After nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd began, Sheela Ranganathan started a group message in early June with a few law students to brainstorm ways they could get involved.
Overnight, the group swelled to more than 150 members.
Ranganathan, a Texas Law student, said she didn’t want to speak for the Black community as a non-Black person, so she reached out to the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society at UT to see if anyone was interested in helping lead the initiative.
“(I said) I don’t want to (create) more work and more burdens for Black students at UT, but at the same time if you think this is an opportunity that you want to take on, I would be really happy to help,” Ranganathan said. “That’s when Alyssa (Gordon) and Ayo (Adaranijo) stepped in.”
Law Students for Black Lives, directed by Gordon, Adaranijo and Ranganathan, aims to use the trio’s legal knowledge to support the Black Lives Matter movement by educating their community and supporting other law students.
“We’re not lawyers yet, we won’t be able to legally help someone, but we are able to point them in a direction (where) they can go seek help,” Adaranijo, a Texas Law student, said.
Volunteers can join one of the six teams focused on goals such as encouraging direct action and changing policy. Some can also aid protesters by connecting them to free legal representation or providing shelter.
“There’s specific people who volunteer, ‘Oh, call me if anything happens’ or ‘Hey, I live right here downtown so if you need a break (during a protest), come to my house,” Ranganathan said.
To educate the group’s almost 2,600 followers on Instagram, the marketing team posts weekly graphics about ways to get involved in the movement and other information, such as facts about racist historical events.
One topic they address is the connection between the legal system and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I couldn’t say there was a specific time where I was like, ‘Hey, we need to do something, we’re law students,’” said Gordon, a Texas Law student who has been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement since 2015. “It was just kind of intuitive for me because I know how intertwined the two systems are.”
Law students can also connect with each other and share volunteering opportunities through the outreach team.
“I shared (a list of lawyers) with the group and said, ‘If you have any extra time, please consider reaching out to one of these attorneys and offering help, because the more attorneys we help, the more people they can see for free,’” Texas Law student Atticus Finch said. “We can make a real difference.”
Adaranijo said she decided to get involved both to enact change and cope with her frustration following multiple incidents of police brutality.
"I would say for me, around when George Floyd passed away, I was feeling very angry and frustrated,” Adaranijo said. “With that and Ahmud Arbery and Amy Cooper, my mind was just kind of racing, and I felt helpless and I felt the need to do something."
Before being involved in the group, Adaranijo said she didn’t think she’d do pro bono work during college because she focuses on corporate law. However, she said she knew her action would impact the movement.
“I kind of look at it as necessary work that needs to be done,” Adaranijo said. “I am privileged enough to be a law student, so this is just a way that I can help.”