SEATTLE -- Applauded for her determination and dedication to social justice, Hilary Hammell ’12 is the first graduate in the history of the University of Washington School of Law to receive a highly competitive Skadden Fellowship. The award, announced in December, will support Hammell’s work enforcing the civil rights obligations of California charter schools to adequately serve high-need, low-income student populations.
“We want to ensure that the charter schools are making themselves available to those who need them most, and that low-income students are not excluded,” said Hammell. Her research shows that while California has more low-income minority students than any other state, white students dominate attendance rolls in most major metropolitan charters. Particularly underserved are English Language Learners and special-needs students.
“Some members of low-income or immigrant communities mistake these publicly funded charters for ‘private’ schools. There is not universal awareness that all children are eligible to attend charters,” said Hammell. “We want to help high-need students get in the door.”
Hammell, a William H. Gates Public Service Law Scholar, joined UW Law in 2009. In her three years here, she lobbied successfully to have two courses on feminist jurisprudence added to the curriculum and founded the International Human Rights Clinic. “I love the feeling of the UW Law School. It’s an intimate, collaborative, exciting place to be – a place where students can develop their own agendas for research and activism, and feel wholly supported by the school in pursuing their passions,” she said.
Hammell is one of 29 fellows chosen for the 2013 Skadden Fellowship Program, which provides funding for graduating law students and judicial clerks who want to pursue public interest work. This year’s Fellows are tackling everything from human trafficking and tenant’s rights to coal mining safety. “We chose Hilary because her face lit up when she talked about the client,” said Susan Butler Plum, Director of the Skadden Foundation. “We chose her because she is enormously bright and committed to public interest work. We chose her because she graduated near the top of her class at a school that had never received a Skadden Fellowship.”
The two-year Fellowship funds Hammell’s salary at the San Francisco offices of Public Advocates, the non-profit law firm that served as co-lead-counsel on the seminal Williams v. California case. A 2004 settlement in the case established that students of all backgrounds must have equal access to proper supplies, safe schools, and qualified teachers.
Public Advocates is now entering the emerging field of charter school equity, and its directors saw Hammell as a good match for the work. “Hilary stood out among law students for her imagination, tenacity, and impressive record of seeing things through to success. Her depth of experience working in schools and with immigrant populations makes her a perfect fit for our charter school equity project,” said Jamienne S. Studley, President and CEO of Public Advocates Inc.
Hammell, 30, is both multilingual and multi-talented, with a myriad of interests. She enjoys rock climbing and is a certified ski instructor. She graduated from Yale University in 2004 with a B.A. in Fine Arts, majoring in graphic design. “I see similarities between graphic design and the law,” she said. “They’re both about persuasive communication to a specific audience.”
As an undergraduate at Yale, Hammell taught part-time in the New Haven public school system, where she witnessed “dramatic socioeconomic and racial injustices” that fired her passion for classroom justice. In 2006, she traveled to Honduras to work with the non-profit Bilingual Education for Central America (BECA). There, she met a bright ninth-grader with few resources and helped him win a scholarship to an elite private boarding school in Delaware.
That student is now at the University of Delaware, studying International Relations. “He succeeded beyond our wildest dreams,” said Hammell, who served as the boy’s guardian. “But stories like his are only heartwarming because they highlight the inequitable context that surrounds them. It should not be heartwarming for a kid from a poor community to go to a great school. The fact that it is shows that something is wrong.”
The idea of using the law to battle such big-scale, deep-rooted problems drew Hammell from the classroom to the courtroom, and to her first position as a legal assistant at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York. “I found that I absolutely loved legal briefs and legal analysis. You just tell a story about one person -- your client. You tell it to one audience, the judge or court or jury. If you tell it persuasively, you win. And it can create massive systemic change.
“That’s the kind of communication I want to do. I haven’t looked back.”
Hammell recently passed the State Bar of California and is serving as a law clerk for Judge Stephanie Seymour on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. She’ll return to the Bay Area in fall to begin her work with Public Advocates.
Her first task will be to investigate, identify, and document those charters violating civil rights obligations under federal and state statutes. “We’ll work with grassroots partners – parents from vulnerable communities who are concerned about unequal educational resources,” said Hammell.
The legal team will address violations through direct representation of clients and through impact cases that enforce and strengthen the rights of all students, regardless of race or income or special needs, to access high-quality charter schools.
It’s an ambitious agenda, but Hammell is undaunted. “That’s the beauty of the Skadden Fellowship,” she said. “You’re not juggling a dozen different priorities. You can focus 100 percent on your task.”