Meet Kerdesha Desir '21: Center for Social Justice Scholar
Each academic year, Seton Hall Law School School’s Center for Social Justice (CSJ) selects Student Scholars who seek careers in public interest. The Scholars are afforded opportunities to work with faculty members in areas of interest and career ambition. They receive scholarship support for their service from the Association of Corporate Counsel of New Jersey.
The intersection between the law and its real-world impact on families is what brought Kerdesha Desir ’21 to Seton Hall Law School. Growing up in the Haitian and greater Caribbean community, Desir witnessed that domestic violence was often mischaracterized as simple “familial strife,” swept under a rug and never publicly discussed. “In our culture, no matter how blatantly obvious the hardship of someone’s situation may be, we are taught early on to address the issues within the family and not to get ‘outsiders’ involved,” said Desir.
Desir notes that this attitude unfortunately still exists not just within her own ethnic communities, but within society at large. “It amazes me that in our current society, where social media has facilitated public conversations on all fronts about sensitive issues both public and private, the issue of domestic violence continues to be characterized by some people as a ‘private matter.’” Desir pushes back on that notion, arguing that domestic violence must be addressed collectively as a community because “what affects one of us, affects all of us.” She stresses that it is important to identify which structures are in place both socially and legally that allow for gender-based violence to thrive. Intimate partner violence has many forms and these forms plague communities of all compositions: ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation alike.
Within the domestic violence sphere, Desir is especially passionate about family law and how the law regulates families, as a unit, when experiencing domestic violence. While at the University of South Florida, Desir sought out opportunities to learn more about what is being done to address the many issues affecting individuals within the family unit. “People speak prolifically of sweeping social change yet forget that it’s the tireless incremental groundwork that lays the foundation for that change.”
Desir interned in the Child Protection Division of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, where she experienced first-hand law enforcement’s response to child welfare, including families affected by domestic violence. Desir interacted with clients and their families, hearing countless stories of how they came to the attention of the state intervention agencies. Families were plagued by lack of access to resources and systemic barriers were common themes within the narratives of people who often felt like others were not listening to them.
Desir also worked with Florida State House Representative Sean Shaw to address problems faced by constituents in District 61 in Tampa. In his office, Desir addressed homelessness and food insecurities in urban areas, partnering with non-profit organizations to bring resources to the community. Desir also worked on the issue of re-entry and felon disenfranchisement by looking at research and proposed legislation and how it would impact the millions of people in Florida, especially people of color, who were unable to participate in the voting process.
Desir worked for the non-profit organization PCAT Literacy Ministries, where she taught reading, writing, and computer literacy to Kindergarteners at risk of grade failure. For two years, Desir served tirelessly as a student teacher to facilitate comprehensive individualized learning plans for a total of eighty students, where she approached the situations of different students and families with compassion. She listened to their stories and concerns.
In the summer following her first year of law school, Desir worked at the New York City Family Justice Center (FJC) for Sanctuary for Families, a non-profit organization and leading provider of services to survivors of gender-based violence. Desir assisted the Family Law Project, which addresses legal issues of divorce, child custody, support, and visitation. During her time in the Bronx FJC, Desir learned about lawyering from a trauma-informed perspective. She saw the obstacles clients faced in court, especially when they were pro se or had counsel who were not experienced with working with survivors. “In order for someone to get help, it is imperative that we de-stigmatize domestic violence, educate all those involved in the process, and create opportunities that will streamline and simplify the process for survivors. We must also create ways in which we can address the holistic problems of individuals in a way that will provide them with greater freedom to escape their situations.” To Desir, “Addressing domestic violence is an issue much like a puzzle with many pieces. The legal arena may be but one piece in a hundred-piece puzzle, but it is imperative that we take the initiative to find solutions to the problems that make our piece ‘not fit’.” Desir believes one of those solutions is to genuinely listen to, believe, and legitimize the narratives of survivors.
Desir is currently in her second year at the Law School. She is the Attorney General for the Black Law Students Association, where she is organizing programming that highlights initiatives that affect the African-American community, such as criminal justice reform and the current Newark Water Crisis. In October 2019, she organized a Community Conversation co-sponsored by the CSJ and the Black Law Student Association to discuss the Netlfix documentary series, When They See Us, within the broader context of criminal justice reform.
Desir serves as Secretary for the Family Law Society, where she is working to further the reach of the organization and provide more information to incoming students about family law opportunities. Desir is also a 2019-2020 Leadership Fellow. Her leadership project is focused on partnering with organizations that aid domestic violence survivors in both an advocacy and direct legal services capacity.
Desir’s experiences within such a collaborative area of the law has driven her towards advocacy work on the legal response to domestic violence survivors and their families. She looks forward to the clinical opportunities available through the CSJ and is excited for the opportunity to get involved in family law projects.