In high school, 3L Brittany Thomas thought she had it all figured out. She loved singing and dancing in school productions—she played Tina Turner in The Wedding Singer—and thought she had found her passion.
“It seemed like he didn’t understand a lot of what was happening to him,” says Thomas. “There was a lack of concern for both his well-being and comprehension. He had a minimal education, and no one took that into account. I realized, through his ordeal, that there was so much more I could be doing.”
When Thomas got to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, she left the theater behind and went into the criminal justice and criminology track. She became president of the Criminal Justice Honor Society and joined the Mock Trial Team. As a junior, senior, and for most of a gap year, she volunteered at the Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
“At that point, Missouri was killing someone every month,” she says. “It seemed like everything we did was going unnoticed. It was hard on everyone. But then the advocacy took a different turn. We started doing backup research for groups in other states attacking the drugs used for lethal injection and outing the sources.
“None of the suppliers wanted to be known as the seller. It was like Whack-a-Mole. Every time the states would find a new supplier, someone in one of the groups would find them and call them out publicly,” she says.
“The work there solidified my decision to go to law school.”
Thomas applied to law schools that “were anywhere but Missouri” since she had never really been out of the state and Miami Law gave her the best scholarship. Once here, “the Environmental Justice Clinic just changed my life,” she says. “It taught me how I could advocate for my communities.”
At Miami Law, Thomas and her advocacy skills have only grown. She was appointed the secretary of the Black Law Students Association, tapped Phi Alpha Delta, wrote for the Race and Social Justice Law Review, received an award from the HOPE Public Interest Center for Innovative Service in the Public Interest Field, was awarded the Kozyak Minority Fellowship, and worked as a HOPE Fellow over her first two summers. And she has made the Dean’s List several times.
“When I came to Miami, I loved it and thought ’I’m there forever,’” Thomas says. “Now I don’t know. I made friends in New York with random people—people I’ve met in the park or the bakery. I love running along the Hudson. And I had never been on a subway; I’ve never even been anywhere with public transportation! So I love it there, too.”
As a rising 2L, she served as the executive intern to the Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez, J.D. ’90. There, she worked on a project examining why so many juvenile defendants were targeted by prosecutors to have their cases transferred to adult court.
“They do it to force a plea,” Thomas says, still unsatisfied by the practice. “There is no reason a 14 year old should be targeted.”
This past summer, Thomas split her time between social justice work in Miami and legal aid in New York.
“The Community Justice Project in Miami grew out of Legal Services,” she says. “Their motto of success is to give low-income communities of color more power. It’s similar to work in the Environmental Justice Clinic, but much bigger. We would gather 100 community members and go to everything from commission meetings to immigration rallies.
“It showed me how to advocate without the legal system; how to make a huge impact on a whole community—experience things in people’s lives that I could not in my legal life. You find someone a home, and that is a real impact. It is really the best thing,” she says.
Later in the summer, she moved to New York to work with The Legal Aid Society in the Bronx, preparing motions and working on misdemeanor cases. She fell in love with the city in a few short weeks.
With graduation from Miami Law on the near horizon, Thomas is focusing her final semesters advocating for the low-income communities of Miami-Dade County as a fellow with the Environmental Justice Clinic. By next fall, she sees herself working with a public defender’s office to expand the impact through community advocacy, though the venue is yet to be determined.