Marni von Wilpert spent two years as a Peace Corps counselor in Botswana, helping with HIV prevention in a nation with the second-highest rate of AIDS in the world.
She never thought that she’d find a similar crisis in the United States.
While applying for a public interest fellowship sponsored by New York City’s Skadden Arps law firm, von Wilpert came across the Mississippi Center for Justice (MSJ), an organization that provides legal services to the state’s most marginalized.
Originally von Wilpert had suggested she do work in juvenile justice, but when the MCJ representatives noticed her AIDS experience, they halted.
“‘Do you have experience with HIV/AIDS?’ they asked me, and I told them yes. ‘Then we want you to do that. You have no idea how bad it is down here.’”
The situation, von Wilpert said, is indeed dire: Mississippi ranks fifth in the country for percentage of HIV/AIDS infections. It is also disparate: African-Americans make up 76 percent of all new cases and 73 percent of cases overall, although they make up only 37 percent of the state’s population.
There are no legal service providers addressing the needs of the state’s HIV/AIDS population, von Wilpert said. In addition, recently initiated requirements for Medicaid eligibility have caused a crisis in health care for certain areas of the state because those who need it most have the least advocacy.
“I was shocked at the abject poverty that exists in our own country,” said von Wilpert, a scholar in the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham.
The Stein Scholars Program offered von Wilpert a chance to study public interest law while paying for her summer interning at nonprofit legal clinics. The first summer, she worked in a legal aid clinic in her hometown of San Diego, representing tenants who were losing, or could not secure, housing. Last summer she worked with the Texas Civil Rights Project, upholding the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Her fellowship in Mississippi begins in September and lasts for two years. Once there, von Wilpert will pursue two objectives:
• represent people with HIV/AIDS from the Delta region in judicial and administrative proceedings;
• create the state’s first Medical-Legal Partnership to address the social, economic and medical challenges facing the HIV/AIDS marginalized population.
She said she is grateful to the Stein Scholars Program for helping her gain critical experience in public interest and social justice law.
“Other law schools weren’t offering their students a chance at this kind of work with compensation,” she said. “Between the resumé help and the mock interviews, the professional development here at Fordham has been fantastic.”
This summer, von Wilpert will be studying for her Mississippi Bar exam. And following her Mississippi projects, she has committed herself to working for 10 years in public interest and nonprofit law in exchange for a reduction in her federal student loans. Even beyond that, she said, she is committed to serving those in need.
“The law shouldn’t be accessible only to people who can buy it,” she said. “That’s why I want to be a lawyer.”