Photo of Lisa Curtis

Her Favorite Book

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

It was the first book I read that made me really connect with a character – it made me cry.

 Her Mantra

“What I do matters.”

When I think about that, it reminds me that I need to be present in the moment and show up, and be the best that I can be in every moment. Because even the little things – what I do matters – those little things add up and mean something so much to someone else.

Her Leader

Oprah Winfrey

She has always been my mentor in my head. I love how she brings a real passion to the work she does – that resonates to people that watch her and listen to her. I love the philanthropy work that she does and how she really tries to engage in a meaningful way in the world. I hope to emulate that and be somebody who can authentically show up in different spaces and inspire other people.

Tell me something about yourself and What’s your journey to become the director of Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project? 

I am from the mid-west, from Kansas City. My mom is a single mother. I got a lot of my love for community, advocacy, activism and education from my mom, who was very active in our community back home. She worked a lot with youth, raising awareness about how they can feel empowered and get involved in community. From a very young age, I knew that I wanted to do something like that, something related to community advocacy, though it has taken a lot of different forms.

My junior, or senior year of college was when I finally decided I wanted to become a lawyer. I took a few years off after graduation. I taught high school in Charlotte, NC with Teach for America. I love teaching now – many of my teachers through my academic career have had a major impact on my life. But, at that time I was terrified of going in and teaching high school students when I wanted to teach 4th grade kids… So, going in to teaching, I was nervous and that’s an understatement. I was scared. The years of teaching were very challenging – I taught U.S. History, Civics and Economics to 10th and 11th graders. For the first few weeks of school, I came home every day in tears, because it was such a new experience and just really challenging to reach the kids, get their attention and stay on task. But looking back on it, I would say, those years are some of the best of my life. They really informed the work I did as an attorney. They changed my outlook on education, education reform, and what empowerment of youth really means. After teaching, I got into law school at American University, and threw myself into the public interest world and community of D.C. Then I graduated and was an education and domestic violence attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. That was a pivotal move for me, because I didn’t really understand what homelessness was. It opened my eyes to how being in a family with income and housing insecurity impacts children. So, I worked at Children’s Defense Fund and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights in the Educational Opportunities section. These experiences informed the work I do now as the director of the Marshall-Brennen program. I am so excited to serve in this position because it really blends my experience of being in the classroom with my knowledge of the law and advocacy, and my core passion for youth development and empowerment and civic engagement.

What’s your role in Marshall-Brennan?

In the role of leading the program, I am responsible for seeing the vision and mission of the program through. Jamie Raskin founded this program back in 1999. He was since then been elected to the U.S. Congress and so transitioned out of his role at the beginning of this year. I really see my role as moving his dream for Marshall-Brennan forward, which is, to create a movement in D.C. and across the country, of engaging high school students and law students in this work of building our community of civic engagement and civic advocacy. But I also see my role as educating the law students and empowering them. Having that direct access to the high school students is a position of great power and influence, and I want to engage and support them in a way that encourages them to use their experience to inform their future advocacy in a meaningful and fulfilling way. Many of our former teaching fellows, who may have had some of the toughest students, who may not understand what civic engagement is and why they should care, would tell me that, you know, I thought I would go into the classroom and change their lives, but they ended up changing my life. What I want to do is to expose law school students to that perspective, and have them be open to new experiences and the evolving dialogues.

Briefly tell me something about this project itself? What do you see as the core value of Marshall-Brennan?

We engage upper level law students to teach the Marshall-Brennan youth justice course in public high schools that serve underrepresented students for a full year. We have eight schools in D.C. and twenty teaching fellows that teach those courses. Each week, Law Fellows typically teach three days per week. The youth justice course curriculum is about educating the high school students around those amendments that are most relevant to high school students’ lives. We try to really educate them about what their rights are, what it means and how they could apply them in their lives. One way we do that in the fall is through our William H. Karchmer Moot Court competition. Through the fall semester, we are teaching the high school students advocacy skills, analytical skills and skills of persuasion – how to read something and how to justify your stance and argument. The culminating activity is the students arguing before local attorneys and judges in that moot court competition. We have hundreds of students, faculty members, teachers, judges and lawyers from community to participate. The top six competitors from that competition get to go to our national moot court competition. On our national side, we have 18 chapters around the country that are modeled on the same mission and activities.

The hallmark of the Marshall-Brennan Project is this belief in our youth, that they really hold such power and influence in American life and American democracy. All that’s needed is for us to engage them in a real way that relates to their lives.

Why is civic education important and how does Marshall-Brennan facilitate this type of work?

We have seen in the past few months, with the new administration we have, the importance of educating our population around what it means to be a member in American democracy. We oftentimes take for granted our constitutional rights and forget about the power that the people have, to create the mold, and to serve as a light and beacon of American democracy. I think it starts young, and we believe that if we can start with students who are at the beginning of their academic careers, it really excites them and ignite their passion for civic engagement. Whether or not they go into public service or become lawyers, they will use that information in the work they intend to do and really have the love and passion for civic engagement.. It’s important to inform people of what their rights are and how to implement and exercise those rights, then we can in some way ensure that our democracy becomes all that it can be.

