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Citizen’s Academy: From a Pre-Law Perspective

I recently participated in and completed a Citizen’s Academy. For those that are unfamiliar—and believe me, I was unfamiliar before participating—a Citizen’s Academy is a program that provides a deeper look into local government’s inner workings including operations, policies, and services. My local citizen’s academy was a three-hour long class that met once a week for two months. During the program, we received visits from various local agencies including the District Attorney’s office, Shared Hope International (a human trafficking organization), and various Sheriff’s Units including Property Crimes and Street Crimes. We also had the opportunity to tour local facilities such as the Coroner’s Bureau, Emergency Dispatch Center, and the County Jail. I would like to share with you some of my biggest takeaways from the experience:

1) Positive Programs Do Exist

In hearing the stories of the programs offered by the County and their efforts in piloting new programs, I was often left wondering why these programs are not highlighted or even discussed. Please take some time to research local programs and offerings; you may just be surprised by a low-cost athletic program, a community garden, or even a food truck event just around the corner.

2)  Justice is Evolving

Though some issues can be considered systemic and there is always room for growth, I learned concrete examples of changes in the justice profession that ranged from the terms being used to the type of training in place.

3) Voting Matters

Many times, programs were mentioned that were discontinued due to budget cuts, changes in state policies, or lack of participation. Although I have always felt strongly about voting, I never realized just how much it matters at the local level. There were also a few propositions mentioned that had appeared to have overwhelmingly positive support during election season. They since have had adverse effects which could have been mitigated by additional research before being introduced on the ballot. 

4) Separate People from Perception

It’s not always easy to separate local government institutions from the people that comprise them. This is not to disavow these people of their responsibilities as members of those institutions, but to remember that the local officer walking down the street or emergency dispatcher that takes your 911 call has their own family members, friends, opinions, and interests.

I will also note that there were many senior citizens in my class. Though often mentioned as a voting block—especially in the Political Science classes I took in college—these individuals have divisive opinions on many local and federal issues.

5) Stay on the Path

With so much pre-law information related to the weighty cost of attendance, lack of jobs in the profession, and even discrimination found within the legal field, it can sometimes feel discouraging to be a pre-law student. While all pre-law students should do their due diligence in the realities of the profession, it is heartening to think that there are real lawyers in courtrooms across the country advocating and pursuing change. A legal career can still provide a meaningful way to make a difference in other’s lives.

As we near the Fourth of July, I recognize that I am fortunate to be a citizen and to have a positive association with that word. While I understand that this is not the case for many, I encourage those that are interested in local government to find and participate in citizen’s academies or other programs.

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Tatum Wheeler is a fellow law aspirant based in the San Francisco Bay Area. When she’s not working as a Research Associate, she spends her free time exploring new trails with her dogs, reading narratives, and cheering on her favorite sports teams, the Cal Bears, Oakland Athletics, and Pittsburgh Steelers. Please feel free to contact her with any questions, comments, or further advice.

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