As a teenager, Taisha Sturdivant was a bright kid who loved to read, yet her circumstances conspired to limit her future prospects. Left homeless by the death of her mother, her only guardian, she drifted among relatives in Boston, got into fights at school, and tried her best to dodge the spasms of gang violence in her Roxbury neighborhood.
An opportunity with the District of Massachusetts federal court helped change Sturdivant’s trajectory. At the urging of a high school principal who recognized her promise, she enrolled in the district court’s Nelson Fellowship, a six-week interactive immersion in the justice system.
With the help of mentors she met through the Nelson program, and her own determination, Sturdivant eventually graduated from Brandeis University, cum laude, with a degree in urban education, and went on to earn a juris doctorate from Boston College Law School. Today, she is a real estate attorney specializing in affordable housing. She recently made the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly’s Excellence in the Law list and the Super Lawyers Massachusetts’ Rising Stars list.
“Here I was this 16-year-old wearing patent leather blue heels, thinking that was the way to be dressed appropriately, and watching these judges really grapple with sentencing decisions,” Sturdivant said in a recent interview, laughing at the memory. “They took a chance on me. The fellowship changed so much for me in terms of my imagination of what I could accomplish. I started to envision myself as someone who could do anything. I could see myself going to college.”
The Nelson Fellowship is named for the late Judge David Sutherland Nelson, who was the first African American federal judge in Massachusetts. It is one of two programs that the District of Massachusetts hosts for talented students who face socioeconomic challenges. The district also runs a program for college students who are interested in law school. The pre-law Lindsay Fellowship was created in the memory of the late Judge Reginald C. Lindsay, an African American jurist who was actively involved in the Nelson program.
Court leaders say the two programs benefit the students, the court, and even society, by giving young people a behind-the-scenes look at the judicial process, by putting courts closer in touch with the communities affected by their decisions, and by contributing to a more diverse Massachusetts bar.
“The programs really affect students in important ways,” said Magistrate Judge Judith G. Dein, who helps run the Nelson and Lindsay Fellowships. “On a personal level, they experience a growth in confidence and they are supported in trying out different things. A lot of times they make lifetime friendships and support systems. And every chamber is richer by the end of the summer for having these students.”
Sturdivant and her two older siblings were raised by their divorced mother, who didn’t finish high school. The family was close, with regular Sunday visits to their grandmother’s house when the kids were little. As Sturdivant remembers, “I didn’t know that we didn’t have any money.”
Life took a harsh turn when Sturdivant’s mother died of lung cancer. She and her siblings managed to live on their own for a time in the family’s apartment, until the Social Security checks stopped and they were unable to pay the bills. “What little semblance of a safety net that I had was gone,” she said.
Sturdivant’s older siblings, still in their teens, were unable to care for her. Sympathetic relatives took her in for periods, but Sturdivant said she mostly “felt uncomfortable in homes that didn’t belong to me. I constantly felt I was overstaying my welcome.” To support herself, she worked at the counter at a Dunkin’ Donuts and held other jobs.
She had been especially close to her mother and struggled emotionally with the loss. Sturdivant managed to maintain good grades in school but acted out and was threatened with expulsion for chronic fighting.
Then, Sturdivant decided to honor her mother’s last wish for her by enrolling in Another Course to College, an academically challenging public high school in Boston for promising but struggling teens. There she got to know the first of her lifelong mentors and supporters, Jerry Howland, then the school’s headmaster.
“He said something like, ‘You’ve got a lot of negative energy balled up inside of you and you need to learn how to channel it in a more productive way.’ He was right.” Sturdivant said.
Howland too remembers the anger, but also Sturdivant’s precocious poise, intellectual ability, and courage. “She never complained. She had absolutely no self-pity about her situation,” he said. Howland involved Sturdivant in his mock trial class, and he urged her to apply for the Nelson Fellowship, which he knew of through outreach by the court to local high schools.
