Today, I submitted my application for the Equal Justice Works Fellowship Program. My project (if it gets funding!) will set up a legal aid clinic at a drop-in shelter for homeless youth in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. What follows is the final draft of the personal statement for that application.
I was not a foster child. I did not escape poverty and return to help lift my community. I am the product of a stable, suburban California household – of accelerated learning, tutors, and a liberal arts education. My hardships have never touched the question of survival. As such, this fellowship proposal did not spring from personal experience but from a confluence of the old and the new: my commitment to service and the spark I felt working with homeless youth this summer.
In high school, apathy is always in vogue, and inspirational speeches are supposed to be treated with a certain skepticism. Luckily, I wasn’t a cool kid – I was an eager beaver, and post-orthodontics, I was just plain eager. So when the Jesuit priests said we were supposed to be Men for Others, living lives dedicated to agape, the unconditional love of our fellow man, I took that command seriously.
It wasn’t until college, though, that I began to understand what it meant to turn agape into action. My second year saw the end of things I thought were central to who I was: my academic and athletic performance faltered, and I realized that I didn’t want to be a doctor. This was a big deal in a family where phrases like “when you go to medical school” were part of dinner table conversation. I was left with a troubling question – if not medicine, then what? Whatever it was, I knew I wanted to do work centered on serving others.
This proved harder than I thought. Legislative work and government lawyering both felt distant from the people they benefitted. I felt attracted to legal aid, but pro bono projects hadn’t lit a fire in the way I’d expected. When I moved to Los Angeles to work for Public Counsel last summer, I was excited and terrified. If I didn’t feel that spark of passion there, the call to vocation I expected, I didn’t know what I would do.
Thankfully, one of my responsibilities was to help staff a clinic at My Friend’s Place (MFP), a drop-in shelter for homeless youth in Hollywood. I developed practical skills while working with homeless clients, negotiating with government agencies, and navigating a complex web of benefit programs. I also discovered two things about myself: a knack for establishing rapport with clients and an ability to stay composed under pressure. When a father of four grew angry after his aid was terminated, I deescalated the situation so he could get the help he needed. When a homeless diabetic could not advocate for himself due to mental illness, our rapport allowed me to successfully intervene on his behalf with a county worker.
In every client meeting, I saw personalities that reminded me of a friend or of myself – yet behavior that would have resulted in mere administrative punishment where I grew up led to arrests and court appearances for my clients. No one is giving these youth the benefit of the doubt, but they persevere with grace and grit, and I was buoyed by their optimism and the immediacy of helping them find ladders to success.
I have never experienced poverty in a way that threatens my future or my family’s, but working at My Friend’s Place has further cemented my belief that we must, as Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J. says, “[seek] a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” In this project, my desire to live out this compassion has found work which is both inspiring and badly needed in this community. I can’t wait to get started.