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“It’s our job to be advocates against injustice”

A conversation with Law and Equity Committee Chair Bianca Gutierrez
Bianca Gutierrez

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Bianca Gutierrez decided to pursue a law degree in order to advocate for immigrants in the United States. Born and raised in Miami, with a bachelor’s degree from Florida International University, Gutierrez became the first member of her family to move away for school when she decided to attend Penn State Law in University Park. Although it was a hard decision to make, she knew it was the right place for her, in large part because of opportunities in the field of immigration law—such as working for Penn State Law’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic (CIRC), led by renowned immigration expert Professor Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia.

“As the daughter of an immigrant family, I knew early on that I wanted to pursue immigration law so I could build a meaningful and impactful career,” Gutierrez said.

Through her time in Pennsylvania, along with her work as a clinical student with CIRC in spring 2020 and continuing this fall, Gutierrez has a better understanding of migrant workers and other vulnerable immigrant populations locally and across the state who could benefit from her background as a Spanish-speaking, first-generation Latinx law student.

Now entering her final year at Penn State Law, Gutierrez is interested in practicing immigration law for a nonprofit in a city such as Pittsburgh.

Her current internship—as a legal intern with Justice at Work (JAW), a Pittsburgh nonprofit that specializes in immigration and employment issues for migrant farmworkers—speaks directly to that interest.

“I’m really passionate about serving the migrant farmworker communities in Pennsylvania through the lens of immigration and employment legal advocacy,” Gutierrez said.

In addition to her work with CIRC, Gutierrez is the president of the Public Interest Law Fund (PILF), Law and Equity Committee Chair for the Student Bar Association (SBA), and a member of the Latinx Law Students Association (LLSA) and OutLaw, a Penn State Law student organization of LGBTQ+ individuals and allies. Last year, she served as president of the Women’s Law Caucus.

Gutierrez recently spoke with Penn State Law about advocacy, intersectional identities, and her experience with racial justice efforts at Penn State Law.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Penn State Law: I understand that you were involved in helping to plan/coordinate the June 4 events in response to the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans. What was your involvement?

Bianca Gutierrez: Through my position as Law and Equity Committee Chair, I worked with the SBA and the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) to identify the event’s message and coordinate logistics. From the beginning, it was important to me to use this platform as a spotlight for what BLSA wanted to say. Coordinating the surrounding details made me feel like allies like me were hammering in the nails and building the stage that BLSA would stand on. This event and this moment is theirs, to tell whatever they want in whatever way they want to. It’s important to remember that as allies, the narrative is not ours.  Needless to say, this process has made a huge impact in my understanding of my role as an ally.

I definitely wasn’t the only one who felt mixed emotions in navigating the event planning. On one hand, it felt empowering to have the chance to address a critical issue with my peers and to create a space to listen to my Black peers; one the other hand, it felt hard to stay motivated and work hard when I really wanted to stop and mourn. I am grateful for both the event and my work on it ‘behind-the-scenes,’ because it helped me deeply confront my privilege as a nonblack person of color and the work that needs to be done from here.

PSL: Penn State Law recently developed a list of concrete action steps to address and improve issues of racial equity and inclusion. Are there any action steps you are particularly excited about or eager to see implemented?

BG: I am particularly interested in the action items about Student Inclusion and Support. I think these steps are a great way to make an impact and take a step forward together as a community.

I think that students really appreciate transparency between them and the administration. I’m particularly excited to work closer with Professor Wadhia [who was recently appointed Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] in my role as Chair of the Law and Equity Committee and to increase the conversation between students and faculty. This year, we’re really lucky to have an enthusiastic group of social justice-inspired students that are ready to advocate for others.

Just like conversations among peers and students are important to the process of learning about intersectional inclusivity, these conversations should absolutely be extended to faculty too so that our student community feels empowered, supported and listened to.

PSL: This entire process seems to have opened up more candid discussions of racial equity and justice among and between Penn State Law students, faculty, and administration. How do we—the entire Penn State Law community—ensure that these conversations continue?

BG: I do worry about what will happen when the conversation is reduced in the news and among conversations with our peers. 

