Holly Thompson and Vanessa Zapata named George Barrett Social Justice Fellows for 2019

Holly Thompson and Vanessa Zapata are Vanderbilt Law School’s 2019 George Barrett Social Justice Fellows. The one-year fellowships are awarded annually through the George Barrett Social Justice Program to up to two members of the graduating class who plan to launch careers in the public interest.

Their fellowship appointments were announced by Dean Chris Guthrie.

In an application process similar to the prestigious Skadden Fellowships, applicants for the Barrett Fellowship propose one-year projects at a legal nonprofit organization. Thompson will spend her year at Legal Aid of North Carolina, where she will focus on labor trafficking of migrant farmworkers. Zapata will advocate for individuals with intellectual and development disabilities as an attorney with the Tennessee Justice Center in Nashville.

During her 2L year, Thompson was a 2017-18 Douglass Fellow at the Human Trafficking Institute, where she was a member of the inaugural class of fellows in a program launched to support the HTI’s efforts to provide clear, data-driven materials to scholars and criminal justice attorneys fighting human trafficking. She worked as an intern in the criminal section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., in summer 2018.

Before entering law school, Thompson worked part-time with an anti-trafficking organization, A21. That experience influenced her decision to earn a law degree with the goal of providing legal advocacy for victims of human trafficking. Thompson earned her undergraduate degree at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. At VLS, where she was a Chancellor’s Law Scholar, she also worked as a legal intern with the International Justice Mission in La Paz, Bolivia; with Southern Migrant Legal Services in Nashville; and with the Juvenile Division of the Nashville Public Defenders.

“Trafficking is an issue I’ve been passionate about for a long time,” Thompson said. “At North Carolina Legal Aid, I’ll be seeking immigration relief for trafficking victims who are migrant farmworkers, working on forced labor cases, and developing creative litigation strategies to hold anyone who benefits financially from trafficked labor liable.”

Zapata will expand the capabilities of the Tennessee Justice Center to advocate for clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities who need caregivers and other home-based services covered by state Medicaid programs. A native of Larchmont, New York, she was a Justice-Moore Scholar and a Chancellor Scholar at VLS, where she received the Phillip G. Davidson Award at graduation. She earned her undergraduate degree at Mount Holyoke College.

While working as a legal intern at the TJC in summer 2019, Zapata discovered that many TJC clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities do not receive the full slate of services they are entitled to under the state’s Medicaid program, known as TennCare. In addition to helping clients gain access to the services they need, Zapata will collaborate with various disability rights organizations to increase TennCare’s awareness of the effects changes in these programs are having on individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. “TennCare recently launched a new program to provide home and community-based services to these individuals but halted enrollment in another program that provides those services at the same time,” Zapata explained. “Families were confused, and many are not aware of the new program and don’t know how to enroll.”

She will also identify organizations and medical facilities seeking to serve rural communities and develop resources for volunteers seeking to do pro bono legal work through the TJC. “My goal is to increase access to care and other support services for our vulnerable community members, with a specific focus on clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I also plan to prepare robust training materials for attorneys hoping to volunteer with TJC and serve our clients,” she said.

“Holly Thompson and Vanessa Zapata have developed exciting projects that meet critical legal needs,” Dean Guthrie said. “I applaud their ambition to use their legal training to serve the under-served, and I know they will make important contributions to their clients at Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Tennessee Justice Center. ”