Refugee advocate Edafe Okporo speaks to State Policy Advocacy Clinic students about policies governing immigration detention. The clinic prioritizes projects that advance rural equity and human rights.

Students advocate for state policy solutions

Students in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy’s new State Policy Advocacy Clinic developed relationships with legislators, executive branch officials, nonprofit leaders, community members and researchers across the university to help advance policy goals.

“The clinic not only deepened my understanding of the intricacies of New York politics but also provided me with the opportunity to envision myself in positions of power to drive meaningful change,” said master of public administration student Bianca Bennett-Scott.

The clinic prioritizes projects that advance rural equity and human rights, particularly for populations that have been traditionally underrepresented in the political process. 

Several of the 17 students met with lawmakers in the New York State Capitol in Albany to advance the Dignity Not Detention Act, which would limit immigration detention in the state. Other proposals include:

  • Protection of farmworker rights in conjunction with the Cornell Farmworker Program and several nonprofits;
  • Naloxone-Narcan training so educators can prepare students to help prevent opioid overdose deaths;
  • Protections for pregnant and parenting people in prison, in conjunction with New Hour for Women and Children;
  • Hybrid public meetings to promote greater access for high school students, veterans, parents of young children, people in rural areas and people living with disabilities, including the elderly;
  • Protections for unaccompanied minors by guiding advocates in other states on how to pass legislation like New York’s; and
  • E-bike rebates so people with low incomes or disabilities can access economical and environmentally friendly transportation.

Hunter Maskin ’24, who worked on the e-bike project, found a way to influence legislators through the media. “One highlight of my experience was publishing an op-ed in the Albany Times Union on a proposed statewide e-bike rebate,” Maskin said. “As someone with career interests related to public policy, I am fortunate to have gained an understanding of the state-level policymaking process.”

Op-eds are just one way the students learn to push for policy change. State Policy Advocacy Clinic Director Alexandra Dufresne said the class drafted three bills, two memorandums of support for legislation and a legislative toolkit for community groups in other states. They also wrote numerous policy briefs, letters and research memos for lawmakers and for state and local commissions and school districts.

The focus may be on state issues, but the students said they benefited from seeing how those policies impact local communities.

“I have loved being able to contribute toward the development of policies that have a direct impact on Ithaca and the surrounding areas,” said Anna Doñate ’24. “It has been inspiring to meet advocates and legislators who are so authentic and passionate about their work.”

Dufresne brought some of those advocates and legislators to meet with the clinic participants. Speakers included Cornell Associate Zoë Nelson, Cornell’s associate director for government relations, and New York State Assemblymembers Anna Kelles (D-125th District) and Steven Raga, MBA ‘22, M.S. ‘22 (D-30th District) and Sen. Lea Webb (D-52nd District).

Dufresne also offers insight as a lawyer who worked on behalf of children and refugees at the Center for Children’s Advocacy, Connecticut Voices for Children and CLINIC/Boston College Immigration and Asylum Project. She has led successful advocacy campaigns in Connecticut and before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Prior to coming to Cornell, she led a human rights clinic at the Zurich College of Applied Sciences in Switzerland.

“Human rights, economic development, sustainability and equity are global issues, but often the most effective, concrete way to make progress on them in the United States is by advocating for well-designed, evidence-based policies at the state level,” Dufresne said.

Even in its first year, those goals are being achieved. Said Veronica Zellers ’24: “I feel I have come away from the clinic not only a more effective policy student and policymaker, but a more informed member of the civic community.”

Jim Hanchett is assistant dean of communications for the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

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Abby Kozlowski