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Professor Yael Cannon was on a study-abroad semester in Cape Town, South Africa, working with gang-involved youth when she found her calling. She was an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, not far from her hometown of Rockville, Maryland, right outside of Washington, D.C.
“My experience made me think about many of the kids in Washington, D.C., in the shadow of the nation’s capital, who were also living in extreme poverty and had many of the same issues as children living in the townships of South Africa,” she said.
Cannon returned from that semester with two things: a commitment to work on behalf of children living in poverty and a plan to do that through the legal system. She earned her J.D. from Stanford Law School with honors and joined the faculty at the University of New Mexico School of Law as an assistant professor in fall 2012. She teaches in the Community Lawyering Clinic.
A public service ethic
Even before she entered college, Cannon was learning about poverty issues. Through the AmeriCorps program, she spent the summer after high school working with the DC Central Kitchen, one of the nation’s largest community kitchens. She delivered food to children in those impoverished pockets of the city in which they would otherwise go hungry without access to a free school lunch during the summer.
During college, she spent a summer with the Children’s Defense Fund, where she taught teenagers in a low-income neighborhood about the history of the civil rights movement. Although both of her parents worked in public service fields, Cannon would become the first lawyer in her family.
By the time she reached law school, Cannon was fully focused on issues facing children and spent every summer in that arena. With the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, she advocated at a juvenile detention facility on behalf of inmates for improved jail conditions and community re-entry services.
She also worked for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, where she advocated for alternatives to detention for high-risk youth offenders. She drafted a policy manual so the project could be replicated by other jurisdictions.
During the school year, Cannon taught an after-school program to incarcerated youth and to youth who had just been released from juvenile jail, teaching them about their rights, as well as critical life skills, such as conflict resolution.
In Stanford’s Youth and Education Law Clinic, she worked to help youth stay in school and out of jail through a program that addressed learning and mental health disabilities in high-risk students. “I loved this work,” she said. “It was a great opportunity to do preventive lawyering on behalf of children living in poverty, for whom terrible outcomes were all too common.”
A multidisciplinary approach
Her research and teaching passion grew from this experience. After earning a J.D. in 2005, Cannon continued to pursue interdisciplinary opportunities to address children’s issues. As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, she joined the Children’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., where she was involved in a medical/legal partnership.
She was an on-site lawyer in a pediatric clinic in a tough neighborhood. She trained the clinic’s physicians and nurses to flag legal issues and encouraged them to refer patients to her. Often, the child had an unidentified or unaddressed disability. With Cannon’s assistance, the child would receive the help they needed.
“It was emotionally and physically exhausting, but so rewarding,” she said. “I would see a child failing at school and struggling at home. Once the family received the services and support they needed, the child would begin to flourish and succeed.”
She stayed with the center for several more years after her fellowship ended. Cannon has published articles on her work. Her most recent article, “There’s No Place Like Home: Realizing the Vision of Community-Based Mental Health Treatment for Children,” was published in the most recent issue of the DePaul Law Review.
Remembering how much she enjoyed her clinical experience in law school, Cannon jumped at the opportunity to teach in the Disability Rights Law Clinic at the Washington College of Law at American University in 2009.
“I loved teaching and mentoring students, watching them grow over the course of the clinic and seeing the transformation when they went out into the community as student lawyers with their own cases,” she said. “There is no substitution for interacting with a real client and advocating directly for someone with real and important needs.”
At the UNM School of Law, Cannon is involved in the Medical-Legal Alliance for Children, a collaboration with the UNM School of Medicine. “I’m excited to be in a clinic with a medical/legal model,” she said. “I look forward to giving back to students as great an experience as I was able to have in law school.”
Outside of the classroom, Cannon and her husband, Curtis, a nonprofit administrator, enjoy taking their dog for hikes and exploring the restaurants and hidden foodie gems of New Mexico.
October 10, 2012