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Community Engagement & the Family Law Clinic

March 8, 2021

Students use community engagement opportunities to support parents involved in the child welfare system

Alexandria Brown, Digital Media Manager, sat down with 3Ls Ellie Pittman, Tori Pivirotto, and Carly Wright to discuss their work in the Jeanette Lipman Family Law Clinic. In this interview, transcribed below, the students explain how they focused on community engagement projects to support parents involved in the child welfare system.

Interview excerpted and edited for clarity and brevity.

Did you enroll in Richmond Law with an interest in family law?

Tori Pivirotto, L’21: It was always the plan to do everything that I could related to family law at this school.

Ellie Pittman, L’21: I came into law school knowing that I was interested, just not knowing exactly how it was going to pan out.

Carly Wright, L’21: I think I came in with an interest, and I think it's something that is really personal for a lot of people.

Can you tell me more about work you did as part of the Jeanette Lipman Family Law Clinic?

Ellie: We all had to do what were called Know Your Rights projects in the community. I spoke directly to social work students throughout Virginia about the child welfare system. They were all very, very receptive to my presentation. I was so happy, and it gave me a lot of hope for the support that's going to be provided to families in Virginia in the future.

Carly: Ellie and I did a joint one. The goal of our presentation was to educate these people on how using substances and being a parent creates a risk for you to be involved in the child welfare system. Another really big part of our presentation was changing the narrative. We may be the only actors in the legal system and the child welfare system who actually see these people as people, and not as a sum of whatever bad mistakes they have made previously.

Tori: I did something on shaken baby syndrome/abusive head trauma. I was working on a legislative piece which was discussing the legislation related to this issue, and why it was outdated. Then the other part of what I did was a video. It was mostly targeted towards social workers, but also just anyone who wanted to know more about it. 

What were some of the biggest takeaways and challenges? 

Ellie: One of the biggest takeaways I would talk about from the campaign that Carly and I did together, and I think she hit on it, they felt like we were the first group of people who were coming from a place of help, and a place of aid, and a place of knowledge to empower them. 

Carly: That's the whole point of the holistic defense is looking at these people as actual people. It's hard to get into a different mindset than one you've lived with all your life, and especially in the legal system, which is, I think, inherently very conservative. 

Tori: With my project, specifically, a lot of medicine has already completely debunked a lot of what I was talking about, but the legal system is about 15 years behind the medicine. There were still a lot of convictions happening under this, and there are still a few doctors who were espousing these outdated views, which broad evidence had disproven, but it was just an interesting dynamic to be a part of being such a minority in a widely accepted view.

How do you think your work with the clinic will impact how you practice law?

Ellie: I think Victoria's Know Your Rights presentation is so clear about that, there is literal medical evidence disproving a lot of our underlying theories. The reasons that we can continue to use these narratives is because the way that our system is set up is to rely on prior narrative, and prior findings that we can point to, and say, "Judge, this has always been accepted, and what's always been accepted is good." The clinic challenged that idea with the focus on holistic representation of finding ways, legally and otherwise, to challenge the underlying assumptions that we have, and finding new ways forward. It was one of the best experiences that I've had as a student of law at this point, learning that sometimes there's room for creativity, and changing the way that we think.

Carly: I also think it's made a difference of how I live my life, especially with the language that we use about people, and what we signal when we use certain words. A big one for me that I had never thought about [was] just talking about substance use, and saying, "Clean," like a drug test being clean, and what that implies about that person. That if it's not clean, then it's dirty. Just those types of words, and that language that we use, and how it matters.

Tori: One thing that all of us learned, I think, was we came into the clinic really with this child-centered mindset, and I think that one thing that we all learned through the clinic was shifting to a more parent-focused mindset. One thing the clinic taught me was to truly consider the wellbeing of children, you need to consider the wellbeing of parents. Things that we learned in the clinic are going to contribute to my advocacy in every way, just how the language that you use matters. And like what Ellie said, challenging precedent and tradition, and framing how you're representing a client around what inherent assumptions, like Carly said, and what bias am I bringing into this? I think that that is something that, no matter what I end up practicing, it's going to help me be a better advocate.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many of us have likely forgotten what it feels like to welcome anyone into our homes, much less an award-winning comedian and Netflix star. 

Yet that’s exactly the exclusive experience the University of Richmond community was offered last Tuesday, logging on to engage in a virtual conversation with comedian Hasan Minhaj.

