PUBLISHED:December 12, 2011

Caitlin Swain '12 and Joanna Darcus '12 land prestigious public interest fellowships

Classmates, colleagues, and friends, Caitlin Swain and Joanna Darcus each have a passion for public interest work that predates their meeting at Duke Law and the shared goal of making it the focus of their careers.

Both have received prestigious post-graduate fellowships to get them started.

Swain has received a Skadden Fellowship to provide legal support to grassroots organizations in North Carolina that work with at-risk youth to enforce their constitutional right to a quality education. The two-year fellowship will support her work for the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based policy, communications, and legal action organization that facilitates community-based racial justice initiatives. In North Carolina she will partner with Advocates for Children’s Services, a statewide project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, and the NAACP to target the systemic under-education of poor students of color, which sustains the “school-to-prison” pipeline.

(Read more about Swain's fellowship here.)

Darcus has received a one-year fellowship from the Independence Foundation to work with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia to combat abusive debt collection practices on multiple fronts: through the direct representation of low-income Philadelphians who are facing abusive debt collection practices; by enhancing the capacity of the private bar to provide legal services to these individuals; and through policy reform initiatives with local and national partners.

(Read more about Darcus' fellowship here.)

Both came to Duke Law after working with public interest and civil rights organizations. Darcus joined the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia after graduating from Williams College, where she helped represent children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, and worked on local, state, and national policy reform around children’s rights issues. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Swain worked for the NAACP in North Carolina and the Kentucky Commission on Civil Rights for five years, in each position working on domestic issues of inequality through the lens of human rights.

The two students brought their passions for social justice and their organizational skills to public interest initiatives both in and out of their Duke Law classrooms. The Innocence Project has been a particular focus for both. Swain and Darcus served on investigatory teams and as outreach coordinators as 1Ls, and as training director and case manager, respectively, as 2Ls; Swain currently serves as the Innocence Project’s student director and Darcus as its managing director. Among other extracurricular activities, Darcus also helps low-income citizens prepare tax returns through Duke’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, volunteer service she has engaged in consistently since her undergraduate days. Swain has served as co-chair of the Human Rights Law Society.

Each has taken advantage of clinical and skills-based classes to deepen professional skill-sets in their areas of interest. For Darcus, that has included representation of clients in the Children’s Law Clinic and enrollment in the Community Enterprise Clinic for the spring semester and, like Swain, participation in a pilot Human Rights Advocacy seminar as a 2L that engaged students international human rights work. In addition to representing clients through the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, Swain also participated, as a 2L, in an ad hoc seminar which involved students in developing statutory provisions to reform Haitian laws pertaining to domestic violence and violence against women.

Their summer work has reflected their interests and, for each, laid the groundwork for their post-graduate projects. After spending her 1L summer with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, Swain spent last summer working on racial and educational equity issues for the Advancement Project, building key partnerships in North Carolina in the process. She received both a Steckley-Weitzel Fellowship and a Horvitz Public Law Fellowship to fund her 1L summer work, and a Dean’s Summer Service Grant in her 2L summer.

During her 1L summer, Darcus worked in the Consumer Law Unit of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, where she will return as an Independence Fellow. During her 2L summer she worked in the Community Development Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C. She received support from the Carroll-Simon Fellowship fund both summers and also received an education award from Equal Justice Works as a 1L Equal Justice Works Summer Corps member.

“Both Caitlin and Joanna have demonstrated a commitment to building careers in social justice from their earliest days in the Law School,” said Assistant Dean for Public Interest and Pro Bono Kim Bart ’02. “They are both effective and energetic leaders who are greatly admired and respected by their classmates and have worked to develop strong sets of skills and experiences that will serve them well in their careers. I have no doubt that both will go on to do big things in their careers, bringing about important and good changes to law and policy that will improve the lives of their clients, as well as the communities in which they live.”

As they look forward to launching careers focused on social equity and justice, both Swain and Darcus say they are grateful for the opportunities and support they have found at Duke Law — from Bart, from professors and mentors, peers, the dean, and members of the alumni community whose philanthropy funds summer public interest work.

“I think it’s fantastic that both summers I was able to get funding from Duke to do the work I otherwise would not have been able to afford to do,” said Darcus. “And I found a strong community of folks interested in public interest here, as well as opportunities to get involved as a student. That’s what I was looking for when I came to Duke and that’s what I found when I got here.”

“I’ve really been able to take advantage of great opportunities the Law School has offered — and I’ve had an embarrassment of riches in this regard,” said Swain. “The fact that both summers I was able to do public interest work could not have been possible without the dean’s scholarship and without Duke’s commitment to secure funding for students who are committed to doing this sort of work. For me, that played a huge role in getting the notice of the Skadden Fellowship Foundation — they want to see a serious and sustained commitment to public interest work.

“I think these fellowships represent a sort of culmination of Dean Levi’s investment in public interest in this law school,” she added. “He’s made public interest a priority in a way that has been very felt by the students. Dean Bart talks about the Office of Public Interest and Pro Bono as being located in the heart of the Law School. That’s certainly been true for me.”