Systems Change Mentoring

One of the most enjoyable parts of my legal practice has been the opportunity to mentor dozens of law students who have clerked for me over the past 30+ years. Many of these students have gone on to become successful public interest attorneys and I believe that their experience working for me helped guide them along their path towards obtaining justice for those who need it most.

Earlier this week, one of my former law clerks filled me with pride as she took an important disability issue to the national stage when she asked Hillary Clinton a great question during a campaign speech she gave at the University of Wisconsin.

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I first encountered Nicki Vander Meulen when she was a public school student in Walworth County, Wisconsin. Her parents sought my assistance because her school district wanted to place her in the county’s segregated school (Lakeland) which educated only children with disabilities in a program that was not designed for students to prepare them for college, but instead for a life of continued institutionalization and segregation. Nicki’s parents knew that she was capable of much more than Lakeland had to offer, and I was able to help them keep Nicki in regular public school in an inclusive setting, and she successfully graduated high school.

Years later, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Nicki was attending the University of Wisconsin Law School (something I am quite sure no Lakeland attendee has ever done). She applied to be my intern and I gladly accepted her application.

During Nicki’s tenure as my law clerk, she conducted the research and with my assistance, wrote the first version of the bill that ultimately became Act 125, which forbids the inappropriate use of seclusion & restraint on Wisconsin’s school children. Nicki drafted a bill that was better than the bill that ultimately passed, and set the standard for 12 years of negotiations that led to Act 125’s ultimate passage. The bill she drafted was only sponsored by then Assemblyman (now Congressman) Mark Pocan, and did not even get a hearing. But, we had to start somewhere, and Nicki set the bar high. Systems change always starts with high aspirations and setting the bar high helps to assure a reasonable outcome in the end, which is exactly what happened.

Nicki graduated from law school in 2004 and has maintained a successful private practice as a public defender and advocating for children with disabilities and many others. She periodically calls me for advice and I gladly continue to mentor her and occasionally refer cases to her.

But Nicki takes her work as a systems change agent seriously and knows that systems change goes beyond her paid work as an attorney. So, when she had the opportunity to ask Hillary Clinton an important question at a campaign event, she broke important ground.

As you can see in this video (starting at the 47 minute mark), Nicki openly declares her disability pride  when introduces herself as a lawyer who is on the autism spectrum. She then asks Sec. Clinton what she would do about the sub-minimum wage which is paid to people with disabilities who work at sheltered workshops such as Goodwill, and further, what Sec. Clinton would do to create better employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Clinton answered by acknowledging that it was time to get rid of the subminimum wage in its entirety both for people with disabilities, and other low wage workers, such as restaurant employees who receive tips.

Nicki’s question and Secretary Clinton’s answer quickly received national attention, as The Atlantic published Clinton’s Case Against the Subminimum Wage crediting a “young lawyer with autism” for asking for Clinton’s opinion about this antiquated Depression era exemption to the minimum wage. The article goes on to credit Clinton with being the only Presidential candidate to speak out on this issue, which may not have happened if Nicki had not asked this important question.

Of course, the Presidential campaign is far from over, and even if Sec. Clinton does become President Clinton, much work will need to be done to end the antiquated and discriminatory subminimum wage. However, Nicki started the national conversation in a way that has never been done before, and she will deserve credit for her role in ending the subminimum wage whenever that happens, just as she deserves credit for crafting the first version of the Wisconsin seclusion and restraint law.

I am confident that Nicki will continue to be a successful systems change agent and I am glad that I have played a role mentoring her.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.