This year, several Harvard Law School graduates received grants from the Public Service Venture Fund, a unique program that awards up to $1 million each year to help graduating Harvard Law students and recent graduates obtain or create their ideal jobs in public service. Since being selected last spring, the 2016 PSVF seed grant recipients have begun work on projects ranging from environmental litigation and advocacy to transgender healthcare and identity issues. The 2016 Public Service Venture Fund seed grant recipients are: Kelsey Skaggs ’16, Alice Cherry ’16, and Ted Hamilton ’16, for their Climate Defense Project; Jonathan Kaufman ’06, for his new venture, Advocates for Community Alternatives; and Noah Lewis ’05, for his start-up, Transcend Legal.
The Public Service Venture Fund, a first-of-its kind program at a law school, was launched in 2012 to invite law students and recent alumni to identify unmet legal needs and develop new initiatives to meet them.
The Venture Fund spearheads social entrepreneurship by supporting “seed grants” for start-up public interest ventures and salary support for fellows undertaking projects at existing organizations. The 2016 Seed Grant recipients were selected in the spring of 2016 after a competitive, multistage selection process, advised by experienced entrepreneurs.
Climate Defense Project (2016)
With the goal of providing a stable climate for future generations, Climate Defense Project — co-founded by Kelsey Skaggs ’16, Alice Cherry ’16 and Ted Hamilton ’16 — aims to fill a gap in existing efforts by enlisting the legal system in the work of the climate movement. CDP’s mission focuses on supporting and defending climate activists; pursuing climate impact litigation; and connecting attorneys with communities and campaigns. In addition to providing trainings and supporting individuals in climate-related legal actions, they have established a website with a list of resources, including a guide for activists and attorneys, published op-eds, and interviews.
The project’s co-founders each worked on environmental issues while at HLS, with a focus on issues of environmental and climate justice. They formed Climate Defense Project while students at Harvard Law School.
Alice Cherry studied anthropology and environmental policy at Northwestern University. Her love of the outdoors and little-known varieties of plants led to an interest in seed banking and, with it, an appreciation of the seriousness of climate change. At HLS, she interned at the California Office of the Attorney General and the Sierra Club, where her projects focused on environmental and energy litigation and policy.
Ted Hamilton focuses on the intersection of environmental and social justice, and on the use of movement politics and legal advocacy to transform society. He studied comparative literature and philosophy at Cornell and Yale, and he has written about climate change for a variety of publications. At HLS, he focused on protest defense and growing the climate movement through involvement in the Harvard divestment campaign and internships with the Civil Liberties Defense Center and Climate Disobedience Center.
Kelsey Skaggs studied international relations at the University of California, Davis, where she coordinated a program to provide pro bono legal assistance to indigent survivors of gender-based violence in her native Alaska. At HLS, she worked on environmental issues at Crag Law Center in Oregon; on international environmental policy at Universal Rights Group in Geneva; and defending free speech activists at Media Legal Defence Initiative in London. Skaggs has also written about First Amendment issues related to NSA surveillance programs.
In addition to the Harvard Law School Public Service Venture Fund, CDP is supported by a grant from the Wallace Global Fund.
Advocates for Community Alternatives (2016)
Advocates for Community Alternatives, founded by Jonathan Kaufman ’06, helps West African communities pursue sustainable development alternatives, and builds expert networks to represent them. Working with West African communities that are threatened by the destructive impacts of extractives-led development, ACA helps communities design their own sustainable development plans and advocate to achieve those plans. Based in central Ghana, ACA has launched the Public Interest Lawyering Initiative for West Africa (PILIWA) — together with the Centre for Public Interest Law in Ghana and Green Advocates in Liberia — with the aim of building a professional network of support for West African human rights and environmental lawyers.
Prior to founding ACA, Kaufman was legal advocacy coordinator at EarthRights International, where he worked with civil society groups and communities on six continents to promote accountability for corporate complicity in human rights abuse and environmental devastation. He was a finalist for the Public Justice Trial Lawyer of the Year Award in 2010, and has served as an adviser to the U.S. State Department on dispute resolution between communities and corporations. Kaufman earned a B.A. and M.A. in Chinese at Yale University, a J.D. at Harvard Law School, and a degree in public policy from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan in 2002-03.
Transcend Legal (2016)
For transgender people, changing the name and gender on identity documents is no small matter—it’s an official recognition of who they are, and one that makes them more secure in their everyday lives. Transcend Legal, a New York state nonprofit established in October by Noah Lewis ’05, helps fill the gap left by existing national transgender legal organizations, which focus on legislation, policy advocacy, and test-case litigation, but do not always meet the demand for individual legal services by transgender people. A trans-led, trans-run legal organization, Transcend Legal focuses on helping people in New York get their name & gender legally recognized and helping individual transgender people get the health care that they need.
The very first name change petition that Transcend Legal filed in October resulted in a precedent-setting published opinion. The New York Law Journal reported that this is the first published decision regarding the waiver of the publication requirement for a transgender individual since a 2015 change in New York’s name change law that allows for waivers of publication based on the “totality of the circumstances. This opinion is published as Matter of J.A.L. 2016 NY Slip Op 51758(U).
The founder and executive director of Transcend Legal, Lewis previously worked for the Transgender Law Center, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and served as the staff attorney at Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund for five years. His work there included leading-edge impact litigation and policy work in areas such as identity documents, health care and public accommodations. He went on to create and run a solo law practice serving transgender clients.
A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and HLS, he worked successfully to eliminate trans health exclusions in student and staff health plans at HLS.
Past Seed Grant Recipients: Where are they now?
Past Public Service Venture Fund recipients are having a tremendous impact addressing inequities in underserved communities and confronting challenges in the criminal justice system. Read more about past seed grant recipients Gina Clayton ’10 (Essie Justice Group); Lam Ho ’08 (Community Activism Law Alliance); Mercedes Montagnes ’09 (Promise of Justice); Alana Greer ’11 (Community Justice Project); Shannon Erwin ’10 (Muslim Justice League); Alec Karakatsanis ’08 (Civil Rights Corps), and Phil Telfeyan ’08 (Equal Justice Under Law).