By Susana Cervantes, J.D. ’17
Student Leader, Mississippi Delta Project
I initially joined the Mississippi Delta Project (“MDP”) my 1L fall as a way to stay connected to the region that had charmed its way into a special place in my heart. While I’m originally from California and went to college in Boston, I spent the two years before law school as a high school teacher with Teach for America in Jackson, Mississippi. Many people in the nation only know Mississippi for its failures: for example, the fact that it has some of the highest rates of obesity, teen pregnancy, and child poverty in the nation. These troubles are real, and especially so in the Mississippi Delta, an area of deeply entrenched generational poverty and racial divides. But at the same time, these statistics belie the beauty of Mississippi and the indefatigable spirit of its people. Living in Mississippi I got to see the hopes that many of my students had for a better future, and the work that they, my colleagues, and others were doing to make that future a reality.
When I moved back to the Northeast for law school, it was important for me to continue contributing in some way to that movement for change, so I joined the Child and Youth Advocacy Team of MDP. Doing so ended up also being a great way to build up some of my lawyerly skills and understanding. My team was partnering with the Mississippi State Health Department to encourage “Baby-Friendly” hospital policies that would promote breastfeeding. As part of my research for the project, I had the chance to talk with health department officials in other states that had launched similar, successful initiatives. In the process, I learned a lot about implementing effective policy, and the many stakeholders and considerations involved in taking an idea from its initial conception to its ultimate fruition. I also grew significantly as a policy writer by contributing to and editing portions of the final report that we delivered to our client.
Looking back, I can see some of the rippling effects that our work has had over the past couple of years. When we started our Baby-Friendly Hospital project, Mississippi had zero hospitals that were officially certified by UNICEF/WHO as “Baby-Friendly.” Since the release of our report, one Mississippi hospital has been certified as Baby-Friendly and at least two more are on their way. Our report also helped build the foundation to do more work around breastfeeding in Mississippi. For example, last year, another MDP team successfully campaigned to pass a state law that affirmatively protects the right of breastfeeding employees to express milk in the workplace. Seeing these kinds of results has been incredibly rewarding.
I’ve also been fortunate in my new role as Co-Chair of the project because I’ve gotten to hear from lots of new and returning members about why they joined and why they have stayed. Some have deep ties to Mississippi or other areas of the South, having been raised there and perhaps hoping to return to work there after graduation. Some, like me, aren’t from the region, but have spent some time there and become fascinated by its charms. Others have never set foot past the Mason-Dixon line before, but are intrigued by the opportunity to do domestic policy work. But above all, they share a deep and inspiring passion for creating a meaningful impact in a region that can benefit from our time and resources. The joy of collaborating with them, as well as with our amazing clients and partners on the ground in Mississippi, regularly reminds me why I’ve chosen to work in public interest law and policy.