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Social Justice: A Tale of Two Innovative Law Courses

Two courses this semester at WVU Law are preparing students to build a more inclusive and just society, globally and domestically.

WVU Law Professor Will Rhee teaching class
Professor Will Rhee teaching Race/Racism and American Law.

Professor Jena Martin's  International Human Rights course helps students understand and, ultimately, enforce human rights laws. Professor Will Rhee’s Race/Racism and American Law seminar explores different legal perspectives on race.

WVU Law Professor Jena Martin

Martin has taught her class for four years with the goal of helping students learn to identify and remedy social wrongs, including those done by corporations, government entities and individuals. She also helps students apply historical treatises, laws and agreements when considering how to tackle international legal problems.

She says law students who take her course are usually interested in helping solve larger social justice issues. Some, but not all, are interested in international law.

Third-year law student Sophia Runion enjoys Martin’s course for its opportunities to explore topics not offered in other law classes.

“The focus on international law and international law bodies is very interesting and a refreshing take on law in general, since the majority of law school classes focus solely on the U.S. legal system,” she said.

Whatever their reason for taking it, students leave Martin’s class with an understanding that human rights violations happen everywhere, both near and far away from Law School Hill.  Martin teaches this by presenting hypothetical case studies based on real people or events. Her class size is small, which allows for heavy discussion on how to solve each issue within the law.

In a recent class, for example, students were presented with the story of a young professional in Bolivia who was suddenly saddled with a utility bill three times higher than before because the government had partnered with a foreign country on a privatized water contract. Discussion involved the right to access to water and the legality of private contracts with public entities.  

“When students start discussing with one another how unpack the legality of social wrongs and think about how to right these wrongs, there are lightbulb moments," Martin said. "I love facilitating a course that allows that to happen organically.”

Like Martin’s course, Rhee’s Race/Racism and American Law seminar is small and focused on discussion.

WVU Law Professor Will Rhee

In a recent class, Rhee’s students grappled with the difference between individual racism and systemic racism. They discussed what legally constitutes racist conduct, what different individuals may interpret to be racist conduct, and how certain concepts can be framed as racist or not racist.

Students taking Race/Racism and American Law are also working on independent research papers about a topic of their choosing. For their paper, they must acknowledge viewpoints opposed to their own. Then, they must provide a thoughtful opposing argument while demonstrating that they understand both sides of the issue they chose to discuss.

“The overall goal of the course is to help the students work to truly understand each other’s perspectives, even if they don’t always agree, because good legal advocacy begins with understanding,” Rhee explained. “As educators, I think the best that we can do for our students is help them develop a deep and thoughtful understanding of opposing viewpoints. We should not tell them what to think.”

WVU Law student Ryan Ibtisam

Second-year student Ryaan Ibtisam is writing his research paper on the entrepreneurial perspective of outsourcing legal work to South Asian countries. In addition to learning more about this topic, he has enjoyed the chance to have deep discussions with his classmates.

“We have broken many racial and cultural boundaries by talking about our personal experiences,” he said. “I have been able to expand on my perspective as a minority in America and about the different legal challenges that come with it. Hearing everyone’s different experiences with race and how they relate to the law meaningfully contributes to our WVU Law community and I am extremely happy to be a part of it.”

Rhee structured Race/Racism and American Law around insight he learned from a recent training program offered to WVU Law faculty and staff. The training, “Teaching and Talking about Racism: Compassionate Yet Honest Approaches,” helps educators learn to properly frame conversations and facilitate learning about racism in a compassionate environment while highlighting differences in the experiences of White people and People of Color.

To build a comfortable environment that would facilitate the candid discussion in his class, Rhee and his students created a formal agreement: try not to pass judgement, maintain respect for others, and keep the discussion confidential after leaving the classroom.

According to Rhee, this was to help everyone feel like they could be vulnerable and express their thoughts without being labeled.

WVU Law student Rachael Mullins

Second-year student Rachael Mullins, who is writing her paper on race, the juvenile court system and school policing, says the course is unlike any other she has taken.

“It not only challenges your mind but that also challenges your beliefs, your ways of thinking, and who you are as a person,” she said. “It’s a small group, and the discussions we have are not only insightful and thought-provoking but are also filled with emotion and a rawness that you will not find in any other law school class. This class truly makes you stop and think about how you perceive the world.”

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