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'Color of Justice' kindles youth interest, encourages diversity in legal system

  • Author:
  • Updated: June 26, 2016
  • Published April 3, 2016

Learning by doing was part of an adventure that brought nearly 80 high school students from Anchorage and across Alaska to the Alaska Supreme Court in Anchorage. The concept is simple: A law-related education program designed to promote diversity in the legal profession through exposing high school students to legal training, exercises and active learning.

OK, we know what parents and teachers are thinking right now: How is that going to engage teenagers? Well, it's simple. The Color of Justice Program is all about collaboration, interactivity, interesting and controversial legal scenarios, personal growth ... and fun.

Color of Justice features sessions like MentorJet, which is based on speed dating, only with a legal mentor, where an experienced and enthusiastic lawyer or judge offers advice and guidance, or maybe just some cool war stories from the courtroom. One of the counselors providing the advice was Justice Dana Fabe, current justice and former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Another section is called Constitutional Cranium, based on a TV game show. There is a segment called "You Be the Judge," where teams compete for fun prizes after hearing various fact patterns and given the applicable laws, and are asked to predict how, and why, the judge ruled in those real-life cases. The program concludes with a grand mock trial exercise where the students are assigned various roles in an actual trial, such as prosecutors, defense counsel or witnesses, and try out their newly discovered legal talents in an actual courtroom, hoping to find that elusive "Matlock" moment.

Color of Justice was founded by the National Association of Women Judges in 2001. It has been active in Alaska since 2003. The goal of the program is to promote awareness about potential careers in law and the judiciary among Alaskan youth from groups traditionally underrepresented in the profession, including women and racial and ethnic minorities. In the last few years, the program has expanded from the Anchorage area to Sitka where it is held at Mt. Edgecumbe High School every other year.

Representatives from Gonzaga University School of Law, Seattle University School of Law, University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Washington School of Law attended this year's program. Supporters included the Alaska Bar Association, Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska Native Justice Center, Anchorage School District, Council on Legal Education Opportunity, Law School Admission Council, Northwest Indian Bar Association, and Rotary Club of East Anchorage. The Alaska Court System, UAA's Justice Center, and Cook Inlet Region Inc. hosted the program.

But this year a new, important piece was added. The "Color of Justice Rural Student Initiative" was created based upon the recognition that past Anchorage Color of Justice events lacked participation from Alaska Natives and other minorities from rural villages.

The Rural Student Initiative, funded entirely by 12 regional Native corporations, made it possible for 40 rural students from across Alaska to attend the program, and to meet and work closely with minority students from Anchorage.

Host families in Anchorage generously opened their homes to feed, lodge, and transport the students to the two days of activities. Cook Inlet Region Inc. employees spent hundreds of hours facilitating the travel logistics. The Rural Student Initiative also received support from the UAA Justice Center, the Multicultural Center, the Alaska Native Student Center, Alaska Native Studies Program, UAA Department of Anthropology, Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, the UAA Pre-Law Society, and the First Alaskans Institute.

Does the program work? Well Shaylin Garner from my hometown village of Chignik Lake and Arianna Otto of Kongiganak both said they were more interested in becoming a lawyer after the conference. Shaylin said, "Helping people is a good reason to go into law." A new career option for the right reason.

Justice Fabe describes Color of Justice this way: "Increasing diversity on the bench is important to fostering public trust and confidence in our justice system. This type of opportunity affirms for our young women and youth of color that the judiciary is a career path that is open to them."

All of the students who attended may not choose a career in the law. It's not easy. It requires a college degree, law school diploma, and passing the bar exam, among other sacrifices. But those who participated in Color of Justice went home with a better understanding of how our legal system defines rights and responsibilities and met a host of new friends and mentors from around the state, including lawyers and judges eager to offer their guidance. They heard something else, too, perhaps the most important lesson of all: Our legal system needs them.

Peter Boskofsky is a member of the Alaska Bar and serves as corporate counsel for Afognak Native Corp./Alutiiq, LLC. Peter is an Alaska Alutiiq Native and grew up in the Alutiiq village of Chignik Lake, 450 miles southwest of Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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