bigger picture of the intersectionality between the various causes in Maryland such as reproductive justice and environmental justice, for example. I used to be more narrow-minded when analyzing the causes of an issue, like putting blinders over my eyes so I couldn’t see the lines and paths intersecting and weaving their way through each other while also simultaneously trapping vulnerable populations within cages of societal expectations, discrimination, and inequitable access to resources. FreeState Justice has taught me how to remove to blinders and see the web of intersecting determinants of health to dissect the impact of policies and see how we could package together various goals from different organizations. Working with different organizations and policy advocates in the nonprofit space has allowed me to become more connected with the community that we serve and understand the perspectives of other communities that we may not otherwise directly interact with. It’s a really eye-opening and encourages self-reflection on my biases and previous knowledge.
Week 7
Intersectionality consistently impacts the work that we do at FreeState Justice. Collaboration with other organizations and recognition of different lived experiences inform the policy platforms we develop. The clients we serve are multi-faceted – they aren’t just members of the LGBTQ+ community. They have racial, socioeconomic, political, and personal identities that make up their complex selves. We can’t fully represent or defend a community without understanding the myriad of ways in which they can be impacted. When developing policy platforms we need to understand how policies that may not immediately seem like they impact our mission could have devastating impacts on our communities.
For example, one of the first experiences that I had with FreeState Justice was at a veteran’s conference organized by the ProBono Resource Center. I have talked previously about how this conference taught me about the struggles that LGBTQ+ veterans face, especially from discriminatory bans and policies like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. From this, I was able to understand how the different identities of our clients can cause policies to affect them in different ways and thus, indicate that they require different types of resources. Because some of our clients may be veterans, they may require assistance with addressing a dishonorable discharge. This will differ from services we may give to someone who requires a name and gender designation change. At FreeState, we need to collaborate with lawyers who understand military law and understand their arguments and perspectives to realize how being a veteran informs our client’s experiences.
Another experience I had with FreeState in which I was able to work a Pride event. While engaging with the other organizations that were present at Pride, I realized how we can support the needs of the LGBTQ+ community, and how that expands beyond just recognition of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Some of the organizations offered resources on teaching cooking and healthy eating, expungements, housing, addiction resources, and even jump roping (to encourage exercise). We provide legal services to aid a person’s navigation of their personal identity within a very intrusive and reaffirming system. There are so many aspects of a person’s life (including their built environment, educational opportunities, and socioeconomic status) that impact what resources they will need, and at FreeState Justice, we need to collaborate with other organizations to provide resources that support each facet of the clients we aim to serve.