Growing up in North Oakland, Arienna Grody learned how money, ZIP codes and skin color can imbalance the scales of justice.
She saw signs of inequity even as a student attending a private school, a privilege made possible by her mother who sacrificed to afford the tuition.
If one of Grody’s friends from school got caught taking something from someone, a teacher would ask the friend to simply give it back. But when a friend from the neighborhood where she grew up did something similar, he would get charged with robbery.
Seeing how teachers and cops would criminalize teenage mistakes made by poor people of color is the primary reason why the third-year student at the UCLA School of Law is headed to Birmingham, Alabama, after she graduates this spring as the winner of the first UCLA Gideon’s Promise Fellowship.
Launched last November, the fellowship places a student from UCLA in a public defender’s office located in high-need community in the South. As the first law school in the country to establish such a fellowship, UCLA partnered with the nonprofit Gideon’s Promise, which is an organization dedicated to promoting high-quality representation for people unable to afford an attorney. Following UCLA’s lead, other top law schools have begun to create similar fellowships in partnership with Gideon’s Promise.
“I don’t believe in punishing people for things that are beyond their control,” said the 26-year-old Grody, who will receive a permanent position in Birmingham after her fellowship is over. “When we make stealing a huge affront to society, but don’t find it offensive to create circumstances where people have no legitimate means to support themselves, what we’re doing is criminalizing circumstances.”
As another feature of the fellowship, Grody will receive the Gideon’s Promise signature Core 101 training: a three-year program that offers tools to help provide better representation to public clients. “A key insight of the program is the provision of intensive training for new attorneys, along with leadership development to create leaders in the field,” said professor Ingrid Eagly, who worked with Gideon’s Promise to create the fellowship along with Dean Rachel Moran, and who was Grody’s faculty mentor in the UCLA David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy. “UCLA Law is uniquely situated to initiate this new partnership, given the school’s strong clinical program, the Critical Race Studies Specialization, and the Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy.”
As a teenager, Grody saw differences in the way people were treated. When police caught Grody and her friends from around her neighborhood violating a curfew, they would ask her, the only white girl, whether she was OK and needed a ride home. Her friends, on the other hand, got patted down.
While Grody’s neighborhood friends were beginning to cycle in and out of the juvenile justice system, she naively saw their dependence on public defenders as one reason for their failure. “I thought if you could get Johnnie Cochran, everything would be OK, right?” said Grody, who, for the first time, thought about becoming a lawyer to defend the poor. “This taught me that if you’re rich, everything’s OK.”
Though her family wasn’t rich, Grody took advantage of opportunities available to her. For example, she participated in a community violence prevention program based at the Destiny Arts Center in Oakland. Destiny stands for de-escalation skills training inspiring non-violence in youth.
Guided by her college counselor, Grody went to Goucher College, a small liberal arts college in Baltimore. But even while enjoying her collegiate adventure, Grody said she never managed to shake the feeling that she was supposed to bring Oakland with her as she progressed.
“When you’re as lucky as I was, you have a responsibility to give back, not only to the people who helped you get where you were going, but more importantly to the disadvantaged members of your community — the ones who didn’t get where they were going and the ones who were never going anywhere,” Grody wrote in her application essay for the UCLA Gideon’s Promise fellowship.
After graduation, Grody returned to Oakland to teach at the arts center while also working another part-time job as a researcher on juvenile justice reform at Books Not Bars, an organization based out of the non-profit Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and dedicated to reforming the California juvenile prison system. Among the statistics that distressed her and pointed her toward law school was that more than 90 percent of minors in the juvenile justice system come from families living below the poverty line. Grody’s work researching the criminal justice system helped her realize that blaming the public defenders for her friends’ outcomes in court gave her an incomplete perspective that didn’t account for the way the system is set up to funnel poor people of color into it.
Grody chose UCLA School of Law because of its Critical Race Studies Program and the public interest law program. The critical race studies program, which requires that students examine and critique the connections among race, ethnicity and law, is the only one of its kind in the country.
Incorporating critical race theory into her legal education has helped her see more clearly why the justice system intrinsically favored her when she was a teenager, she said.
“[There’s a] tendency for white people to not see themselves in racial terms,” Grody said. “Rather, they view themselves and their experiences as the norm, and they see no problem with criminalizing deviance from that norm without exploring the root causes of that deviance.”
Applying what she had learned in the classroom, Grody interned at two public defenders’ offices. She spent her summers working with juveniles, sexually violent predators and in the misdemeanors office in Alameda County. During the academic year, she spent 16 hours a week working both in juvenile and felony courts in Los Angeles County.
Along with a group of law students, Grody established a program that has UCLA law students working with people serving life sentences who are eligible for parole.
“Arienna possesses a rare blend of fierce intelligence, outstanding personality and deep-rooted passion for criminal defense work,” wrote law professor Jyoti Nanda in recommending Grody for the fellowship. “I have no doubt that she will excel one day as an advocate for our nation’s most marginalized communities.”
Nanda wrote that Grody’s experiences enable her to “skillfully … relate the legal issues to the ‘real-world’ — a skill that often is lost among most law students.” Of the hundreds of recommendations she’s given students, Nanda said Grody’s was the easiest to write.
Ultimately, Grody said she wants the legal system to become more understanding of people’s circumstances, and society to recognize its role in creating a struggling underclass. She remains optimistic that people willing to reach out can turn things around for kids and adults.
“I’ve watched kids who have been labeled as ‘bad kids’ blossom when I did simple things to show them I cared,” Grody said of her experience at the Destiny Arts Center. “But I also care about adults. I’m too stubborn to believe that it’s ever too late to help a person.”