Miami Law Provides Fertile Ground for 3L with Passion for Environmental Justice

BY:  
CREATED:  

Ashley Vazquez

Ashley Vazquez, 3L (photo by Joshua Prezant)

Ashley Vazquez has always been fiercely driven and unfailingly empathetic. She has logged a young lifetime working with homeless women in Los Angeles' Skid Row and mobilized youth voters and advocated for veterans and foster children.

At Miami Law, the third-year Miami Public Interest Scholar has turned her interest and passion for environmental law and justice to make sure people have equal access to the resources of Mother Earth. She spent the summer working as a HOPE Fellow and a Summer Honors clerk in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of General Counsel in the agency's Civil Rights and Finance Law Office.

"The highlight of my summer was briefing the general counsel on my research regarding Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and recommending a new course of action for the agency," Vazquez said. "While the program was unfortunately remote, it provided an opportunity for me to work with attorneys at EPA's regions and meet attorneys at other federal agencies. It was incredible to be there at a time when the agency and the executive branch as a whole are centering issues of environmental justice."

Driven to Making a Difference

The New York City-born 25-year-old is well adapted to change. She grew up in Guayama, Puerto Rico, Miami, and Fairfield, Connecticut, with the family always striving for better educational and financial opportunities. After high school, Vazquez struck out West to study journalism and international relations at the University of Southern California.

She was later published in outlets including HuffPost, The Hollywood Reporter, the Connecticut Post, and independent journalism sites. She traveled to South Korea to report on religious developments there. However, she was most passionate about covering issues of poverty and race in the U.S., which did not get as much media attention.

Among other distinctions, Vazquez was vice president of scholarship and standards at Phi Alpha Delta, a UCLA Law Fellow, and a Southwestern Law School Amicus Fellow, which seeded the path to law school. She is the first in her family to attend college and was drawn back to South Florida to study law on a full scholarship at Miami Law.

"It's cliché, but I wanted to make a difference in the world," she said. "I've always been attuned to injustice and driven by the question of 'How can I be the most useful?' While I started out as a journalist, I found that writing stories and raising awareness wasn't enough for me. I wanted to be directly involved in shaping policy and creating a change in the legal system."

Found a Home on the Bricks

Arriving at Miami Law, Vazquez reveled in the community both on and off-campus.

"I've always felt at home in Miami," she said. "After attending a predominantly white high school and college, I yearned for diversity, and Miami Law provided that. Additionally, I was impressed with the Environmental Justice Clinic's community lawyering model and working toward systemic change. But the most important reason was the Miami Scholars program and the HOPE office. I wanted to be a part of the thriving community of public-interest-minded lawyers that the HOPE office helped foster over the years."

During her 1L summer, she interned at Everglades Law Center, a Florida-based environmental nonprofit where she drafted a complaint for pending litigation involving the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Administrative Procedures Act, and National Environmental Policy Act. She also drafted memos for city and county sustainability plans and their effects on a low-income community and researched federal and state environmental regulations about Everglades restoration and the dredging and filling of submerged lands.

"Interning in the Environmental Justice Clinic during my 2L year was the most impactful experience because it helped to re-center me on why I came to law school," she said.

"I was able to work on civil rights litigation and learn about the principles and history of the environmental justice movement. While I had many opportunities to volunteer and be of service to communities during my 1L year, nothing brought together my interests in health, civil rights, and the environment quite like the EJC."

The Environmental Justice Clinic at Miami Law advocates for and empowers marginalized communities by combining civil rights, environmental, poverty, and public health law with community lawyering principles.

"Students, like Ashley, are trained to use multiple tools to tackle complex issues including litigation, policy resources, and community organizing. Through her case in the EJC, Ashley gained not only extensive litigation experience but also invaluable community lawyering skills to shift power back to communities most impacted by environmental harms and inequity,” said Fredman Foundation Environmental Justice Clinic Practitioner-in-Residence and lecturer in law Abigail Fleming. “She was not discussing community lawyering as a theory but was applying its principles firsthand."

During her 1L year and 2L summer, Vazquez worked as an intake volunteer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and volunteered at the Florida Rights Restoration Fines and Fees Program. She has achieved numerous accolades at the law school, receiving the CALI Excellence for the Future Awards for Evidence & International Environmental Law.

She is also the president and founder of the Environmental Justice Network, a student group devoted to mobilizing students to assist EJ communities.

"The EJ Clinic is what drew me to UM. The EJN provides an opportunity for law students and students of different academic backgrounds to get involved with work to support EJ communities," Vazquez says.

Vazquez is also the social media chair for the South/West Asian and North African Law Students Association and a Public Interest Leadership Board member. She is a mentor with the First-Generation Law Association and the Public Interest Network and a member of the Hispanic Law Students Association, Environmental Law Society, and the Health Law Association.

Poised for Success

During her final academic year, Vazquez is participating in the International Moot Court Program, representing UM for the first time at the International Environmental Moot Court Competition. She is also serving as a Fellow in the Environmental Justice Clinic, working as the Environmental Law Program Assistant for Professor Jessica Owley, and focusing on growing the Environmental Justice Network in its first year as an official student organization.

Being a first-generation student, a woman of color, and a person who grew up in poverty are all factors that made Vazquez question whether she belonged in law school.

"I was fortunate that UM has a diverse community of law students who struggled with the same feelings during our 1L year. Knowing that you are not alone is powerful medicine," she said.

"UM Law has provided a fertile ground for me to grow and develop the skills I need to reach my goals. Once I was able to join the Environmental Justice Clinic and take classes on civil rights, toxic torts, and class action litigation, everything fell into place. I regained confidence in my purpose."

After graduation in the spring, Vazquez intends to use her law degree to address how low-income communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollutants and adverse conditions that have lasting effects on their health and well-being. "I would like to work somewhere where I could help advance Environmental Justice goals," she said. "My internship this summer reaffirmed that the federal government would be a great place to do that."

More on Miami Law’s Environmental Law Program
Read more stories from Miami Law Magazine