By: Alexis Farmer
Harvard Law School (HLS) student Emanuel Powell J.D. ’19 is the winner of this year’s Gary Bellow Public Service Award, established in 2001 to honor Professor Gary Bellow ’60, his commitment to public service, and his innovative approach to the analysis and practice of law. Professor Bellow was a pioneering public interest lawyer who founded and directed Harvard Law School’s clinical programs.
Each year, the Gary Bellow Public Service Award recognizes a student who exemplifies how lawyers can litigate, educate, advocate, and organize to promote social justice. The HLS student body nominates and selects the winner. This year, the finalists were celebrated at an award ceremony and reception on April 23. At the ceremony, Emanuel encouraged his classmates to be mindful of the ways lawyers can either help or hinder social movements. While at HLS, Emanuel worked in a variety of practice areas that focused on movement lawyering.
Emanuel Powell J.D. ’19
Hailing from Liberty, MS, a town of a little over 700 people, Emanuel has always felt called to work in spaces that fight for racial equity. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Southern California (USC), Emanuel was a part of the governing board of the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund. Concerned by the lack of diversity of the undergraduate and graduate student population, two USC undergraduates started the Student Aid Fund, financed by a student tax that helps support low-income students from communities surrounding USC. Next to singing in the gospel choir, he considers his experience on the board “the most fun thing I’ve done at USC.”
After graduating from the Marshall School of Business at USC in 2012, Emanuel spent a summer in Rwanda helping rural farmers start co-ops, using his undergraduate training to help develop social enterprises. He then moved to New York and worked for two consulting organizations. At one, he helped a philanthropic organization focus on investing in racial equity, which culminated in designing a fellowship program for individuals in South Africa and the U.S. fighting to dismantle anti-black racism. That led him to be an active voice in the organization, helping other nonprofits think about funding racial justice work. It was through his experiences that he noticed that lawyers were always in the room. He began to see the law as a path to achieving black liberation and decided to go to law school.
Since starting at HLS, Emanuel has been a member and a leader of the Mississippi Delta Project (MDP) and Harvard Defenders. Additionally, he spent two years at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. In MDP, he worked on the Child and Youth team, and in Defenders, he represented clients at show-cause hearings. “The classroom setting is valuable for getting the foundational understanding [of the law] . . . but the way I learn best is through experiential learning.” He chose these organizations because, he says, they each orient students to be of service to the community, whether it be individual clients or movement organizers in a specific geographic area. It’s a principle of his to engage with the community in an authentic way. “I have a belief that you should work in community and with movements.”
Emanuel served as the managing editor of the Harvard Black Letter Law Journal, which uses legal scholarship to support Black communities, and is a member of the political action committee of the Black Law Student Association.
Referencing Audre Lorde’s quote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and Emanuel said that “law school helped me realize I didn’t even want the master’s house dismantled, I want our own house or our own safe communities. That’s what I’m most excited about.” He lights up when he speaks about supporting movements creating alternative systems for economic, legal, and social prosperity that truly support disadvantaged communities. He wants to use the law to support these alternative structures. He says there is a lot of opportunity to support those leading movements for social change, “but,” he cautions, “if we’re not careful, we [as lawyers] have the power to stop them from accessing a better future.” He looks to Fannie Lou Hamer as an example, a “regular” person who saw there could a different way of life for Black people in Mississippi. She advocated creating a new structure for jobs and political parties. “As lawyers we can help people like Fannie Lou Hamer or stop people like Fannie Lou Hamer.”
Reflecting on the award and his three years at HLS, Emanuel said, “I was surprised to be nominated. One thing I’ve learned is that there are many students at HLS involved in public interest work across many different issue areas. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to accept this award, especially given the legacy of Gary Bellow and the opportunity to share the great work of some of the community-based organizations I have had the opportunity to work with. I hope I can live up to that legacy as I begin my career as an attorney.”
Upon graduation, Emanuel will be clerking for a judge in Jackson, MS and hopes to work in the South as a movement lawyer.