Student Spotlight: Vanessa Holman ’24

Root-Tilden-Kern Public Interest Scholar

Vanessa Holman
Vanessa Holman ’24

Tell us about your experience in the Racial Justice Clinic.

We studied the complexities of racial dynamics as they relate to criminalization, punishment, and different modes of advocacy. In our seminar, we read pieces from key legal scholars, such as Derrick Bell, and discussed topics from the parole system and voting rights to models of social justice lawyering and the role of a movement lawyer. 

In my fieldwork, I spent the year working with the Legal Aid Society to aid the passage of bills decriminalizing “broken windows” offenses and demanding transparency for police stops and searches in New York City. I also regularly met with and counseled an incarcerated client who was preparing for his fourth parole board hearing. 

I’m super grateful for this connection, which has taught me a lot about humility in my role as a lawyer. Despite the fact that my client was himself the victim of unacknowledged violence, was subject to slanderous media portrayals during his prosecution, and had his young adulthood stripped away from him, at nearly 50 years old, he remains a pillar of strength, optimism, and gratitude. Over the course of five months, my clinic partner and I consulted with our client on how to frame his narrative and help him advocate best for himself at his hearing. 

In March, our client was finally released from incarceration after 30 years, and we now have the pleasure of helping him navigate this new phase of life and freedom.

You have a BS in Psychology concentrated in Neuroscience, and have researched and written about aging biases and the shortfalls of mental health policy. What major takeaways did you bring to your law studies? 

In undergrad, I studied psychology and neuroscience because I was really interested in learning more about how we as individuals see ourselves and each other and how unconscious stories shape our realities. Specifically, I became interested in why our differences lead us to fear, devalue, and disregard those with whom we can’t inherently relate, and how that lends to the historical criminalization of poverty and mental health. 

Through my studies, I learned about the fallibility of so-called “objective” tools (such as eyewitness identification, polygraph tests, and body camera footage) and the insidious ways that implicit biases can cause even the most well-meaning allies to promote stereotypes. Other courses highlighted how race, gender, socioeconomic status, and community intersect to affect legal, medical, employment, educational, and housing discrimination. 

I consider my psychology background integral to my practice as a legal representative because it has taught me to lead with curiosity instead of prejudgment and to see the humanity in everyone, even people considered to be society’s most culpable offenders. 

What has been your favorite law school class so far?

I’d have to say both my Critical Race Theory seminar and my Abolition Praxis seminar are my favorites. Both classes are led by uber accomplished professors who are people of color and have such an interesting way of contemplating nuances in the practice of law, how our experiences as advocates today are influenced by generations of economic and political history, and how we can work to build coalitions and lead sustainable change. 

Given the reality of racial capitalism embedded in our legal system, I fully believe that no study of the law can be complete without taking a course that reckons with slavery’s persistent legacies and how our carceral state inflicts similar harms onto communities of color. I highly recommend both classes to all students, not just folks who are interested in public interest law!

What is your favorite part of being a NYU Law student?

I love being at the center of news-making history and experiencing cultural diversity in a way you just can’t in other places around the country. Having worked for quite a bit after undergrad, it’s important to me to stay connected to the real-life implications of the work that I’m interested in. Walking outside of Vanderbilt and feeling like I’m not in an academic bubble really makes a difference staying grounded in what drove me to law school in the first place.

Also, being a Root-Tilden-Kern Scholar and having friends and mentors across years has been invaluable and made law school more empowering! Because students dedicated to public interest aren't often courted like those going to high-paying firm jobs, it's nice to have a space that centers appreciation for our work.

Posted on May 16, 2023