Recent NIU Law Graduate Begins Public Interest Career
with Prestigious Equal Justice Works Fellowship
August 28, 2012
DeKalb, Ill.--When we go to the grocery store or put food on the table for our families, it can be easy to forget the hard work it takes to get that food to us. It is even easier not to consider the difficulties faced by those who do the work, not just in their efforts on the farm, but in their everyday lives. Alumna Karla Altmayer’s first-hand look into what farmworkers endure on a daily basis led to her receipt of a prestigious 2012 Equal Justice Works (EJW) Fellowship, representing the culmination of several years of work and significant accomplishments for this 2012 graduate of NIU Law.
EJW is an organization which provides unique opportunities for young lawyers to create their own public service projects and address specific issues in their communities. Out of hundreds of applicants each year, only 40 to 50 are awarded this prestigious two-year fellowship. In her quest for justice, Karla seeks to make sure no one will forget the human rights of farmworker women.
“I pursued an Equal Justice Fellowship because my goal in becoming an attorney was to empower women to make meaningful choices for themselves and their families,” said Altmayer. Her program is called the Agricultural Women’s Advocacy Project (AWAP). With the help of EJW, she will receive a salary, loan repayment assistance, training, and additional support for the next two years. This will allow her to focus her efforts on the needs of female migrant workers, giving them a voice to defend their own rights. The Legal Assistance Foundation in Chicago will host her, and Kirkland & Ellis, LLP and Medtronic sponsor her project.
Karla’s experience is a personal one that began at home. “Witnessing my mother overcome language barriers, isolation, and limited resources, inspired me to commemorate her accomplishments by dedicating my life to serving individuals similarly deprived of paths to empowerment,” she said.
“The entire NIU community is extremely proud of Karla’s achievement – a reflection of her accomplishments and an investment in a bright future of public service,” said Dean Jennifer Rosato.
While in law school, Karla interned with the Legal Assistance Foundation’s Migrant Project during her 1L and 2L summers. During her internship, Karla organized outreach efforts in the Northern Illinois region and served as an advocate for migrant workers’ employment rights. She met farmworkers in a wide area stretching from Wisconsin to Interstate 80 north to south and between Iowa and Indiana west to east. What she found was disturbing.
“As I interacted with farmworkers, I learned of the injustices faced because employers failed to provide basic rights such as bathroom breaks, pesticide protection, and fair wages. I also learned that farm employers often failed to comply with state and federal laws requiring sexual harassment training,” Altmayer said.
According to Karla, the result is what has come to be known in the migrant worker community as the “green motel” - an environment of constant sexual harassment and abuse endured by women in the fields. Many victims were undocumented single-mothers, with nowhere to turn. Their frustrations and fears made her painfully aware of the gaps within immigration and labor laws that nurture a culture of injustice towards women.
To her dismay, Karla discovered there were no programs to address employment–based sexual harassment and abuse of farm worker women in Illinois due to lack of funds and resources. Rather than resign herself to this reality, Karla found a way to help this population by creating AWAP.
Her responsibility will be to start this program in Illinois and create the necessary support for the project to continue after her fellowship ends. Through AWAP, Karla will work with community organizations to support victims, provide comprehensive legal representation, education, outreach, and advocacy to farm worker women. Moreover, the project will seek to hold negligent and abusive employers legally accountable for their mistreatment of employees.
“I am grateful for the opportunity that I have to serve women in our society who are often ignored as I begin my career as a public interest attorney.” While she knows the path will be difficult and that the project is ambitious, Karla embraces and is prepared for any and all obstacles. “My familiarity with these issues, coupled with my experience in advocating for some of the most vulnerable persons in our society, has prepared me for this challenge.”
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