Funmi Akinnawonu ’20: 2020 George Barrett Social Justice Fellow, Mississippi Center for Justice, Jackson

Funmi Akinnawonu entered law school planning to pursue a public interest career. Her experiences at Vanderbilt–particularly her work in the Immigration Practice Clinic–solidified her interest. She spent the year after graduating from law school as a George Barrett Social Justice Fellow with the Mississippi Center for Justice in Jackson and is now a fellow with Immigrant ARC in New York.

“A clinic experience is helpful for everyone. Clinic work can be draining but it’s rewarding to actually know that the work that you’re doing is going to really help someone,” Akinnawonu said.

In addition to her work in the Immigration Practice Clinic, she was an intern at the ACLU of Tennessee and at the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center during law school.

At the MIssissippi Center for Justice, Akinnawonu represented underserved communities in immigration proceedings. “Every day was different,” she said. “It varied from talking to clients to putting together affidavits to figuring out what evidence I needed from clients.”

She credits the Immigration Practice Clinic with helping mitigate the steep learning curve of being a new public interest practitioner. “Some of the things I do now are things I have done before only because I spent time working in the Immigration Practice Clinic,” she said.

Akinnawonu believes that humanitarian-based immigration work is a racial justice issue. “All of my clients from the clinic, from the week I spent at the [SPLC] office during my 2L summer and during my work at the Mississippi Center for Justice, have been people of color from the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. To be a Black or Brown person with limited resources in need of immigration services, particularly in the South where there is a greater need for immigration lawyers, is to be extremely vulnerable. I am also very cognizant of the fact that the disproportionate policing of Black and Brown communities puts my clients at risk,” she said.

She advises current students interested in pursuing public interest careers to be very deliberate in gaining practical experience through clinic work and public interest externships. She recommends that law students ask themselves what value they can bring to a social justice organization and what is motivating them to pursue a public interest career. “I don’t think law school forces you to answer those questions, but you have to have them answered for yourself in order to figure out your career path,” she said.

Learn more about Mississippi Center for Justice.