Named to TIME's "100 Most Influential People in the World," Minhaj is a two-time Peabody Award-winning comedian, writer, producer, and political commentator who originally rose to prominence as a senior correspondent on The Daily Show. Lately, he’s often trending on Netflix for his critically acclaimed one-hour comedy special and his comedy series Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj

During a week that typically would have had the community dispersed across the world for spring break activities, nearly 500 students, alumni, faculty, and staff tuned into Modlin Center for the Arts’ Digital Stage where Minhaj joined a live discussion moderated by UR journalism professor Shahan Mufti.

“We've been living this fragmented campus life in COVID times for almost a year now, and it's difficult to overstate how valuable it was to have someone like Hasan Minhaj here and gather around and all share in this fun experience,” Mufti said.

Minhaj’s opening act was a collection of prerecorded, student-created video skits, poetry, and original songs showcasing students’ eagerness to meet the comedian and commentator.

Senior Ryan Shah was one of 19 students who were selected to participate in a virtual meet and greet earlier in the day in addition to joining the evening conversation among the larger UR community. 

“It's always surreal when you get the chance to talk to one of your idols, even over Zoom,” said Shah. “It's also crazy to think about the fact that the meet and greet, along with the main event, most likely would not have happened without the pandemic.”

The live excitement for Minhaj’s appearance was also palpable, even virtually. The chat function buzzed as Spiders from as early as the Class of 1993 to the Class of 2024 introduced themselves and expressed excitement to hear from Minhaj, an opportunity made possible by UR’s Office of International Education, Center for Student Involvement, and Modlin Center for the Arts.

“International Education wanted to host a big event for our students that would lift their spirits and put them at the center of the production during this difficult semester,” said Martha Merritt, dean of international education. “My high hopes were exceeded by the students’ creativity, their poise, and important questions.”

Minhaj has become known for his depth and sincerity as much as his comedic commentary, and he showcased each of those traits as soon as he logged on for the evening. No topic was off limits as he fielded questions from Mufti and students, responding to each with genuine candor.

A first-generation American, Minhaj comes from a Muslim family originally from India, and often draws on his personal history in his work. First-year Ananya Chetia, an aspiring producer, asked how he navigates such a competitive industry, where few come from a similar background. Minhaj said he leaned into the power of comedy.

“Being able to laugh at myself has been massively empowering, I use laughter as a way to cope with all the things that scare me the most,” he said.

Junior Zena Abro prompted Minhaj to share his thoughts on what young people need to do today to navigate difficult conversations and to be heard. 

“We live in a vastly creative space and awesome things are created from a child-like wonder. The coolest thing young people can bring to the table is their wonder and curiosity,” Minhaj offered.

For Minhaj, showing up in living rooms is nothing new,  but the ability to have an honest and authentic discussion with the UR community for the night seemed to perfectly align with his reasoning for pursuing a career in comedy.

“They say that art has a way of making the world bigger, but I think the powerful thing about art and comedy is that it has a way of actually making the world smaller,” he said. “It’s a way to bring people into your living room and invite them to hear your own take.”

Three science faculty colleagues at the University of Richmond have been issued a patent for a glaze process that is a safer, more cost-effective, and more colorful alternative to current methods.

“Normal colorants usually involve toxic heavy metals," said Michael Leopold, Floyd D. and Elisabeth S. Gottwald professor of chemistry. "This alternative coloring system for ceramic glazes uses a small amount of gold or silver nanoparticles, which are safer to include for food and beverages and also environmentally more friendly.”

The process was conceived and developed by Ryan Coppage, director of introductory laboratories in the chemistry department, who directed the project, provided materials, and mentored the student researchers involved. The American Chemical Society has called his research the “gold standard” in safer ceramic coatings. 

The technology will have wide commercial applicability, including the production of tiles and large-scale ceramics and will also be used by individual ceramic artists.

Researchers on the patent include Coppage, Leopold, and Christine Lacy, director of microscopy and imaging in the biology department. 

The patent is specifically for the preparation of gold nanoparticle ceramic glazes, which the authors wrote “add new colors to the known ceramic surface palette and offers greater consumer safety.” Other current methods pose a risk for toxic metal leaching from the finished ceramic product into soil, for example, or food and drinks.

Artisans have used similar concepts for centuries, grinding gold and silver into a powder to make stained glass windows and chalices, the researchers said. The team’s patented method also allows companies continue to use existing equipment and firing methods.

Coppage and Leopold have collaborated on this project since 2015, and Lacy ran microscopy samples in the Biological Imaging Lab. Testing and firing of the ceramic glaze formulation was performed at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, where Coppage is a part-time instructor.