“Human Trafficking” is a term most of us are familiar with. Yet, the realities of its meaning are held at a safe distance – like a tenable mystery we’re not all that eager to explore with our magnifying glass. Even those who consider themselves well read and up to speed on current events would probably be astounded by what they don’t know that they don’t know about this criminal underworld. Wendi’s insightfully gritty novel, This Is Our Story, changes that for every reader who dares to enter that world through the gut wrenching experiences of Rosa and Mila, the compelling voices that draw us in and leave us unwilling to remain uninformed and uninvolved. Wendi’s signature writing style, healthy sense of humor, and thought provokingly intimate presentation of Rosa and Mila’s stories is exactly the mastery needed to lead the reader through the pages with grace and strength, and at the perfect tempo. The women’s immigration attorney, Lily, has her own story as well which adds invaluable texture and multi-faceted dimension to the indelible imprint of this book on the social justice consciousness of anyone who reads it.
Wendi’s book has just been selected by Florida State University as featured reading provided to thousands of incoming freshman this year, and Wendi has been asked to speak at the New Student Convocation Ceremony on August 24, 2014.
A Clinical Professor and the Director of the Medical Legal Partnership at FSU’s College of Law, Wendi, who is a native Floridian, had this to say about what informed her decision to become a lawyer and how she arrived at Florida State University:
In college I was looking for any way to learn Spanish so that I could connect with more people. I got a fellowship to work with families of the disappeared post Dirty War in Argentina. During that work in Buenos Aires in the summer of 1999 I met Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who is a Noble Peace Prize Winner. I started spending two days a week with him at his camp for kids. I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning and wait for him for a while on a cold subway platform. When he arrived, we would drive for two hours each way out to the “campo” to connect with 15 or so kids, teach them computers and life lessons, and then head back to the city. During that time with Adolfo I was so impressed with the way that he worked with individual people, but also spent time traveling around the world giving talks on the movement against violence. I realized then that I wanted to develop a skillset that I could use to help individual people, but also to advance larger policies. I thought law was a good tool for social change to use in that regard.
I screwed up fantastically and ended up with a dream job as a clinical law professor. I fell in love with the wrong man, and he got a job in Tallahassee. I had wanted to be in DC or become a foreign service officer, or in the previous few years, live closely to my family in South Florida. So, ill-fated romance took me to Tallahassee, and love for my children keeps me here.
My children are 3 and 4, fourteen months apart. Much of the last 4 years has been a giant blur. They are my heart walking around outside of my body, and every decision related to my career has been made with them in mind. I was offered my dream job of directing an immigration clinic in another city when I was 7 months pregnant with my older son, and I turned it down, because I didn’t know what his needs would be when he was born, or how being a mother would change my perspective on work and family. And now, I’ve received offers for more lucrative employment, but not with the same kind of flexibility, and so I turn them down as well, because what matters most to me, today, is that I can spend the most amount of quality time with my lovies.
I asked Wendi to explain a little about the Medical Legal Partnership:
The medical legal partnership is a clinical legal program, which means that we use experiential learning (we partner with a local community health clinic and represent homeless, indigent, undocumented, and physically/mentally ill persons with their petitions for disability and immigration legal services) to teach law students how to practice law. Students do every aspect of a case, from performing intake, doing research, and filing applications/petitions, and advocating for a client in administrative court. This past week we advocated with various senators/representatives for medicaid expansion in Florida. We brought one of our clients who falls within the coverage gap to show the senators/representatives who voted against expansion the human face that loses when they make political choices.
I also run an alternative spring break program where law and medical students provide legal assistance to migrant farm workers and their families, and learn about the impact of farmwork on individual and family health, and how the law can impact other social determinants of health. This time, our students went to one of the parking lots where workers congregate for work at 5:30AM, and we talked with a crewleader about her life and her work as a young migrant farmworker and as an adult crewleader.
Medical-Legal Partnership Alternative Spring Break in Immokalee, Florida
Introduce law students to the life of migrant farm workers through an immersion experience during Spring break. The goal is to help students understand the psychosocial realities and legal challenges that impact health in this population and help them acquire legal skills that will better equip them to work with this population.
Students spend a week providing legal assistance at the community health center with FSU College of Medicine and College of Law faculty, doing outreach legal assistance at health fairs with other agencies in Immokalee and learning about the migrant lifestyle through home visits, visits to the fields and packing houses and other agencies.
Wendi’s motivation to write This Is Our Story is best summarized in her own words, here:
As a clinical law professor, I sometimes feel like a reluctant academic. The idea of being an academic inspires visions of the ivory tower, where conversations about the law take place amongst lofty people with powdered wigs (*I mean no offense to the British*). I am focused on real-world legal practice, largely around the issue of immigration. Thus, most often when someone asks me what I do for a living I respond, “public interest lawyer” or “immigration lawyer, but the good kind that doesn’t rip people off.’ It is important to me to describe what I do in terms of its relation to the clients we serve, the community at large, and the inherent opportunity to serve the public good.
So, circa 2008, when I was working as an immigration attorney at the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights (a lofty title for a building with a dilapidated staircase into the old house-turned organization and an office barely big enough to house the hot water heater that sat next to my desk) I discovered that there was an inconsistency in the laws that favored children who were victims of sex trafficking, but seemingly mischaracterized kids that had been prostituted as criminals. I thought this was very interesting, and I still do, but as I sat down to write an article on the esoteric differences in these laws I discovered that what I most wanted to do was tell my client’s stories, and mine (*i.e. what it means to be a public interest lawyer*) to a broader audience.
For the previous few years, I had represented abused immigrant women, immigrant children who fled violence and abuse at home, persecuted people seeking asylum, and victims of human trafficking. Instead of writing an article for a legal publication primarily read by legal academics and practitioners (*no offense meant to the legal scholars out there*), I wanted to write my clients’ stories. I wanted to give voice to a population that often has none. I wanted people to know how criminals and traffickers exploit human vulnerabilities; what the experience of being trafficked is actually like; and the struggle to piece together broken lives when (and if) it ends.
I wrote this novel, putting in hours each day for two years, finishing just before my first son was born. I then spent the next two years trying to find an agent or a publisher to no avail (and gave birth to my second son during that time, while continuing to work). Finally, in 2011, I decided to self-publish. The chance to public with an academic publisher came in 2012. Now, in 2014, I am thrilled that my novel, This is Our Story, has been selected by Florida State University for their One Book, One Campus initiative. Over the summer, 7,000 incoming freshman will engage with the issue of human trafficking by reading and discussing my book. This is both an honor and an opportunity to educate students on this deeply important issue.
I am hopeful that being exposed to my clients’ stories will make an impact on the Class of 2018. Maybe one of these freshpeople will pursue a career in mental health and provide services to trafficked persons recovering from trauma. Perhaps some of the law students that I teach in Tallahassee, Florida will also represent victims of human trafficking. These possibilities make me less of a reluctant academic- because they represent the possibility that the modern university can fuel real-world social change. Maybe one day, when my boys are no longer in diapers, they will bring me to school for career day, proud that their mom is a clinical law professor.