As a 2L student in the Family Defense Clinic, Sienna Fontaine ’07 learned early on that her clients often needed more than just legal representation.
“The clinic was a piece of my understanding of how low income families, especially families of color, are navigating systems and not given any tools for success,” says Fontaine. Many families in the clinic faced, in addition to legal concerns, housing and food insecurity and lacked access to health care. “The systems…are really about control and making people jump through a thousand hoops to get very bare minimum services. And then, I continued to see that thread in all of the different kinds of areas that I worked in.”
Now, Fontaine serves as the legal director for Make the Road New York (MRNY), a nonprofit organization that organizes and provides wraparound support to immigrant communities and low-income New Yorkers, including legal services, health advocates, and adult education programs. MRNY, Fontaine says, is focused on both meeting immediate needs and providing advocacy and organizing training so that community members are empowered and equipped with the resources necessary to advocate for policies that have lasting impacts on their communities. Recently, MRNY has successfully advocated to block Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials from making arrests near court houses in New York State as part of the Protect Our Courts Act, among other victories.
“Doing this work has been, I think, for me, just incredible—to be in a place that really embodies what I see as the effective means to achieve change,” says Fontaine of her position. “We are looking at the full person, and addressing all of the immediate challenges that are happening, but then we have this other piece of activating folks to take on the challenge themselves of really improving the conditions of their life by politically engaging in policy and community organizing.”
As a sociology undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Fontaine says she first started exploring the ways that government systems, like the welfare system or the courts, can oppress communities of color. “I became motivated to think about these systems,” says Fontaine, “And I, like many people, thought the law was the way to ultimately insert myself in being of service to change that.” She chose NYU Law because of its strong public interest law program.
During her 1L summer, Fontaine worked at The Door, which she calls “a one-stop shop” for disconnected youth in New York City. “The Door showed me the value of a hub of information for people that need it, especially when folks are limited in their resources, like time,” she says. Then, during her 3L year, Fontaine took a bioethics course with Nancy Dubler, the then-director of bioethics at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, and also enrolled in a medical-legal partnership clinic that NYU was piloting with Montefiore. The experience gave her more insight into the holistic model, showing how legal interventions could improve health outcomes. “The classic model is a childhood asthma situation where doctors aren't sure why interventions of medicine aren't actually improving outcomes. And then, turns out the heat is off, or the landlord isn't resolving the rodent infestation…It's really a legal issue,” says Fontaine.
Inspired by the clinic, during a post-graduate Skadden Fellowship Fontaine designed and implemented a project that forged a new partnership between Bronx Legal Services and a number of family medicine clinics within the Montefiore Medical Network. “These medical clinics were really homes for a lot of people,” Fontaine says. “You had a lot of repeat folks. That’s where they felt they could have someone listen to them, or get information. And so this idea of a hub where people are able to have multiple needs met, again, I found that model really effective.”
Fontaine stayed on at Legal Services after her fellowship, doing public benefits work and litigating welfare issues, before she joined MRNY in 2015 as a deputy legal director. In 2017, she became co-director and this year, she became MRNY’s sole legal director. Fontaine maintains a close connection to her NYU Law roots. A member of the Law Alumni of Color Association (LACA)’s board since shortly after her graduation, Fontaine now serves as LACA vice president. “We are stronger, I think, in our connections with each other, whether it's sharing information about jobs and opportunities, or just talking about the law or other things that are happening,” she says. “It's an important community.” In 2019, Fontaine received the Public Service Award at NYU Law’s annual Public Service Benefit, cosponsored by LACA, the Public Interest Law Center, and the Law Alumni Association (LAA).
“Sienna’s passion is limitless. Her commitment to serving the most vulnerable populations has been evident since law school,” says LAA president Katrina James ’07, a former classmate of Fontaine’s who served with her on the NYU Review of Law & Social Change and in executive positions in the Black Allied Law Students Association while at the Law School.
Assistant Dean for Public Service Lisa Hoyes ’99 concurs: “Sienna exemplifies the best of public interest lawyering. She is driven by a deep commitment to her clients and to the broader fight for justice. She is an invaluable member of the NYU alumni community, through her work with LACA, and as a mentor and resource to countless students and alumni. We are so grateful to count her as one of our own.”
Posted September 25, 2020