The fellowship is designed for Boston and Worcester public school students over six weeks in the summer. Twelve teens are assigned to judges’ chambers and observe the court at work, including hearings and sentencings. They take workshops in civil rights, public speaking, writing, financial literacy, and current social issues. They also meet community leaders and college administrators. There are opportunities for frank discussions among judges, guest speakers, and the students about race, law enforcement, sentencing policies, as well as other topical issues on the students’ minds.
Sturdivant initially was skeptical, not an uncommon feeling among the students, many of whom have friends and relatives who’ve had personal experience with the justice system.
“I’d been exposed to violent crime, saw friends and loved ones incarcerated. Other folks I knew were victims who did not receive justice. I think I had a very warped perception of the system,” she said. “I didn’t think it was fair and I didn’t think it was equitable. I didn’t take the internship and suddenly love the system.”
The thing that eventually impressed her, she said, was observing judges grapple with difficult sentencing decisions and spend hours on research and writing in pursuit of fair outcomes in their cases. Sturdivant discovered, “There were these incredibly hard-working people very dedicated to justice.”
District Judge Patti B. Saris became one of her role models. Judge Saris makes a practice of having lunch with her Nelson Fellows. She assigns them challenging tasks such as preparing for mock appellate arguments or drafting summaries of her cases. She talks with them about colleges and the application process.
Judge Saris says the court gets as much from the fellows as they get from the judges and teachers in the program.
“It’s a success on every level,” she said. “The students are hugely helpful to me, in terms of what I learn about their points of view, what’s happening in their communities and with their families.”
In the Lindsay Fellowship program, six students are selected with the help of organizations such as Bottom Line, Posse, and Summer Search, community-based organizations that recruit first-generation college students. The fellows spend half of the summer interning in chambers and taking intensive classes in legal research and writing and public speaking, aimed at helping them get through the difficult first year of law school.
In the second half of the program, they are assigned jobs in the Federal Public Defender Office, in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, or with U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services. Students working in pretrial and probation might interview clients, run record searches, or help write up reports. In the prosecutor and defender offices, they help with cite-checking and preparation for trials.
Judge Dein said, “The offices have gotten more comfortable with the program; it’s been an evolutionary process. It’s gotten to the point now where they say, ‘We need them this summer, we’re counting on their work.’”
Although not every Nelson and Lindsay participant pursues a career in law, there are now about 350 alumni working in professions throughout the Boston area and elsewhere. They work in law firms, the courts, city hall, and state legislative offices. Some are in business, others are teaching.
Both programs pay the students a modest stipend, and they also pay a stipend to two teachers in the Nelson program and three in the Lindsay Fellowship. Once they become college sophomores, former Nelson Fellows are often recruited to help run the program as student coordinators.
Judge Dein said that it’s important that the students and coordinators are paid, in order to attract those who have to work during the summers to support themselves or help support their families.
Sturdivant, who was both a Nelson and Lindsay fellow, said she would never have been able to participate in the programs without the stipends the court provided. She considers it a wise investment in helping to diversify the legal profession.
“The truth is, representation matters, access to information matters, role models matter,” Sturdivant said. “And the fact is that the legal profession is not very diverse, which is really discouraging. It’s hard for people to even envision themselves in this space, much less take all the steps it takes to get here. It definitely helps to have people rooting for you, for people to have your back, people who look like you, to help you succeed.”
Sturdivant recently began teaching the rigorous research and writing course for the Lindsay fellows during the summer. Attorney Alexis Smith Hamdan, who developed and taught the course for 12 years, said, “It was always my hope that I would to be able to pass the torch to one of our fellows. Taisha has all of the attributes necessary to teach this rigorous program, so I was elated when she expressed her willingness to take on this important role.”
Howland, Sturdivant’s former headmaster who also now teaches in the Nelson program, has remained a friend and confidante. He was the one she counted on to drive her to campus after she received a scholarship to attend Brandeis, nine miles from Boston. She felt fortunate to finally have a place of her own, even if it was a dormitory room that she paid for by working for the college.
Picking her up for a visit home once, Howland was struck by the decor that Sturdivant chose for inspiration on her dorm wall. It wasn’t a poster of a musician or an actor or a celebrity of any kind, except to Sturdivant. It was a photograph of Judge Nelson.