Dean's Fellow has eye on career in public interest law


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Carelis Rios-Santiago began her undergraduate studies at Eastern Michigan University as a social work major and, during those classes, felt the topics under discussion were policy issues.

“Once I realized I was more interested in policy and the role of government on society’s welfare I switched to political science, but kept that social work mentality because I feel they both deal with the same issues but through different lenses — one is through policy and the other through compassion and hands-on help,” she said.

Rios-Santiago is now a new 1L student at the University Detroit Mercy School of Law and a Dean’s Fellow.

“I’m very honored to be a Dean’s Fellow and help communities out through this amazing opportunity,” she said. She headed to law school with the strong belief that the law is a very powerful tool.

“It can empower communities but at the same time, it can disempower communities as well,” Rios-Santiago said. “I felt the power that comes with the law sometimes isn’t serving the community as it should or isn’t protecting everyone as it should — so why not learn more about how it works to see how I can protect those who the law sometimes neglects.”

Her current focus is public interest law, with a goal of working with nonprofits such as ACLU Michigan or the Detroit Justice Center.

“The more I read about redlining and other ‘old practices’ that are merely veiled today — that have gone on to shape the economic inequalities we see currently — the more I look into working with nonprofits in the future,” Rios-Santiago said.

“I’m excited to learn about the cases that have shaped the world we live in today, as well as see how I, as a lawyer, can help those who have been disempowered by our government,” she added. “I’m also looking forward to taking part in more community involvement projects.”

Rios-Santiago also is eager to work on issues related to housing and to help Detroiters stay in their homes.

“We know Detroit is seeing a lot of development but the issue there is that it’s not helping the native Detroiters who have been here for generations,” she said. “I’d like to be able to defend tenants from exploitative landlords, with the main focus being to work on more fair and affordable housing.

“Everyone needs a home and nobody should be kicked out because they are a renter and don’t have the autonomy and power that comes with having property. This doesn’t just apply to Detroit — affordable housing should be available to everyone.”

Originally from Okemos and an alumna of Okemos High School, Rios-Santiago now makes her home in Detroit, where she enjoys eating out and trying new restaurants, cooking and adventuring different cuisines.

“I enjoy all the activities that are here,” she said. “I especially enjoy just walking around and finding something new every time.”

For the past year, Rios-Santiago has tutored ESL learners as a project intern at Washtenaw Literacy.

“It’s really great being able to see someone’s independence grow,” she said. “Washtenaw Literacy opened my eyes to the world of nonprofits. I got to see how the foundations of communities — such as literacy and housing — can have generational impacts on its residents.  

“On top of that, it taught me about how much a zip code can determine someone’s future. Learning all this just reaffirmed my desire to work with nonprofits whose solutions are based on equity.”


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