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J. Soffiyah Elijah, Deputy Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School, was honored in May by the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, which provides general and legal support for human and civil rights.
Elijah was recognized at the Guild’s annual testimonial dinner for her work in giving voice to the underrepresented through her legal scholarship and clinical practice. Upon receiving the award, Elijah, who has been involved in civil and human rights for decades, was pleased, although she says she did not expect the award. “I was shocked, I guess, because I was surprised to know that people would take the time to honor the work I’ve done. I didn’t start doing this and I don’t do it for the recognition,” she says.
Urszula Masny-Latos, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Guild, spoke about the Guild’s pride in presenting the award to Elijah, saying, “She doesn’t only preach, and she acts on her ideas and tries to really implement them. We just absolutely admire her and everything that she’s done. We have a lot of respect for her as a human being and as a legal professional.”
In her capacity as deputy director of CJI – HLS’ curriculum-based criminal defense clinic – Elijah supervises law students as they represent clients charged with crimes in the Boston Municipal Court. She has also coached trial teams at the law school to national victories, most recently in 2009. The Criminal Justice Institute is one of Harvard Law School’s more than thirty in-house legal clinics, which provide students with real-world clinical opportunities in a wide variety of areas, from cyberlaw to human rights to sports law.
Elijah's career has spanned private practice, pro bono work, and academia. Prior to joining HLS, she worked for the Legal Aid Society of New York City and the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, and she was the director of the Defender Clinic and the Child Welfare Advocacy Program at the City University of New York Law School. In her pro bono efforts, she has represented people throughout the United States, including seven years of advocacy on behalf of the San Francisco Eight, a group of African-American men charged in 2007 for a murder that took place in 1971.
Elijah’s work is driven by a desire to ensure that others – whether her students or her clients – succeed. As an educator, she says she enjoys “seeing the transition of students from 0 to 60 in a semester.” With regard to her work as an advocate, she says, “I get a lot of joy from getting results that my clients are happy with. Getting someone out of prison is particularly gratifying.”
While Elijah is not a member of the National Lawyers Guild, she describes herself as a friend of the organization. She co-authored an amicus brief to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal for the Guild. Elijah is a scholar of legal and justice issues in Venezuela and Cuba, and she has made efforts in trying to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, having traveled to that nation multiple times. She characterizes such efforts as “building people-to-people bridges.”
— John Peter Kaytrosh
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