Q&A: Andrew Gordon ’08, Associate Director, Legal Rights Center
Born and raised in Jamaica, Andrew Gordon ’08 is both an associate director of the Minneapolis-based Legal Rights Center (LRC) and the lead attorney for its Community Defense Program. Gordon has worked at LRC helping indigent clients and coordinating volunteer efforts for more than a decade. Recently, he has been instrumental in staffing the legal support hotline set up to aid George Floyd protesters and their families.
Could you describe your work with the LRC’s Community Defense Program?
As associate director of the LRC’s Community Defense Program I supervise the day-to-day operation of our adult representation, volunteer and intern programs, and community advocacy and outreach. I also maintain a small caseload of adult and juvenile cases. I alternate between preparing cases for trial, supporting the work of the other advocates in my office, and training students and other attorneys to work in a client-centered and community-focused environment.
Could you describe your path to your current position at the LRC?
I went to school to do public defense work, and started my career at the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Boston. I later joined the Legal Rights Center as a staff attorney. We’re a small office, and individuals often shoulder more responsibilities than their job title would ordinarily include, and I was no different. I found myself helping with training and interviewing interns, and taking the lead on coordinating our transition from one database to another. In 2012, we underwent a very deliberate restructuring of the organization, and I was asked to lead the newly created Community Defense Program.
When you were recognized by Minnesota Lawyer as an Up-and-Coming Attorney a few years back, the publication mentioned that you have a special affinity for immigrant clients. Could you discuss that?
I’m an immigrant. I’ve been detained twice by U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) and been subject to the whims of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). I know the fear of not being sure whether I’ll be able to stay in the country, and understanding that my fate is not within my control. I understand what it is to feel like you don’t belong, and to work day in and day out to try to fit into a new place and culture. Those experiences shaped who I am today and continue to inform my work and advocacy.
Recently, you have been involved in response work connected to the tragic killing of George Floyd and resulting protests. Could you describe a bit about that?
I have previous experience in mass defense (following the deaths of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile), and was asked to help coordinate a legal support hotline for those working for change and equity. In that role, I help identify and train volunteers to staff the hotline, while also coordinating support for those arrested and in custody. More recently I have been helping to vet volunteers and am coordinating our efforts to link those who need representation with volunteer attorneys and law students.
Why do you think George Floyd’s killing has struck such a chord worldwide as compared to prior police killings?
At least eight minutes and forty-six seconds of clear video evidence of intentional and callous conduct has helped to place the death of George Floyd on everyone’s radar. There is also now a well-developed infrastructure in place to help identify and respond to police misconduct, and to amplify calls for justice on behalf of Black, Indigenous, and other peoples of color.
How has the COVID-19 situation affected what you do?
COVID-19 has made it harder to collaborate with, organize on behalf of, and coordinate the myriad pieces of an evolving response. Social activism, and the work that supports it, benefits from the personal connection that you can make by being on the ground with people. My own work has been limited by my desire to protect my pregnant partner and our unborn son, and I have not been able to be on the ground in a way that I would normally be.
On the other hand, at the beginning of our State’s “closure,” I was able to extend my work and advocacy past the borders of Hennepin County and up into the Iron Range. There, I was able to represent individuals incarcerated at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center (and other Iron Range detention facilities) in an effort to secure their release from custody so that they could better protect themselves from exposure to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Under normal circumstances I would never have been able to do that work.
What motivates you as a lawyer and advocate?
I’m motivated by the experiences of my own family members who have suffered through the criminal legal system, and do this work to empower my clients and our communities to better advocate for themselves in and out of court.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?
The best part of my job is undoubtedly the chance I have to work with criminal justice reform advocates on a variety of topics and issues. There are attorneys, non-attorneys, and students who are expending tremendous energy to make our legal system more equitable and just, and they energize me. The least favorite part of my work is, and will always be, the conversations that I have with clients whose options are all bad, and whose circumstances threaten what little stability and support they may have.
Did you have a favorite class/ professor/ and/or clinical experience at Minnesota Law?
I am deeply grateful for the experiences I had in our misdemeanor defense clinic under the tutelage of Professor Stephen Simon. He encouraged me to be courageous and creative, and to always respect my clients as a person.
What advice would you have for a law student today looking to work in the public interest, as you do?
Two, very interrelated things: 1. True advocacy requires respect for the work, and for your individual clients. You cannot advocate for someone that you’re not listening to, and you have to be prepared to do a lot of genuine listening. 2. This work will, and should, make you uncomfortable. Fighting for those who have been historically oppressed and continue to be marginalized has never been easy, and you need to be prepared to work hard, for little recognition, and in circumstances where some of your clients may not be wholly grateful for all your efforts. Be prepared to be wrong, and be prepared to have your views challenged all the time. Use those challenges to grow.
What are some interesting items or décor one might find on your desk or in your office space?
I keep all the thank-you cards from clients and former interns on my desk.
Could you explain your connection to JaMinn link?
I’m a co-founder of a small non-profit organization called JaMinn Link. Its focus is on bringing together the Jamaican community in, and around, the Twin Cities and providing a space to mentor, educate, and entertain our allies and friends. Our primary focus is on centering those efforts on youth, and have previously raised money to support a scholarship fund for high school students in Jamaica.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I enjoy spending time with my son (soon to be joined by his younger brother), and hope that they both grow up enjoying soccer, Liverpool F.C., and boxing as much as I do.