Truman Scholar Plans to Challenge Systemic Injustice in her Community

July 8, 2021

Yvonne Gay

A portrait of a female student wearing glasses.
Iesha-LaShay Phillips ’22
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Iesha-LaShay Phillips ’22 applied for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship because of its emphasis on public service and vast network of scholars motivated by a desire to create change. As a Truman recipient, she hopes to pursue a law degree that will allow her to have a deep impact in her community.

In addition to $30,000 for graduate school, Truman Scholars participate in several programs, including a leadership week, a three-month summer institute in Washington D.C., and other programs that support Truman scholars throughout their public service careers. This year, leadership week will be conducted remotely, and the in-person summer institute will take place next summer.

Phillips, a double-degree Africana studies and law and society major with a rhetoric and composition minor, plans to apply to law schools in the fall. With a doctor of law degree she hopes to expand her impact in her indigenous communities by representing indigent people in court, advising them of their rights, and challenging systemic injustice in the criminal justice system.

“The United States has an incarceration crisis. In Oklahoma, we have the highest incarceration rate of women in the world,” says Phillips, a resident of Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Ultimately, I want to fight the over-incarceration of women because it leads to the over-incarceration of youth. I hope to do this through working as a public defender for low-income women, then shifting my focus to impact litigation to change entire systems.” 

Phillips’ first contact with public service workers began at New Hope Oklahoma, a program for children with incarcerated parents. Workers there supported her single-parent family by providing them with basic necessities. “Every year since I was four, they bought Christmas presents for me and my siblings because they knew my mother could not afford any gifts,” Phillips explains. 

“Through the compassion of their volunteers, New Hope instilled hope, strength, and self-worth in my life. These gestures filled me with a passion to serve my communities and make the same difference in children’s lives. I honestly cannot imagine a life where I don’t serve my community and make life better for those who come after. This is why the Truman Scholarship is so important to me. I was also drawn to Truman for its professional development opportunities and vast Truman Scholar network, which includes change agents like Michelle Alexander, Stacey Abrams, Justice Gorsuch, and more.”

Phillips currently volunteers at juvenile detention facilities throughout Ohio with Writers In Residence, which also piqued her interest in juvenile justice. At Oberlin, she is a member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee, serves as an associate at the Writing Center and Speaking Center, and is a writing tutor at Oberlin High School, among other campus involvement. 

Besides the Truman Scholarship, Phillips is also the recipient of several other awards this academic year, including the Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship and Newman Civic Engagement Fellowship. Other honors include the Nancy K. Rhoden Memorial Undergraduate Prize, Student Excellence in Community Engagement Award, and Mvskoke Mvnettvlke Onaya (Youth Visionary) award. Philips was also featured on the Today Show’s special about Toni Morrison in 2020. She is a SEO Law Catalyst Scholar, QuestBridge Scholar, Bonner Scholar, and Law and Justice Scholar. 

 “I have always been a go-getter, but I have my mom to credit,” says Phillips. “Most of my life, she has been a single mother, but that didn’t stop her from making me the fierce and headstrong young woman that I am today. She taught me that I can do anything I set my mind to as long as I don’t give up, and she’s completely right! I haven’t had an easy life. I am a first-generation, low-income Black and Mvskoke woman who grew up with an incarcerated parent. I’ve survived all of these struggles that life has thrown at me through the support of my mom and my communities. This drives me to serve my communities and make life better for children in the same predicament.”

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