At Duke Law, spring break means public service

March 5, 2010Duke Law News

March 5, 2010 — Ten Duke Law students will spend their spring break in Brazil, conducting research relating to land rights and socio-economic development of Quilombos, traditional communities descended from Afro-Brazilian slaves. The March 7-12 trip is an integral part of the students’ self-organized seminar on international social justice and legal services for which Professor Laurence Helfer, an expert in international law whose research includes a focus on the intersections of human rights and intellectual property, is the faculty adviser.

“We have a passionate group of students with a diverse range of interests,” says Noah Browne, a second-year law student who helped organize the seminar. “The issue of land rights in Brazil particularly appealed to us because it cuts across various areas of law — from environmental to human rights law. We've been working intensively in our seminar to prepare for the trip, and all of us are extremely excited to work hand-in-hand with Quilombo communities and local NGOs.”

During their weeklong trip, students will work with their counterparts at Fundação Gertulio Vargas Direito Rio (FGV), one of Brazil’s leading law schools, and will meet with representatives of NGOs and government agencies engaged in issues relating to Quilombola land claims. The NGOs include Koinonia, a nonprofit that assists indigenous communities in Brazil to gain land title and improve their educational, health and living conditions. The students also will visit the Alto da Serra community in Lidice in Rio de Janeiro province, and meet with representatives of five other neighboring Quilombola communities.

The students’ trip and meetings have been arranged with the assistance of Global Imprints, an organization that specializes in international service learning experiences on issues of sustainability, social justice, poverty alleviation, and economic development.

“Quilombola communities in Brazil face many challenges. Brazil is in the vanguard of countries in Latin America in recognizing the importance of collective land rights to the economic development of former slave communities and the preservation of their distinctive culture, says Helfer, who will travel with the students and who co-directs Duke Law’s Center for International and Comparative Law, which is helping to fund the trip. “The seminar, trip, and partnerships with Brazilian law students and advocacy organizations allow students to provide concrete legal assistance to these communities and to bring insights from the field into the classroom.”

The students’ final report will include a comparison of Quilombola communities with similarly situated indigenous and former slave communities elsewhere in the Latin America.

Southern Justice Spring Break Trip
Continuing a Duke Law tradition, more than 40 students will spend spring break working with community and legal services organizations across the South, providing much-needed assistance to those in need. They will participate in 11 different legal services projects, including a new wills and estates pro bono project for low-income clients through North Carolina Legal Aid.

Since the first Southern Justice Spring Break trip in March 2003, Duke Law students have spent their breaks in New Orleans, Jackson, Miss., Prestonburg Ky., Ft. Worth, Texas, and Atlanta, working on public interest and pro bono relief projects, gutting and rebuilding houses, helping to file FEMA claims, providing legal research to local attorneys and legal aid organizations, and assisting with community projects.

To prepare for the largely self-funded trip, student leaders work with organizations in each location to secure housing and weeklong work assignments.

“For many students, the Southern Justice Spring Break trip is an opportunity to give back to the larger community, and also serves as a reminder why they came to law school,” says Kim Bart, assistant dean for public interest and pro bono.