Breaking down barriers

Leadership for Justice Fellow works to improve language access

Kristi Cruz started learning sign language when she was 5 to communicate with a friend of her family. She didn't know it would become her passion - and her career.

Krist Cruz

Cruz '08 is the first recipient of the School of Law's Leadership for Justice Fellowship. She will work with Northwest Justice Project to continue work she started as a student with the Washington State Coalition for Language Access. Her project will include training, litigation and creation of policies and procedures to help those with limited English skills or who are deaf or hard of hearing navigate the justice system.

She says language access is a critical issue for agencies and courts.

"Whether it's interpreting for someone who can't hear or someone who can't speak the language, the barriers are the same," Cruz said. "There's so much more to equal access and language access than just calling an agency and getting an interpreter."

She developed a love for the language early on and enrolled in an American Sign Language Class in high school, where she tutored and interpreted for deaf students. She pursued ASL in college, thinking she would work with deaf children. Instead, she became an interpreter, providing services to deaf clients in situations ranging from doctor's appointments and staff training to the courtroom.

"Whether it's interpreting for someone who can't hear or someone who can't speak the language, the barriers are the same. There's so much more to equal access and language access than just calling an agency and getting an interpreter."
Kristi Cruz, Leadership for Justice Fellow

Cruz has been an American Sign Language interpreter for 17 years. In court, she saw the challenges - and sometimes devastating results - that deaf people experienced.

"Feeling voiceless as an interpreter, I decided to go to law school," Cruz said. "I am absolutely honored to have been selected as the Seattle University Leadership for Justice Fellow, and I'm excited to begin working on this project that allows me to combine my experience and commitment to language access with my law degree."

Seattle University School of Law is the only law school in the state to offer a post-graduate fellowship. It provides a salary of $40,000 for one year to a Seattle University School of Law graduate to work with a host organization on a specific social justice.

"It was a perfect fit," Cruz said. "I went back to school because I wanted to serve the deaf community."

In addition to her work with WSCLA, Cruz externed for the Coordinated Legal Education Advice and Referral Line's domestic violence unit and volunteered with the ATJI's Language Resource Project.

"Kristi has a breadth of knowledge and experience working with leaders in the language access community in Washington," said Monika Batra Kashyap, associate director of the Access to Justice Institute that oversees the fellowship program. "Both before and during law school, Kristi has been involved in language access work, and it is clear that she has the leadership skills to thrive in this arena as an attorney."

The selection committee reviewed several outstanding applications. Committee members, including those who have been involved in the equal justice community in Washington for many years, agreed there has always been a great need for language access needs to be addressed by the courts and state agencies.

"Especially in these trouble economic times, it's imperative that we do all we can to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable are met," Kashyap said.

June 2009