Profiles in Practice: Amber Goodwin

In this time of certain uncertainty, Amber Goodwin, current 3L and president of the Student Bar Association at Mitchell Hamline Law School, is poised to continue a decades-long fight to bring justice to marginalized communities as a practicing lawyer. Goodwin is the founder and executive director of both the Community Justice Action Fund and the Community Justice Reform Coalition. These organizations are dedicated to building power with, and for communities of color to end gun violence. While Goodwin always wanted to be a lawyer, her road to law school was tough, and she had a few humbling experiences along the way.

It all started at an Olive Garden in the Houston area in 2002. While finding success in the pool as a high school and collegiate athlete, Goodwin, was on the brink of … nothing. Stinging from the rejection of over 10 law schools, she decided to heed her parent’s prompting to get a job. But where? The time commitment of being a hyper-competitive swimmer meant she had never been employed.

Goodwin is an accomplished swimmer. She was 1997 Texas State Championship in the 100-meter backstroke, and one of the first Black scholarship winners and captain of the women’s swim team at Florida State University. 

Packing her humility into her lunch box, Goodwin found a position at a nearby Olive Garden as a hostess. Soon she was head hostess, and learned these valuable lessons: validate others through delegation; take responsibility for your work product; do not blame others for an unintended outcome; and treat people with respect.

This she considers is a measure of character.
Goodwin carried that humility with her when she decided to move to Washington, D.C. Without a job, but armed with 100 copies of a hand-typed resume, Goodwin physically walked the halls of Congress dropping off the resumes trying to land a paid or unpaid internship. She successfully landed an internship with Congressman Donald Payne. She was later hired by the House Democratic Caucus to work for Senator Rob Menendez, as his staff assistant. Her duties included interacting with House Democratic leadership, providing the staff work to fulfill the caucuses’ charge to shape party policy and legislative priorities, acting as the Caucus meetings gatekeeper, and even serving bagels and coffee. 

Her humility was tested again when at one meeting a member notified her that there was a problem with the coffee machine. The problem was that Goodwin had never made coffee and had no idea that water needed to be added to the machine. Confessing her lack of barista skills to her boss, she received a compassionate, and understanding response. She quickly learned that powerful people are human too, and she picked up an amazing life skill in how to make coffee.

While Goodwin was happy and successful with policy work at the caucus, she felt called to the political cause. She wanted to focus on campaign field work and grass roots organizing after she had attended a “Campaign Camp” in Dallas, Texas. She later joined Grassroots Solutions; a grassroots political firm based in Minnesota that was in partnership with Wellstone Action. There she met the future Minnesota Lt. Governor, Peggy Flannagan, and future St. Paul Mayor, Melvin Carter. Together these "baby organizers” set off to actualize campaign strategies originated by the late Senator Paul Wellstone. This included building power at the voting booth.

According to Goodwin, the experience at Grassroots Solutions as a campaign camp manager “changed my life.” For the next 13 years of her career, Goodwin committed to grassroots organizing and field work for causes and candidates she believed in. Her work and efforts included working for President Barack Obama in 2008, and Wendy Davis who ran for Governor in Texas after gaining notoriety for a 13-hour filibuster in the Texas Senate. Other achievements included implementation of the Affordable Care Act training, educating, and activating young Democrats, and establishment of a union to protect the rights of janitors in the Houston area. This work fundamentally changed her life and crystalized her perspective on law. 

While purposefully protesting on behalf of the janitors on strike, she and 11 other protesters were arrested when they handcuffed themselves to trashcans and blocked traffic. Despite motivating words offered by legendary Congressman John Lewis, nothing could prepare her for being in jail. Though she was only in the county jail for two days, the lack of freedom caused her to think more comprehensibly about the justice system and ways to change it.

Goodwin got her chance to fundamentally change the conversation when she moved back to Washington to work at Giffords, a gun violence prevention advocacy organization. While working for this group, she was angry and deeply moved after a group of Black parishioners were shot while attending Bible study in Charleston, SC. This incident forced Goodwin to think about race and class, and she took close notes on how people were impacted by gun violence. 

This inequity prompted her to start the organizations she is running now. This included working with civil rights activist Desmond Meade, who was fighting to restore voting rights in Florida. Goodwin became engaged in similar causes across the United States. She hoped to affect the process as a lawyer like Meade, who she considers one of her heroes. She just needed to find an ABA accredited program that offered classes both online and in person. 

Friends in Minnesota recommended Mitchell Hamline because of its blended learning program. This program enabled Goodwin to continue to run her non-profits from her home in Houston while attending classes online and in Minnesota. The flexibility of the program is especially beneficial when your day job requires you to testify before Congress, as Goodwin did before the House Judiciary Committee in 2019.

What is in store for the future lawyer? A brand of legal advocacy Goodwin has studied called “trauma informed lawyering.” Goodwin will continue to fight for social justice causes and intends to support marginalized communities by fundamentally challenging existing institutional structures and holding people accountable through impact litigation, class actions, and legislative work.  

Goodwin’s passion is to promote the belief in a different world free from injustice, and the courage to change the legal system. She cautions us, citing Brené Brown’s message, that courage and comfort are not simultaneously compatible.  In this fight, she challenges us all to do the work—assess the systems you have benefitted from, embrace the burden to educate yourself to understand injustice embedded in those systems, and embrace the responsibility to change those systems.

After the killing of George Floyd in May of 2020, Goodwin, along with other student leaders, wrote an open letter to the Mitchell Hamline Student body, “No matter what area of law you pursue, remember you have the power to break down systems that have caused harm to people in our community.”

by Nancy Wallrich

Nancy Wallrich represents injured workers as an attorney at Teplinsky Law Group.  She is also a privacy professional and maintains the CIPP/US.  She is a former Adjunct Legal Writing Professor for the Legal Practicum at William Mitchell College of Law and her community service includes serving as mentor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law,  co-chairing the Minnesota Association for Justice Women for Justice section.
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