Kiana Courtney pretty much always knew she wanted to help people and communities. As though it was in her DNA, the HOPE Fellow and Environmental Justice Clinic Fellow's parents were always involved in the city where they lived.
Kiana Courtney, 3L
The third-year law student spent her first seven years of life in Queens, New York before her family moved to Fayetteville, Georgia, 22 miles south of downtown Atlanta. Her father, a sports agent, mentored at the elementary and middle schools; her mother, a preschool special needs teacher, took on student helpers.
"My parents have always been role models for how to treat people and how to be unselfish. They taught me that people should look out for one another," the 26-year-old says. "My dad always coached whatever sports my brother and I were involved; watching how he interacted with my teammates and peers set a high bar for me."
At Wake Forest University, Courtney drilled down into ingress to basics by the populace and interned with the school's Office of Sustainability. The communications major, concentrating on rhetorical studies (with minors in sociology and environmental studies), examined Winston-Salem from the perspective of a food desert.
The town, population just under 250,000 with 16% living below the poverty line, was the #1 hungriest city in North Carolina, and one of the most starved towns in the United States. Courtney determined that while 17 grocery stores were serving the white, more affluent neighborhoods, while in the poorer, primarily black communities, there were no grocery stores at all.
"I spent my junior and senior year examining how to empower the community's access resources," Courtney says. "Resources include education or clean water or adequate food options. Academic research into the issues of this community colored across my curriculum – especially into my sociology and environmental classes; I wrote papers and blogs."
After graduation, with law school high on her list, Courtney spent the next two years teaching physical science to eighth graders in Atlanta with Teach for America. "I loved it. Teaching can be such a roller coaster," she says, "which is a funny metaphor because we would build roller coasters in science class. Nothing prepares you enough to be a teacher, even though my mother has been a special needs preschool teacher for longer than I’ve been alive, and she is one of the best."
The road to Miami Law was a natural direction, and once her parents met Marni Lennon, the director of the HOPE Public Interest Resource Center, it was a fait accompli. Courtney studied environmental law under Professor Felix Mormann, and joined the Environmental Justice Clinic, rising from intern to fellow, working primarily on fallout from an incinerator, dubbed Old Smokey, in Coconut Grove, adversely harming black residents.
"The Old Smokey case has become my baby," she says. "But also, I've worked on some housing justice issues, specifically on Stirrup Plaza in West Grove. The community was concerned about how difficult it was to apply to the elderly housing complex."
When Courtney graduates in May, she heads for Chicago, a city she knows only from her recent whirlwind interview with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, where she will serve as a fellow for the next two years.
“My focus was always to help people and communities," she said. "This is that on a much grander scale. The changes we accomplish effect entire populations and regions.”