Leader profile: Rachel Wydra 3L student at University of Minnesota

Editor’s note: With the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping across the world, law students are at the forefront, using their passion and skills to fight for equality. The National Jurist is profiling some of these leaders. We invite you to tell us about other law students who are making a difference.  

Many law students decide to get their Doctor of Jurisprudence (J.D.) degree so that they can help people or make some sort of change in the world. Rachel Wydra, a third-year law student at the University of Minnesota Law School, is no different. 

“My senior year of high school I shadowed a public defender for a day. This was the first time I truly realized how powerful a law degree can be,” Wydra said. “As a history major, I became well-acquainted with the countless injustices that have been committed throughout the history of humanity. I became driven to devote my career to helping fight injustice in whatever corner of the world I ended up in.” 

In March, Wydra moved back home to Illinois to finish the school year online during the COVID-19 pandemic. After hearing about the horrific death of George Floyd she was motivated to help her hometown of Downers Grove fight racism. She organized a grassroots campaign for greater transparency in local policing policies. She collected 313 signatures and wrote a letter demanding communication and change. 

“The town is already working on increasing transparency, and I think there is great potential to develop a strong relationship between the police and the community,” Wydra said. “There is another petition/open letter going around Downers Grove about adding more diverse voices and history into the curriculum of the local high schools. It is great to see these efforts happening in a small suburb. I hope that similar pushes for change will happen all across the country at the local, state, and federal levels.” 

While Wydra hasn’t been on the ground and seeing the aftermath of the death of George Floyd with her own eyes, she says it’s been inspiring to watch her fellow classmates get involved and do the same things she would be doing if she were in Minneapolis. 

“Students from all three of the local law schools have been helping the community and supporting the BLM movement,” Wydra said. “This includes writing and signing petitions, attending protests, donating, cleaning up damaged areas, providing supplies to those in need, providing legal aid, and advocating for large changes.”

Wydra has been a supporter of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement since it started, long before the death of George Floyd. She thinks the movement does a great job of creating community and getting people involved in a cause.

“As a whole, the fight against systemic racism is a long one. It's been going on for centuries and sustained effort to create lasting change will be necessary,” she said. “As law students and lawyers, we need to keep up this fight and use our legal skills to aid the movement. It is my hope that the momentum of the recent protests will continue and that people across all sectors of society will keep pushing for change and specific policy and legal reform that will actually help solve issues of systemic racism. This includes changes in policing, mass incarceration, housing, healthcare, education, and more.”

As a white woman, Wydra admits she has never personally experienced racism, but says she has witnessed it in our criminal justice system.

“Unfortunately, our criminal justice system is not set up to be fair to everyone, and people of color face a different system than White Americans,” she said. “When you watch criminal court, you can literally see these inequities in front of you as you watch each case and listen to each person's story. I encourage every law student to go watch criminal court in your city. I think as lawyers and law students it is crucial that we understand racism within the legal systems we work in.”

Now, more so than ever, Wydra is committed to educating herself about issues and movements related to BLM and the fight for equality in America. 

“I have been watching documentaries, reading articles and books, and having discussions with many of my friends and fellow law students,” she said. “I have also been signing petitions, following the movement on social media, and volunteering to provide legal support. I was inspired to do work at the local level by all of the momentum I have seen at a more national level. I strongly believe that every single town, no matter how small, needs to seriously reevaluate how it may be contributing to systemic racism.”

Evan as such an activist in both her hometown and college town, Wydra is uncertain of what her exact career goals are but says she’s committed to working in the public interest law sector or government.

“I have the most experience in criminal law, immigration law, and human rights law, and I would like to use my law degree to work in one of these areas,” Wydra said. “Whichever area I end up working in, my long-term career goal is to serve the community around me and use my law degree in a positive way.”

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