Advocate: Law student launched Voting Rights/Election Law Society


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Steven Nelson started his career trajectory with the goal of pursuing public health and to work as an epidemiologist for an international organization like Doctors Without Borders.

“I wanted to do some good in the world,” he says. “As I began following that track, my view started to change on what the best points were to influence the world, so I started down the policy track to pursue more knowledge on that topic and develop my skill set a bit more.”

Nelson, who holds bachelor degrees in biology and physiology from the University of Minnesota, and master degrees in public health and public policy from the University of Michigan, realized the next step in that career evolution was to earn a law degree.

“I started to realize it was not only an area where I could more effectively influence the world, but it also started lining up with my personal strengths, more so than conducting statistical analyses,” he says.
Now entering his final year at Wayne State University Law School, Nelson particularly appreciates his classmates.

“With Wayne’s evening program, which I started in, I've regularly had small classes with a lot of other people that come from a wider array of backgrounds than I suspect most law schools have, with a lot of them 10-20 years into one career and switching to a new one while continuing to work,” he says.

“Law is often very atomized and broad assumptions can easily be made. Having a wider array of perspectives can provide more opportunity for others to challenge your assumptions and so you can both learn the law better and learn more than just the law.”

With the goal of finding valuable and rewarding work after graduation, his leading area of interest is his long-held passion for voting rights and election law--and this semester he launched the Voting Rights & Election Law Society that has hosted Federal Election Commission Commissioner Ellen Weintraub and North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls as guest speakers.

“We've really hit the ground running with events and are planning to do more over the summer,” he says. “As Detroit made national news for multiple reasons in the last election cycle, there was great enthusiasm to start building a way here at Wayne to cultivate knowledge and advocacy on voting rights and election administration. Continuing to pursue something on that path appeals to me a great deal.

“But working in government as public service—and with it, a wider variety of topics to work on regularly—also appeals to me. If I'm fortunate, I'll find something with both.”

Because of the pandemic, last summer’s Levin Center Fellowship for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was entirely remote.

“I missed out on a lot of the in-person networking and seeing the full workings of the Senate business. But I did get to virtually attend a number of events that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to and really appreciated seeing the process,” he says. “It was a great experience overall to see how PSI works and get a closer look at a place that contributed to the legacies of individuals such as both Joseph McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. And I can't say enough about how much the team there cared about providing good mentorship. I got significant feedback on everything I wrote for them.”

In addition to the Levin Center Fellowship with PSI, Nelson worked this past fall in the Disability Law Clinic. He recently started an internship with Governor Whitmer's Office of Legal Counsel this summer and hopes to find a judicial clerking experience during his final year of law school.

This year, he was elected as Symposium Director of the Journal of Law in Society, officially starting in this role recently.

“I did have a solid idea of what I want to do, so I started things rolling even before I applied for the position,” he says. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of identifying an issue that’s an important legal topic but also worthwhile both to Detroit specifically and more broadly, as well as working with legal scholars and getting some experience with hosting an event of this size. It should mix in some of the skills I’ve developed in my podcast by connecting with people already doing work in areas that interest me.”

Nelson also spent his first year on The Journal of Law in Society as an Article Editor.

“It was a good experience to apply some skills I’m good at and develop them in a new direction,” he says. “I enjoy the actual role of editing people’s academic writing. And BlueBook citations take a bit of practice to do them even mostly correct.”

He has done his share of research assistant work, serving for about a year in the Faculty Research Service at the University of Michigan’s Law Library, helping the Levin Center develop one of their Michigan Youth In Government oversight scenarios, and assisting Professor Sanjukta Paul this past semester.

Nelson admits remote classes have been a tad rough.

“The first half-semester that switched to remote was a bit of a blur, and it's slowly gotten better as I’ve gotten used to being home all the time,” he says. “I've been fortunate to have my partner Mary and our three pets—a Cockapoo named Vesper, a mini-poodle named Basil, and our cat Tonks. I honestly can't imagine going through this year without them.

“I've also gotten better at being forgiving of myself when I feel like I could have done better. I hope to keep that skill with me going forward. Cultivating some new hobbies has also helped.”

His new hobby—joining leisure pursuits of running, reading, camping, mountaineering, and walking the dogs—is cooking, aided by the purchase of a stand mixer; and his specialties are pasta, pizza, and ice cream.

“I'm still closer to novice than expert, but I'm loving learning them,” he says. “We've started a Fresh Pasta Friday where we share pictures and recipes on social media. We try to do something new every week, but on occasion when we're busy, we'll rely on a favorite—cacio e pepe was one of the first recipes that involved making our own sauce, and it's still great. A great one I’d never heard of was culurgiones—we had to watch a few videos to get the technique even close.”

Before law school, Nelson volunteered for 3 to 4 years in the children's playroom at SafeHouse Center in Ann Arbor, where he also helped facilitate a new support group for male survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. In the last few years he also has worked with friends to support community-minded causes and develop other knowledge.

From that experience, he started a civic engagement podcast, DIY Democracy, trying to learn more and help people take that first (or second) step into the political arena.

“Summer's coming up, so I'll be posting some new episodes with my extra free time,” he says.

A native of Red Wing, Minn., Nelson now makes his home in Dearborn, and has happily become a Detroiter. He looks forward to resuming activities around the Motor City when the pandemic eases and things reopen.

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