From Tutor to ACLU Legal Assistant: Emma Keeshin ’15

August 27, 2018

Erin Ulrich ’18

Emma Keeshin
Emma Keeshin ’15
Photo credit: Courtesy of Emma Keeshin

Emma Keeshin ’15 is using the analytical skills she developed at Oberlin to make real world connections between systemic injustices and on-the-ground efforts to dismantle them.

As a legal assistant with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio, Emma Keeshin ’15 works closely with the organization’s lawyers in myriad ways, supporting the arduous process of fighting injustice in federal courtrooms. The Ohio ACLU’s recent cases include a lawsuit against the Columbus police for using excessive force against people protesting President Trump’s travel ban imposed on citizens from predominantly Muslim countries (Abdur-Rahmin v. Columbus), as well as a lawsuit advocating for transgender Ohioans to be able to correct the gender on their birth certificates (Ray v. Himes). Keeshin’s proclivity for social justice work makes uphill legal battles not just endurable, but worth fighting for.

But Keeshin’s breadth of understanding of social inequities and the frameworks for subverting them didn’t happen overnight. At Oberlin, she majored in politics and law and society, chaired Oberlin Young Educators, and taught and tutored at Prospect Elementary School, including with Spanish in the Elementary Schools (SITES). Keeshin says that some of her most formative experiences at Oberlin include Professor of Africana Studies Pam Brooks’ History of Black Incarceration course, working as a facilitator in the Yeworkwha Belachew Center for Dialogue (YBCB), and enrolling in constitutional law classes taught by professors of politics Ron Kahn and Harry Hirsch. She also did a private reading with Brooks on restorative justice her senior year, which intensified her drive to put her classroom readings to use in the Oberlin community and beyond.

Although Keeshin took advantage of the flexibility of Oberlin’s curriculum to cater her courses to her own interests, she often learned the most by immersing herself in the local public school system. As a student, Keeshin remarks that she seriously considered a future in teaching—a path she still thinks about.

The root of Keeshin’s optimism and commitment to community organizing lies in restorative justice. This activist and intellectual framework addresses the harm caused by wrongdoing, the needs of all those affected, and works to repair the harm done outside of the criminal justice system. Restorative justice unpacks how punishment perpetuates harm and creates a culture of institutionalized punishment in which low-income and communities of color—those typically with the least amount of resources—face staggering disparities in incarceration rates.

“A dream of mine is to lead a restorative justice program in the K-12 setting. When students cause harm, we should help them build the skills to repair that harm instead of pushing them out of school—which we know puts kids at risk for interaction with the criminal justice system.”

By working with young people in Cleveland and in the Oberlin Public Schools, Keeshin has been able to see the abstract, theoretical knowledge about a multiplicity of systemic oppressions play out before her eyes.

“Before working at the ACLU, I worked at an after-school program in Cleveland. It was hard to see so many structural issues playing out in the students’ lives but not being able to focus on fixing those structures.”

The faculty mentorships and courses Keeshin took at Oberlin showed her just how transformative the marriage of practical and analytical knowledge can be in making indelible social change.

“Working with kids in schools is what politicized me. My experiences at Oberlin most definitely pushed me toward this work. The students and professors made me understand how deep the roots of these systems are while also showing me that we must not accept them as givens. Oberlin gave me the analytical skills to see the bad things in the world and believe fiercely that they don’t have to be this way.”

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