Photo of Melinda Cooperman, Marshall Brennan

What was your journey to becoming the Associate Director of Marshall Brennan?

I have about 10 years of experience in civic education, and I’ve always been interested in teaching. I was a volunteer with an organization called the San Francisco Urban Service Project, which is an organization that places volunteers in community settings to lead programs and teach, and I was placed in a homeless shelter. I led a family education and activity program at this shelter for a year, and then I had a legal services fellowship in New York, and then I was a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador. I was in a very rural town and did a lot of education with students and adults and had a women’s group- teaching sex ed., environmental education, and English- and then I went to law school. I really enjoyed teaching while I was there and so I started teaching high school students through the New York Coalition for Civil Rights. I was trying to figure out what to do after law school and was fortunate enough to get a clinical teaching fellowship with the Street Law Clinic at Georgetown. I was there and came here afterwards.

What is your vision for Marshall Brennan, and what types of programs do you run?

The program is really here to empower two groups of people- high school students and law students. It’s a dual constituency program, and we have 19 chapters across the country. In all the programs, we teach law students who then teach in high school classrooms. We have communities in our law schools and then our students are leading communities, so we’re really trying to empower our law students with the skills and tools to then work with the high school students in the program. People learn more by teaching law, and our law students are gaining strong legal, strategic planning, and teaching skills from being in front of the classroom- and then they’re giving their high school students the knowledge to do something with their passion.

Brett Phelps, Marshall Brennan Fellow from University of New Mexico:

That reminds me of how, when I started doing this last year, how much I learned about the law from having to teach it. It was really great to realize by the end what I had walked away with. Having to know it to be able to teach it you really have to dive into it and wrap your head around it to be able to explain it, especially to high school students. So it was fantastic in that way. I’ve done a bit of teaching before this, so it was really great to jump in on the legal side. There are pertinent issues that students are very interested in, not theoretical things that you get in a lot of other high school classes. It’s not the kind of thing where someone can say- “yeah you’re going to need this one day”- it’s the kind of thing the students can go out and immediately use or understand in their community. I learned a lot and feel like they took a lot away from it too.

How do you wish people around the country and national dialogue engaged with civic education? And why are you so passionate about civic education?

One of the things I wish other folks would know and buy into is the importance of civic education. We talk about wanting to have a healthy democracy, but there are lots of conversations right now about how so many different communities within our country are separated from one another. For instance, we can choose the media that we look at, so we’re getting less of a broad spectrum of ideas and more just what we want, which doesn’t help democracy. It helps polarize people, and this is why we’re having such a breakdown both within the Beltway and everywhere else. It seems like there are a lot less people now who are willing to understand why people feel the way that they do, or vote for whatever candidate they believe in. I think civic education is incredibly important because not only does it give people the tools and the knowledge to participate in a democracy, it shows people how to be good citizens. It’s really how to interact and engage with one another as citizens. I think that by teaching in this very experiential way and having students engage with the law, where they have to debate and defend their ideas, but also listen to what other people are saying and respond to them, helps to strengthen our democracy.

And I think for me in terms of passion, a piece of this that I’m passionate about is watching people have those debates, they’re hard skills that you need to learn in order to be successful. In order for 21st Century students to be successful- and certainly in our economy where we’re less goods based and more services based- the folks who are going farther are the folks who can have jobs and work with people and relate to one another, so students need to be able to understand different perspectives, and respect them. They’re soft but yet hard skills that you need to succeed.

How are you using social media and all the changes in technology and the way that people access information in your work? How do you see this developing going forward?

It’s a great question and there are a number of ways in which we use it. Education broadly is trying to adapt to this, so one thing we’re doing is trying to use more tools in the classroom. For example, one activity that I’ve done numerous times, whether it’s an ice breaker or something more substantive, is to just have people take out their phones, look through, and pick out a picture that represents justice to them. They take 5 minutes, and then share it with someone they don’t know in the room. That is a way to integrate technology, and technology is responding to the use of technology. There are now text to poll apps, where kids download the app and can respond to questions the teacher posts on a PowerPoint, and it’s all live. I’ve had teachers give homework where part of the homework is to go find pictures that represent some concept and Instagram it.

In terms of the substantive, the last two years our Moot Court problems- we’ve actually collaborated with the Street Law Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center on this- have started to include technology based problems. We’ve been doing this partnership where the Street Law Clinic works on Mock Trials and we do Moot Courts, and we have kids in similar classes, so we’ve been playing around with the idea of exposing kids to the opportunity to take a case up the chain of litigation. So the case this year is a cyberbullying case, where a student wrote a song off campus and out of school, and then uploaded that song to Facebook and other kids downloaded it and used it to bully another kid. So the question is- at what point does the school’s reach stop, and when can the school reach out? These are real questions that are happening all the time now. If I post something on Facebook or Snapchat and bully you through that, if this is happening at home, when can the school start suspending me? What’s interesting about these questions is that they are very universal in experience. We have kids from all different backgrounds in this program, across the 19 chapters, and even across the city, but everybody has phones and everybody’s a teen and they’re all doing this. So it’s something, no matter whether you’re at a very wealthy private school or a really underserved public school, you understand phone bullying. Hopefully you haven’t experienced it but you know the concepts.

