2023 Excellence Awards: North Hennepin Community College & The Legal Revolution

2023-06 Legal Revolution Banner

The Legal Revolution & North Hennepin Community College’s Paralegal Program were selected for the 2023 Excellence Award for Improving Access to Justice. 

The Legal Revolution, a nonprofit subsidiary of All Square, and North Hennepin Community College's Paralegal Program created the first ABA-approved paralegal certificate and law firm internship for incarcerated Minnesotans. The program provides high-quality paralegal education and experience to the students, who, upon release, will be equipped to secure competitive employment and help other Minnesotans affected by the justice system. 

Mary Fenske of NHCC, and Maya Johnson and Jon Geffen (not pictured) of The Legal Revolution answered questions about their work and their background. 

Mary Fenske 

What does Improving Access to Justice mean to you?

Improving access to justice means recognizing that all humans are bound by the law, therefore we must work to grant everyone the dignity and knowledge to fully exercise their legal protections, while also assuring they understand the consequences of the law. Legal knowledge and access is imperative to liberty and the ability to advocate for oneself, for others, and for positive and equitable change in society. Prior to meeting the incredible folks at The Legal Revolution, the law was something I studied, practiced, and taught. I’d never known what it means to not understand the law, live under the weight of the law, or what it is to be justice-impacted. The people I’ve met on this journey have enlightened me, made me a better advocate, and shown me how important access to justice is to those most impacted by it.     

What’s been a meaningful moment in your work with the Paralegal Program? 

There have been so many! Obviously, the graduation of our first cohort of incarcerated paralegal students rises to one of the best moments in my career. One of the graduates stated that her paralegal education in prison was about “more than opening up employment opportunities. It's about defining myself with a new label and not being defined by my worst day.” To play a small part in that growth in a student’s self-worth is both humbling and incredibly rewarding. North Hennepin Community College’s mission is “engaging students, changing lives.” We try to live that every day with our paralegal students. I’m also incredibly fortunate to work with amazing paralegal faculty who aren’t afraid to try new ideas, care about their students beyond the classroom, and believe in the good our program has brought to the Minnesota legal community, both in general and in partnership with The Legal Revolution.          

Who is a legal hero/mentor to you? 

The late Justice Thurgood Marshall. Although most remember him as the “Great Dissenter” and U.S. Supreme Court Justice, my strongest admiration stems from his work as a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP.  His ability to build a series of precedents to fight for civil rights and abolish the “separate but equal” doctrine has been the playbook through which multiple disenfranchised populations have subsequently secured civil rights and protections. His work inspired me to create an Honors course at North Hennepin Community College titled, “The Law Leading to Brown v. Board of Education” that covers post-Civil War cases and legislation, as well as the study of the precedents he won that ultimately resulted in the Brown decisions.   

Maya Johnson

What does Improving Access to Justice mean to you?

To me, improving access to justice means making our profession more inclusive and centering the voices that have long been relegated to only the client. To bring the voices of impacted folks into the legal profession which will no doubt, in turn result in the betterment of our profession by bringing those who have been most impacted by it to the table.

What’s been a meaningful moment in your work with the Paralegal Program?

One of the most meaningful moments for me in working on this paralegal program was when I started working with the Legal Revolution. When I joined the team, this paralegal cohort had already begun their glasses and met me with such excitement and grace. As our first programmatic cohort, they have been the trailblazers for this Pipeline program and are the reason for its budding growth and success because of the example they set. When I think back on that time over a year ago, I think of how far they have come; the obstacles they have faced and overcome, the high scores and impressive academic credentials they earned, the graduations they got to attend to celebrate their accomplishments. Being part of the team that supported them and followed them through this journey has brought me countless meaningful moments. 

Who is a legal hero/mentor to you?

Thurgood Marshall has always been a legal hero to me. Using the power of the law as an advocacy tool to change systems, perceptions and rid the country of its injustices. I see what we are doing at the Legal Revolution as no different and as work to accomplish all of the same things. 

Jon Geffen 

What does Improving Access to Justice mean to you?

Improving access to justice means accepting that our legal system has historically excluded many marginalized individuals from pursuing and obtaining justice. Our legal systems are inherently flawed if only those with resources have the ability to seek to right wrongs committed against them.  By improving access, we validate the existence of our legal structures and the lives of those previously excluded.  

What’s been a meaningful moment in your work with the Paralegal Program?

I supervised the five currently incarcerated paralegal students in an internship in the Spring of 2023. The interns worked on actual legal cases for individuals who were not incarcerated. The interns were proud that—although they were incarcerated—they were able to work on real cases and help individuals who otherwise would not have access to legal assistance. On one occasion, I went to Shakopee prison and met with three interns, and we went over cases, case law and statutes in great detail. It felt like a normal meeting with interns even though we were monitored by a correctional officer within the prison. At the end of the semester, the interns drafted expungement pleadings for 22 cases. Those cases are filed and have hearing dates in the coming weeks and months. 

Who is a legal hero/mentor to you?

Brad Colbert. Brad is the Director of Legal Assistance for Minnesota Prisoners (LAMP) at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. I took LAMP in 1997 and it changed my life. I learned a tremendous amount about the criminal legal system in the United States and began working with incarcerated individuals. After meeting several clients in prison, I enjoyed working with my clients who were smart, thoughtful, and appreciative of my services. I've remained in close contact with Brad since that time and often lean on his experience and expertise.

Managing Editor
Elsa Cournoyer

Executive Editor

Joseph Satter