The Georgetown Law Journal has named the first recipient of the Breonna Taylor Prize, a new award aimed at acknowledging student writing related to social justice issues.
Alden Fletcher (LAW ’20) was named the inaugural recipient of the prize for his student note publication, a style of submission written by first-year members of the law journal typically in their second year of law school. Fletcher’s piece discussed racial discrimination present in historic preservation laws, which stipulate that officially preserved spaces must retain aspects that convey historical significance.
The Breonna Taylor Prize was initially created by Orion de Nevers (LAW ’21), the journal’s 2020 senior notes editor, to highlight one student’s written publication on a particular area of social justice. The prize is just one section of the Georgetown Law Journal’s 2021 Diversity Amendment, which intends to promote greater diversity and inclusion practices at the journal, according to de Nevers.
“I wanted to do what I could to make the Georgetown Law Journal more focused on advancing social justice issues, and I also wanted to increase the diversity of our student authorship,” de Nevers said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
Before creating the award, the journal previously evaluated student submissions using criteria such as the strength of the legal argument, effectiveness of the writing and value of the piece to the field. However, following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd last year, the journal felt it was necessary to ensure that social justice was better reflected in its publication, according to de Nevers.
“By creating the Breonna Taylor Prize, we are committing to at least once a year factoring the content of the piece into the way that we score it,” de Nevers said. “We are actively prioritizing work that advances social justice issues.”
In addition to being published in an issue of the Georgetown Law Journal, the prize’s winner also has the opportunity to choose a social justice organization of their choice for a $500 donation from the journal for every volume. This year, Fletcher chose Empower D.C., a nonprofit organization that invests in community organizing for the District’s lowest income residents. On top of the journal’s $500 contribution, both Fletcher and Sam Aguilar, an attorney for Taylor’s family, matched the donation, totaling $1,500 donated to the organization, according to de Nevers.
The creation of the award prompts all members of the journal’s community to reflect on issues of representation in the legal field, according to Fletcher.
“It’s not only for Black students at Georgetown Law to be thinking critically about these areas,” Fletcher said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “The law school has historically catered to white male students, and I think folks who fit that description really should think critically about the systems that are in place that have contributed to that predominance.”
Fletcher’s awarded note focuses on the case study of Barry Farm, a historic neighborhood located in the Anacostia region of southeast Washington, D.C., that dates back to the Reconstruction era. The Freedmen’s Bureau, a government agency founded in 1865 after the Civil War to provide support for former Black slaves, established Barry Farm as a place where newly freed residents could receive public housing and buy homes. The neighborhood was later converted to a public housing development in 1941 by the D.C. government.
A predominantly Black community, Barry Farm faced systemic obstacles when residents attempted to invoke historic preservation law before the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board to protect their neighborhood in Jan. 2020. Current city regulations hold that to qualify for historic preservation, a place must include physical aspects that highlight the location’s historical significance, according to Fletcher’s note.
These restrictions on historical preservation law should be removed to provide legal protection to a broader range of areas, including Barry Farm, according to Fletcher.
“This puts places that have suffered institutional and systemic neglect at a disadvantage compared to places that are much better resourced both in terms of money and societal capital and things like that,” Fletcher said. “In a society that is very entrenched in systemic racism, you can see how that will disadvantage places associated with non-white history instead of places associated with wealthy history.”
If the D.C. government were to expand development into the neighborhood, it would be ignoring the history and value that Barry Farm intrinsically holds, according to Fletcher.
“There is a tremendous amount of history and a tremendous amount of continuity there,” Fletcher said. “The D.C. government was essentially going to raze and redevelop it and put in a new mixed-income housing community.”
The journal’s emphasis on racial justice comes in the context of systemic racism at the Law Center. This month, a video clip of Georgetown Law adjunct professors Sandra Seller and David Batson showed Sellers complaining about the academic performance of the Black students in her joint negotiations class with Batson. The university community condemned Sellers’ and Batson’s actions and called on the university to initiate broader structural change to combat racism at the Law Center.
Members of the Law Center community are excited about the journal’s steps to spotlight scholarship focused on social justice, according to Professor Cliff Sloan, a distinguished visitor from practice at the Law Center who filed a federal lawsuit alongside several other law firms for Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend at the time of her death, one day before the anniversary of Taylor’s death.
“I think it’s really a terrific development that the Law Journal is doing,” Sloan said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “It’s part of what we hope is a national movement, that the tragedy of Breonna Taylor will spark concrete steps for racial justice and social justice and that by saying her name and honoring her life and memory, we will also be taking very important steps on the road to racial justice and social justice.”
Ultimately, the prize represents the start of the journal’s commitment to use its platform to advance social justice, according to de Nevers.
“The law is not neutral, and the positions that we take have real world consequences,” de Nevers said. “I hope the impact of this prize is that we will accept that responsibility and use it to advance the law in a more just way.”