In our program, we do that by really making sure we are bringing this old text, which people are always confused about what our framers intended to say, into life. But, if we can make it real for our students, and translate that text to them in a way that makes sense for their lives, right here right now, I think that they really get the power of it, and that’s where the passion and the love of our founding values comes from.

What do you see as the major challenge of teaching civic education in today’s classroom? How does Marshall-Brennan overcome the challenge?

Being outside of public school and secondary education system allows us a little bit more flexibility and opportunity to be cutting edge and creative in programming. We work nicely in tandem with local school district. There’s power in engaging law students because they are young enough so that high school students could see themselves in them. And they also get what is going on currently in the lives of America. Part of the challenge of doing this work is to tell the story and narrative in the way that students can relate to and see themselves in the cases that have shaped our constitution. That is a major challenge and one that Marshall-Brennan commits itself to – making the constitution relevant to the lives of the students. There’s real power in that, and once you can light that flame, where and how they will use that information is limitless.

Do you see any shifts in the way constitutional value is understood among younger generation, compared to your generation?

I think a big difference has been with technology and social media. The quickness that people can mobilize a protest and a movement is something that previous generations didn’t have. I think that has a huge impact in the way people relate to the constitution, constitutional rights and our democracy, cause it’s quicker now and you can see what other young people like you are doing, how they are speaking out against injustice and things they see as needing to change. The ability to share your voice and get it out there is a lot more impactful and easier to access than in previous generations.

However, that also brings up problems. We’ve seen a lot of fake news over time. It’s a big theme for us this year talking about what is fake news and how can we decipher that.

What we do with Marshall-Brennan is try to set that context and a critical thinking framework so that in the sea of this massive influx of information, individuals will be able to filter out what is useful, and what is meaningful and true.

Imagine you are at the other side of the table and become this “mega citizen” who cares about American democracy. Think about it philosophically and practically – what does it mean to fund American Democracy?

One thing that I think is the key to American Democracy, is that we are so diverse and we have so many people here with different experiences and cultures, languages and loves. I think that’s what makes our democracy so strong and we have a framework for supporting our diversity. But it’s really up to the people to bring those values and rights to life and make sure that it’s executed and in a fair and just way for everyone.

If I were a mega citizen, I would create more opportunities for education and engagement in the civic process. We are doing great work in Marshall-Brennan, and more work needs to be done to translate the democratic process. Something that I think is really cool that I’ve seen in the past few months are these groups/ organizations that come out and use social media as a tool to engage people. Every time something needs to be done they will text people, urging them to call their representatives, and tell them what they could say. I think that makes the democracy and its process accessible to everyone.

Another thing I think will be cool is that, there’s no one language for American democracy. I think in the past we talked about it using terms like civic engagement. I think we all know what that means, but what are some other terms we can use to describe the ways that people can engage in our democracy? Another idea that I would like to bring to life is  a program, that selects young people from across the country to become ambassadors of American democracy.  Essentially this would be a training ground for young people to learn about the fundamentals of American democracy and our governmental process in the Constitution. But also, they learn about the advocacy tools and tools for movement building and organizing community that they can use to inform their work. Based on the information they learn, the students would create a project to solve a community ill.  The more we can get youth from diverse cultures, ethnicities and social-economic backgrounds, the stronger and more relevant it will be.

Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, recently came and  spoke at the American University Washington College of Law’s Commencement and said something that has stayed with me – he said that “there is power in proximity.” I think that this statement really illuminates an issue we have as Americans.  Everyone is living separate lives and we are not in tune with one another. America is diverse but we don’t have diverse communities. I think what Bryan is saying is that let’s leave the comfort of the communities, let’s connect and create solutions. If we can have a space or spaces where people from different communities can come together and engage in a solutions-oriented conversation. I think that is the strongest way forward.

Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project was a grantee under Bernstein Family Foundation’s American Democracy Committee during year 2012 to 2016. 

In the fall of 1999, Professor Jamin Raskin of American University Washington College of Law launched the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project named in honor of the late United States Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan, Jr. This project, founded with the enthusiastic support of Mrs. Cissy Marshall and the late Mrs. Mary Brennan, was designed to mobilize talented second- and third-year law students, as well as LLM students, to teach courses on constitutional law and juvenile justice in public high schools in the District of Columbia and Maryland. The national program is headquartered at the Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C., and the program has expanded to licensed chapters in law schools across the country.

This movement for constitutional literacy is rooted in the belief that students will profit for a lifetime from learning the system of rights and responsibilities under the U.S. Constitution. Many citizens do not participate and feel disengaged from politics. The Marshall-Brennan Fellows work with teachers, administrators and lawyers to teach students their rights as citizens, the strategic benefits of voting, how lawmaking occurs and other fundamental constitutional processes.