Mock trials presided over by a real Alameda Superior Court judge turn teenagers into attorneys and defendants for the day.
Mock trials presided over by an Alameda County Superior Court judge turn teenagers into attorneys and defendants for the day. Photo: Nancy Schiff

Jay-Z and Beyoncé are working out their relationship problems. The celebrities — impersonated uncannily by two 17-year-olds — are pretty angry at each other. But eventually they restore their romance, thanks to the help of an articulate 16-year-old mediator.

Mediation role-playing is just one sliver of the Summer Legal Fellowship Program at the Center for Youth Development Through Law. Each summer, the non-profit offers 30 disadvantaged youth from Berkeley, Oakland and Richmond paid internships and training in law and leadership.

This year’s program ended with a graduation ceremony last week. The teenagers worked hard until the end, juggling their internships at various government agencies and non-profits, attending college prep and constitutional law classes, and preparing their resumes for mock job interviews.

Two interns worked in Berkeley, at Councilman Kriss Worthington’s office and at the East Bay Community Law Center.

“We get to argue, we get to solve problems, we get to help people,” said Mohamad Hamze, an incoming Berkeley High junior who worked in Worthington’s office this summer. He pared a 200-page document down to a readable fact sheet advising tenants of their rights, and spent hours helping some constituents track down a law regarding gender discrimination in haircut prices.

“We had a college student looking for that law who never found it,” said Worthington, who has hosted four interns through the program. “Seeing a high school student engaging with the law, doing this legal research and advocacy to help people, that’s a powerful success for the program.”

For Hamze, the experience confirmed his longtime suspicion that he wants to pursue a career in law. But that’s hardly the primary purpose of the program, said its director, Nancy Schiff.

“We hope some of them will be interested enough to pursue law and, if that’s right for them, we’ll help them do that,” she said. “But they’re developing analytical skills, they have to work as a team, they have to speak publicly. So these are all skills they can apply to any career.”

Many of the participants have a more immediate and personal need for legal knowledge, said Schiff.

“Often the students have had negative interactions through criminal justice issues, immigration issues, foster care issues,” she said. “And whether or not they’ve had negative issues, it’s something that is mystifying and can seem very distant and not understandable. We want to show them that they can not only understand it but utilize it to assert their own rights or to inform others in their community.”

In a guest lecture from an ACLU director, the students talked about how to respond to racial profiling and questioning by police officers. “Tell them, ‘I want to talk to my attorney.’ Take a picture with your cellphone. Don’t cuss them out,” the speaker advised.

Meea Sheard spent her summer interning at the General Counsel's Office of the Peralta Community College District. Photo: Nancy Schiff
Meea Sheard spent her summer interning at the general counsel’s office of the Peralta Community College District. Photo: Nancy Schiff
Meea Sheard spent her summer interning at the general counsel’s office of the Peralta Community College District. Photo: Nancy Schiff

Schiff, a graduate of Hastings, has worked for the program since its earliest iteration as a service run out of the University of San Francisco law school in 1995. A few years later, it became its own entity. The non-profit enjoys an informal collaboration with the UC Berkeley law school, where participating students spend one day each week taking classes throughout the summer.

In law classes, students learn about the Constitution and the courts, with an emphasis on social justice. The leadership portion deals with public speaking, career readiness and conflict resolution. A class focused on mediation — an increasingly popular alternative to lawsuits, Schiff said — is designed to encourage emotional intelligence. Throughout the summer, students meet with legal and law enforcement professionals.

The classroom segment of the program culminates with two mock trials, in which each student gets to be either a witness or an attorney, and a member of the jury. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Leo Dorado oversaw this year’s trial. The cases are relevant to young people: a teenaged drunk driver charged with vehicular manslaughter, and a civil case involving a young woman who claimed her partner lied to her about his HIV status.

“They loved that one – it was a bit of a soap opera,” Schiff said.

For many of the teens, all of whom come from low-income communities, the $1,400 stipend is their first paycheck. Except in a few cases where private law firms host interns, the program raises money through donations to pay the students.

“It is a job,” said Katebah Al-Olefi, a rising senior at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland. “It was challenging at the beginning but, where I work, it’s a lot more than just being in a cubicle all day.”

Al-Olefi interned at the city of Oakland’s Neighborhood Services Division. She helped out at neighborhood crime prevention meetings and packaged materials for hundreds of National Night Out events.

Only about half of its applicants are accepted to the summer fellowship each year.

“What we’re looking for is not necessarily academic stars, though some of the students certainly are,” Schiff said. “We’re aiming for students who are really motivated, who have faced a lot of challenges.”

Throughout the year, the center stays in touch with former program participants, helping them apply and prepare for college. According to a report completed by the program, over 92% of its participants attend higher education — a big figure considering nearly all are from neighborhoods with a 50% high school graduation rate. The center now has more than 400 alumni, several of whom have gone into law, such as the master of ceremonies at this summer’s graduation, Dorian Peters, a Berkeley High alum and criminal lawyer in the Bay Area.

The students selected for the fellowship already “have the talent and passion to go to college and get a professional career, but they don’t necessarily have the guidance and the opportunities that will get them there, so we’re trying to fill that gap,” Schiff said.

Click here to see a video about the program. Learn more about the Center for Youth Development Through Law program.

Editor’s note 8/16: This article has been corrected. It previously said that Eva Patterson, the graduation keynote speaker, was a graduate of the program. She is not.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...