The Law and Equity Committee is working on developing monthly ‘roundtable discussions’ to help students at Penn State Law come together regularly to discuss issues with race, identity, and social issues that may come up. While we haven’t decided yet, we are thinking we will rotate issues: September is Hispanic Heritage Month so we can spotlight LLSA; August 26 celebrates Women’s Equality Day so we can spotlight WLC, etcetera. Because the committee is represented by all student organizations at Penn State Law, we are still grappling with how to focus and celebrate one group without leaving another group behind or unnoticed. We haven’t announced any dates or details and will be doing so before the school year starts.

However, I think this is a really exciting opportunity to develop better intentional intersectionality and allyship. 

Undoubtedly, the conversation surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement needs to continue, with organized conversations beyond a student-run roundtable. The problems are systemic, and the unchecked racism lives within us. As many of the BLM posters read, ‘silence is not an option.’ As students, it’s our job to be advocates against injustice and the mistreatment of Black people in this country. 

To be in a good place where these conversations continue is to know that there are actions behind these listening sessions and surveys. I think students want to see intentional support from our faculty members and administration. One example can be just showing up. Our event earlier this month [part of the June 4 series] had a great turnout with over 130 participants on the Zoom call. Students, alumni, faculty, and staff showed up—everyone. But unfortunately, we noticed that it’s the same faculty members: the faculty members who come to the PILF auction, who participate in the minority mentorship program, who email us congratulations when we are elected into student organization leadership positions. There should have been more faculty members at our event because this is everyone’s issue. Regardless of whether they think their role is as a faculty member or a mentor, whatever. Ultimately, this conversation requires their participation as allies and we definitely noticed that they weren’t there. It was really disappointing.

PSL: You talked about the need for ‘intentional intersectionality.’ Why is that important?

BG: Without intentional intersectionality, we won’t reach true racial justice. Often, in our respective spaces, we tend to pick up toxic messages that separate us from other groups that don’t look like us or share our same experiences. An example of this that I’ve experienced is ‘white feminism,’ and what happens when we don’t intentionally include other voices is that they fall to the margins and it defeats the purpose of advocating for racial justice. In both personal and professional spaces, it’s important to be critical of those around you and how they are actively bringing other perspectives to the table. It doesn’t happen accidentally, which is why it has to be intentional.

PSL: You are obviously passionate about addressing injustices faced by many different individuals and groups, including immigrants in the United States. Do you see any overlap or connections in the fight against these various injustices?

BG: Definitely, there’s tons of overlap. And I think too that it feeds into intersectional identities because we can focus and highlight the differences amongst us while also celebrating the many similarities.

I’ve noticed connections between experiences from students whose identities are more easily hidden, like some religious and LGBQT+ identities, and other students whose identities are more obvious on first impression. For example, some religious and LGBTQ+ identities may have similar experiences when they walk into an interview or professional networking space and they have to decide if or when to reveal this aspect of their identity, which can be tricky sometimes in professional spaces.

On the other hand, the identities of black and brown students is sometimes apparent on first impression and adds to a completely different experience and perspective. Whether it’s the color of your skin, your last name, the way you speak, the way you present yourself, or other features—people may actively pick out those aspects to try to determine your identity. 

From my experience talking to other students, it’s interesting to hear about identities that you don’t wear on your sleeve and that add to your experience as a minority. I’m still learning about my identity and how I navigate the world as a Latinx student, but these conversations allow me to listen and learn.

Our student spaces should be places of trust where we can discuss these differences and learn from our respective worldviews to better understand how to advocate for one another and genuinely foster intentional intersectionality.

I get excited about these conversations because we grow so much when we learn both about our similarities and our differences. Personally, these conversations have significantly shaped my perspectives as a Latinx law student and I hope to carry these lessons and values to my future legal career.

PSL: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you feel is important or want to say?

BG: I think it’s important to describe the Law and Equity Committee that is housed in SBA. It’s comprised of students that serve as liaisons for Penn State Law affinity groups [student organizations], including the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association (APALSA), BLSA, LLSA, Muslim Legal Society, OutLaw, South Asian Law Students Association (SALSA), and Women’s Law Caucus.

The committee is not exclusively liaisons; volunteers can also serve the committee. We are a big committee of nine students, and three more will be nominated to join in the fall.

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