Thursday, June 1, 2017

An Interview with Antoinette Sedillo Lopez

To steal from the words of our most recent AALS Clinical Conference theme, these are definitely tumultuous times. For me, it is a daily battle to read the news and not go back to bed.  Stories of clinicians working to make a difference in their communities both in and out of the law school environment, provide inspiration and motivation to keep fighting another day. 

Though the ending of this chapter is not yet written, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez is already an inspiration.   After more than twenty years as a clinical teacher and scholar, she is now running for Congress in her home state of New Mexico.  Below, in her own words, you will find a piece of her story. 


        1.    Along with having been dean of your law school, you have many years of clinical teaching experience; how has clinical teaching informed your decision to run and why is it important to you to run for office now? (correction, I was associate dean not dean--ASL)

As a clinical teacher, I worked on many of the issues and challenges our communities in New Mexico are facing.  Our work was rooted in helping the overlooked and underserved communities of Central New Mexico. I have had the privilege of meeting with tenants of run-down trailer parks who, among their numerous grievances, have been deeply impacted by the quality of their living environment and have few remedies.  I worked with students on devastating cases where clients who were in abusive situations had few options. I have met mothers who lost a day’s pay each time they had to go to court on their restraining order, custody petition, or divorce.   I have met with families devastated by the effects of a sawmill on the air quality in their community. 

My involvement with community while I was at the law school culminated with an encounter with a woman begging on the street in Guanajuato, Mexico.   I gave her a bag of tamales; she looked at me with deep gratitude and told me that she would share them.  I discovered that she was undocumented in Mexico, from Guatemala.  She had fled an abusive home life and was happier living on the streets in Guanajuato than she had been in Guatemala.  My perspective changed.  I felt a strong need to get involved more deeply with my community and to help confront challenges facing survivors at the intersection of immigration, poverty and domestic violence.

I retired from the law school at the University of New Mexico after 27 years of law teaching to become the executive director of Enlace Comunitario, a non-profit that serves all victims of domestic violence and conducts outreach to Latino immigrants in Central New Mexico.  I was very gratified and satisfied with our progress until the current administration came into power.   In one election, I knew that everything had changed for our communities. The terror among all immigrants coupled with the activities of ICE after the President’s Executive Order and the Director of Homeland Security memo purporting to roll back limitations on the discretion of ICE officials was alarming. Using my clinical skills, I worked with allies to try to convince the New Mexico Supreme Court that it has inherent authority to protect access to justice. I co-founded a group called “Defend Our Neighbors” to advocate for the rights of all who might be affected by the current administration.

These advocacy roles were noticed by others who encouraged me to amplify my voice for others and to use the skills, knowledge and values I had developed as a clinical law teacher in Congress.  I am very excited by the opportunity to serve in Congress at this time.


        2.    What skill(s) or lesson(s) from your clinical teaching do you think will be most applicable to life as a Congresswoman?

As my last academic project before I left law teaching, I worked with Deborah Maranville, Lisa Bliss, and Carrie Kass to co-edit the book, Building on Best Practices:  Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World. The book brought innovative and effective law teachers and administrators from around the country to discuss how legal education should change to adapt to changing realities.  The book stressed developing goals and outcomes and focusing on teaching and programmatic strategies for students to learn to achieve those outcomes.  My biggest take-away from 27 years of law teaching and various roles in administration is based on those two large points.  As a congresswoman, I will be open to addressing changing realities and I will be focused on fighting for the outcomes we need for our communities to thrive: community and economic development, health care for all, and social justice and equality.


        3.    How will your clinical experience help you better serve the needs of constituents?  Advocate for them in Congress?

Throughout my clinical experience, I have had the chance to work with people from all walks of life. I have developed a passion for problem- solving and bringing people together around a cause.  As a clinical teacher, I have opened doors to public service for students and opportunity to the clients that we served.  My approach emphasizes accessibility, which will produce effective constituent services.  As an advocate, I will not simply offer sound bites, but will work to deliver progress on the many causes I’ve worked on throughout my career.  I will be a powerful voice in Congress for the under-served communities I have worked with, sharing the stories I have learned and bringing the force of the law, facts, and data to bring about change.


        4.    The current political climate is challenging. What parts of clinical teaching will help you make difficult decisions in Congress and help you explain the issues and your decisions to your constituents?

The challenging political climate is one of the reasons why I am running.  After years of working with communities who do not have a voice in the policy prescriptions that are intended to solve the problems that afflict them, I feel now is the time to best use my skills and training to champion this community in Washington. My deep knowledge of the Constitution, federal laws and public policy, and our community is an asset in standing up in opposition to the current administration’s backwards policies.  Whether it be the rollback of our civil liberties, access to health care or climate change policies, this administration has chosen ignore the people’s voices.  I will communicate well and often with my constituents so that they are always aware of how federal issues will impact our community and will constantly seek their input on the issues.


        5.    What is one piece of advice you wish someone had shared when you were beginning your teaching career?

 Prepare yourself to pursue your passions in teaching, in scholarship and in service and everything will fall into place.  Even if you don’t achieve the ultimate goals you seek, the journey will be fascinating and rewarding.


        6.    Tell us a little about your path.  When you were a law student or while you were teaching clinics would you have imagined someday running for Congress?

My story starts even earlier than law school.  I told my high school counselor that I was interested in the law. He replied, “That is great, because you are so smart, you will make a great legal secretary.”  I have definitely exceeded the expectations prescribed to me as a woman, as a Latina, and as someone from a rural, working class community in New Mexico.  I wake up every morning in awe that I  served as a law professor for 27 years, eight of which I spent as Associate Dean, and as a nonprofit  executive director for three, and that today I have the privilege of running to represent New Mexicans in Congress. I am proud to have had a career that has prepared me with the knowledge, skills and values to do a great job for my home state.


        7.    What would you suggest to someone who wants to make a difference in their community but isn’t in a position to run for office?   How can other clinical teachers best help, including those without live-client clinics?

 I believe all of us need to be engaged and informed.  We need to use the privilege of our education (formal and informal) and our positions, whatever those positions might be, in service of those without privilege. Clinical teachers can insure that students see the social justice implications of the work they do.  They can help students understand the “foot of oppression” that impacts people of color, low income individuals, and those with little power in our society.  Through these lenses, students can use their talents and their resources to address the problems of poverty and inequality while in clinic and after they leave the law school.

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