Brett Phelps: One thing I would add to that too that’s been interesting is that from a legal standpoint this is all newly developing law, and these younger kids are kind of at the forefront of where these laws are developing. So just from that standpoint it’s very different from a lot of other legal issues that are out there, and it gives them a chance to be at the forefront of how our laws are developing right now.

How is Marshall Brennan thinking about and leveraging partnerships with other civic education programs?

We do a lot of partnering with other organizations. For instance, there’s an organization called ConSource, run by Julie Silverbrook, and she started the National Campaign for Constitutional Literacy, which we’re a part of. What’s interesting about this issue, in terms of Constitutional Literacy and democratic engagement, is that it spans the aisle. In DC especially, those aisles are very present- we’re within the Beltway and many people have a strong political identity. But this National Constitutional Literacy Campaign is nonpartisan and has very bipartisan support. You have people looking at the 4th Amendment from the perspective of policing, the 1st Amendment from religious rights, and more. To have informed citizenry is important for all sides.

We’re part of the conversation in different ways. Last year I wrote an article for the Washington Times. I’ve presented at the National Council for Social Studies, and I am going to be presenting there again in December. I’ve presented about law related education at a number of different conferences within the legal and educational worlds. We’re growing through partnering with people in this space.

Brett, can you talk about the Fellowship program and your experience as a fellow and now working for the program?

I had some teaching experience before I came to law school, and come from a family of educators as well. When I saw the class, which also has its own seminar component, where we had a couple of attorneys who work with youth, I got to learn a whole lot about youth law and education policy and the way that that works. In New Mexico there are a lot of issues with our education system, so to meet these attorneys who are working on the behalf of students was really interesting. And then I got an opportunity to go into a school that was great, but that doesn’t have a very good reputation in Albuquerque. I grew up in rural New Mexico and I kind of had the same perception of this school, but I got there and it ended up being great, the students were a blast, and we had a lot of fun. Really they deal with the issues we talk about on a regular basis, so they had so much to contribute. It was really rewarding to really see them dive into this stuff with the Moot Court competition. Really they were little lawyers. We got them all suited up for our Moot Court competition, and they did really well. Two of the students from my team came out to the national competition here, and one of them actually made it to the semifinals. So I was really happy with how that went and how they came out at the end of the semester and we kind of went through all the things that they had learned, and we were all just blown away at how much we’d covered. Now, coming out here it’s a totally different environment, but the same kind of atmosphere and attitude in the classroom. I started my first day teaching yesterday at a great school, the Thurgood Marshall Academy, and I’m really excited about that. I have a little bit smaller group of students, who are very engaged, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how things are similar and different out here as we go through the semester. Also, I’m going to be reaching out to our other 19 chapters around, so I’ll get to learn a whole lot about how things are done at these other schools as well.

What is your future vision for Marshall Brennan?

There are more and more people interested in this. The University of Nebraska has reached out to us- they haven’t started a formal chapter yet but they’re in the process of exploring. Cornell started a chapter, and Howard University restarted a chapter. There’s a high school teacher in Kentucky who’s been very active in starting a chapter, so he’s reaching out to the University of Kentucky, and has been really active in trying to get that together, even though they’re around 2 hours away from his high school. So there’s a lot of interest. One thing I hope to see is that there is continued interest and growth. I think there’s going to be a time of change as Jamie Raskin, our executive director, is running for Congress. So there’s just going to be a lot of change. I think that looking forward its looking for the growth and the sustainability of the program. Our model is that we are partly funded by the university, and we also have soft money through grants. I think that as our community grows the grant support we need is going to get larger, because we’re bringing more people to this national competition. What’s also new for this year- that I’m working with the university on- is a wonderful research assistant of mine would like to start a mentoring program. She has clerked for a number of judges and she wants to start a mentoring program with them. She already has one of the judges, a Federal District Court judge, talking with one of her students every other week. So she’s trying to start that up and it’ll be a less formal way that people can be involved. Marshall Brennan is such a wonderful thing, and it also requires a very big commitment from the law students. So this is a way that students can get involved in a less time heavy way.

When you were growing up did you ever imagine working in Civic Education?

Not really. I liked teaching, and I always liked volunteering and community work. I mean you never know, this journey is a long one. I’m going to be taking my next steps actually in the next few months and moving on to a practice position. So there’s going to be change within the organization as well.

My mother always told me I would be a senator. I guess I could still be that. I just always wanted to work with people. I’ve always been very community oriented, and have always done a lot of community service work. There were times when I wanted to be a veterinarian or a marine biologist, there were lots of things I wanted to be. I think we’re always growing up and have a continual process of development.

If you could take the day off and go anywhere in DC where would you go?

I love to go paddle boarding on the Potomac. I’m a member of the Washington Canoe Club and I do that regularly.

What is your favorite Smithsonian museum?

I like to go to the bug zoo at the Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of American History.

Favorite restaurant?

We have a lot of good food in this city. I haven’t been there in a while, but I always loved Georgia Brown’s. It’s a great southern food place. I live on Capitol Hill so there’s a great Balkan place called Ambar there. Ted’s has a Tuesday evening milkshake and cheeseburger special, so that’s great too.