Third-year law student Chi-Ser Tran is thoughtful, even pensive. We’re talking about how empathy impacts advocacy, and Tran lets the question hang in the air while she considers how best to frame her response. “Anyone can read a book,” she begins. “But if an advocate is too far removed from the situation facing the community they serve, they won’t be very effective in understanding what that community really needs.”
It’s this very idea that lies at the heart of Tran’s decision to become a lawyer. Born to Khmer Rouge refugees from the Cambodian holocaust who eventually settled in the Bronx, Tran has seen first-hand the barriers faced by people with limited English proficiency (LEP) and other cultural differences. After her family’s relocation to West Philadelphia when she was seven, Tran recalls, she had her first encounters with racism and hostility due to her family’s difference. “I knew the animosity was there,” Tran recalls, “but I didn’t have the language for describing it until college.” Majoring in Asian/Pacific/American Studies gave her the framework she needed for understanding not just issues facing the Asian American community, but other minority groups and women as well. A civil rights class brought it all together, and as a result, Tran saw a path for herself emerge that led back to her roots and forward, to a life in the law.
“I decided to go to law school to pursue civil rights work – work benefitting vulnerable, marginalized populations. Language access issues in particular are very visible in my family, so I am especially aware of their impact on affected communities,” Tran explains. “I spent four years before law school working at several different non-profits: Boat People SOS – a local community organization in Philly, the American Constitution Society in D.C., and my dream organization – the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City. I did voting rights work there, and I was fortunate enough to come back to Philly once a month to work on the voter ID case as it was being litigated, to serve as a community liaison as to what was going on with the legal battle. I absolutely loved it.”
For Tran, advocacy has everything to do with remembering her purpose. “Thinking about my family’s background and the struggles that they faced helps me visualize my purpose – it helps me better understand the community I want to represent.
She also learned a lot about what community organizations need – and don’t need – from the lawyers who work with them. “I’ve worked with community leaders who have criticized the tendency of many lawyers to just insert themselves into any situation and assume that they can solve everything because of their legal training. But the community itself is where the real knowledge about the situation lies, and its leaders have been doing this advocacy work for a long time.”
“I don’t like thinking about immigrant and LEP groups as completely vulnerable,” Tran continued. She recounts an experience working with Asian Americans United to turn back efforts to build a casino in Chinatown. The process helped her understand more fully what community power really is. “Experiences like that helped me see that they have a lot of agency, and sometimes if they’re LEP, it might be harder to exercise that agency, but lawyers can serve as liaisons or partners to them. I think of community lawyering in that role.”
For Tran, advocacy has everything to do with remembering her purpose. “Thinking about my family’s background and the struggles that they faced helps me visualize my purpose – it helps me better understand the community I want to represent. So, for example, even if it’s not an Asian American community, I can work with another LEP group or a disabled population, who might not have the same access to services that most people do. It helps me be a better advocate because I have more empathy and a better understanding of the system they’re living in.”
Philadelphia, says Tran, has also played a role in defining her purpose. “I came back to Philly because I realized that even though my experiences here made me want to get away, I kept coming back. When I was in D.C., when I was in New York, I just felt this draw. Philly is a city that – yes, angered me, but also – impassioned me. It provided me with my purpose. And, when I visited Temple, which I knew had a strong reputation for public interest law, I loved it. I knew I had to come back.”
Now, as she prepares to graduate, Tran says she’s looking forward to the work that lies ahead. She has worked closely with Community Legal Services to apply for a public interest fellowship, proposing a project addressing employment barriers facing low-income, LEP workers, with a focus on the Asian American community. “CLS does great work, and they have many more clients in need than they have the capacity to serve. But if you examine the proportion of clients living in poverty who are Asian and compare it to the actual percentage of Asians living in poverty in Philly, the numbers don’t match up. They’re very underrepresented all across the city. So I want to create access to legal services for this community, using my strong connection to be a better advocate.”