Public Interest Powerhouse
As a kid growing up near a primarily African-American section of Atlanta, Aaron Jeffers experienced prejudice from an unexpected source — law enforcement. “I regularly played basketball in the city parks league and was the only white kid in the league,” said Jeffers, a member of the Class of 2011. “The local cops used to harass me for hanging out with my black friends. They assumed I was only in the neighborhood to buy drugs.”
The experience gave Jeffers special insight into race relations in America and solidified, at an early age, his interest in civil rights law. “My parents were politically progressive,” said Jeffers, who grew up discussing race relations and other social issues at the dinner table.
Jeffers studied history at Georgia State University and held a series of full-time sales jobs to pay his way through school. When he graduated in 2004, the presidential election was in full swing. “I was keenly interested in politics, so I spent the summer working as hard as I could for the Democratic Party,” he said. “All my business and sales skills translated well to grassroots canvassing.”
After the election, Jeffers went to work for Telefund, a fundraising organization that supports progressive causes and candidates. As director of the organization’s Austin, Texas, office, Jeffers helped raise more than $2.3 million for national and international nonprofit organizations. “It was a good stepping stone for working at larger nonprofits and political organizations,” Jeffers noted.
Indeed. Before long, he received a job offer from the iconic Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Ala. “I had wanted to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center since I was a kid,” Jeffers said of the organization, which is dedicated to fighting bigotry and seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. “When I was young, they successfully sued the Ku Klux Klan; I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.”
Jeffers served as outreach manager for the SPLC from spring 2006 to summer 2008, during which time he led more than 30 national outreach campaigns for the organization. “It never felt like just a job,” he said.
While working at the SPLC, Jeffers became interested in defense work and applied to several West Coast law schools. “I chose Willamette University because it is right across the street from the
Oregon Capitol and Supreme Court,” he said. “The degree of access it provides to every branch of government is unique.”
Jeffers enrolled at Willamette University College of Law in the fall of 2008 and immediately started working for Willamette University Public Interest Law Project (WUPILP), which helps support students
interested in nonprofit legal law. Throughout his three years at Willamette, he has served as fundraising chair, auction co-chair and president, respectively. “Working in the public interest field has been
the coming together of all my ideals — ethos in action,” he said.
Since coming to Willamette, Jeffers has become a courtroom junkie. “I love trial work,” said Jeffers, who made it to the finals in three student trial competitions. “It allows you to think about a problem,
work out a plan of attack and use your communication skills to sell it. It is the perfect combination of my skill set. It also brings out the salesman in me.”
Jeffers’ interest in trial work and civil rights led to a summer clerkship with the Marion County Public Defender’s office after his first year of law school. An externship placement allowed him to continue his work there as a 2L. Last spring, he was hired full time, and he hopes to land a permanent position with the office after graduation. “I don’t want to go anywhere,” he said. “It is exactly the kind of work I came to law school to do — vindicate people and protect their rights.”
“It’s been an amazing experience,” he said of the opportunity to advocate for defendants. “Most of my clients are not bad people. A lot of factors go into it — mental health issues, poverty. Things outside a person’s choice play a large part in their circumstances.
“No matter who they are, they deserve to have their rights protected.”
— Anne Marie Becka