Melanie Shapiro (4th Quarter, 2008)

by Josh Barsch on September 25, 2009

4th Quarter, 2008 Dale E. Fridell Scholarship Winner
Melanie Shapiro
University of Rhode Island

Melanie Shapiro is graduating from the University of Rhode Island summa cum laude with a B.A. in Women’s Studies and completion of the Honors Program. She will attend Roger Williams University School of Law in the fall to become a human rights lawyer. Currently, she works as a co-chair of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking and has done extensive research and work fighting sex trafficking, and hopes to continue this work.

Melanie Shapiro

As I begin my senior year at URI, I am realizing more and more the extent of my commitment to my intellectual development and work for social justice. I am teaching Introduction to Women’s Studies as a teaching assistant, leading recitation sessions, applying to law school, and beginning my senior honors thesis entitled, “Trafficking and Prostitution in Rhode Island.” My work is no longer only an academic pursuit, but a calling, and one of the greatest reasons to become a lawyer.

In the last several years I have participated in activism from both “outside the system,” “inside the system.” As a result, I see the true value of working inside the system and the potential benefits of widespread legislative change. My academic success partly fuels my desire to go to law school and become a lawyer. I have a 4.0 GPA; I am in the Honors Program and on the Dean’s List. I have been inducted into Iota Iota Iota, the National Women’s Studies Honor society, will be inducted into the Golden Key Honor Society, and will be graduating summa cum laude. I was honored last year at the Iota Iota Iota induction ceremony with the Mother Jones Scholarship Award for outstanding achievement in the Women’s Studies major. I have been a regular columnist for the Women’s Studies newsletter.

Outside academe, I have most recently had the opportunity to work with the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, which also fosters my commitment to becoming a lawyer. Since my initial involvement in January of 2008, I have worked with other members of the RICAHT to support the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2007, establishing regular contact and meeting with public officials in state to discuss the legislation, lobbying representatives, securing statements, and preparing media campaigns.

I was inspired when, at the close of the Senate session, we were able to persuade Senator Whitehouse to call to postpone voting on the original bill in order to learn more about the distinctive revisions later introduced by Senators Biden and Brownback that weakened our bill. We reshifted our focus and spent time researching human trafficking in RI, preparing information to present to public officials, and networking with other organizations. We have been in contact with the Police Department, the mayor’s office, and the Department of Health to work on ways to shut down the establishments of sex trafficking, all work that shows me the deliberate and potential actions one can effect.


I have met with many organizations, and as a result, the Take Back the Night march and the Clothesline Project will be included in the first ever march against human trafficking in RI which I am organizing. At our press conference, we will have sex trafficking experts, victim’s services providers, and public officials speak. Following the press conference, I will work on new prostitution, sex tourism, and trafficking legislation to present to our legislative sponsor to introduce when Congress resumes session.

All this work confirms my sense of the importance of working “inside the system” to promote widespread, legislative changes in order to overcome many social justice issues. Most recently, my academic focus has also centered on human trafficking, genocide, human rights, foreign policy, and Islamic Fundamentalism.

I have been fortunate to be granted to opportunity to work with Dr. Donna Hughes, an international sex trafficking expert frequently consulted by governments around the world, who has written prolifically on the issue, and has been involved with the Wilberforce Act in Washington, D.C… I have now taken four classes with Dr. Hughes, who is my thesis advisor for my senior academic year.

I have also worked with Dr. Jody Lisberger, the Women’s Studies department chair, who has taught writing classes at Harvard, Brown, Boston University, and others, and is on the faculty for the MFA program in Writing at Spalding University. These and other outstanding professors have continued to develop my intellectual strengths.

My commitment to defending human rights goes back many years and can be attributed to several academic, professional, and personal experiences. I was raised by a mathematician and an artist, affording me the benefits of a logical creative development. When I was 13 years old, my father, the artist, passed away due to a long battle with a morphine addiction and PTSD from the Vietnam War.

I spent the next couple of years in a grieving state. I became a determined, optimistic, fierce, independent strong-willed woman to which I credit that time in my life when I decided I would transform my moments of grief into capsules of productivity and direction, honing my potential and soaring.

I began my college career at age 13, receiving approval to enroll in a creative writing class at the local college. I continued taking classes all throughout high school. When I turned 16, I was officially able to participate in the Bridge Program, attending high school in the mornings and college in the evening, taking such classes as Calculus I and II, Chemistry, Literature and others. By the time of my freshman year of college, I had 21 credits to transfer to Drew University where I was accepted as a Dean’s Choice Applicant. I received the David and Pauline Bodle Scholarship Award, and quickly plunged myself into challenging coursework. The desire to be a lawyer was always there, but a true inspiration came from my Civil Disobedience, Justice, and the Law freshman seminar.

My professor, Dr. Jeremy Varon, vehemently argued the importance of the First Amendment in protection of all of the guaranteed rights of the Constitution. I felt inspired by the perseverance exhibited by these civil rights groups demonstrating the significance of an individual and the strengthened ability of a group of such dedicated individuals to bring about change. My vigorous academic work and social justice interest continued at Drew University.

During my freshman year at Drew, I took upper level women’s studies courses, and by my sophomore year, upper level economics, political science, an independent study, and Graduate ethics class. I was a part of Amnesty International, the GLBTQ Alliance, and Womyn’s Concerns Club.

My sophomore year, I developed my political and leadership inclinations. As the summer before sophomore year closed, a very political figure on campus approached me to start an activist networking organization, inspired by the same predecessors as I. That Fall we began Act Out!, working with organizations like Amnesty International, STAN:D, the GLBTQ Alliance, Catholic Campus Ministry, and others. The goal was to unify groups that would not otherwise collaborate, put aside some significant ideological divergences, and work together for the common cause, the mantra always being the more diverse and strong a coalition is the more comprehensive and likely the agenda will be to succeed.

I have carried this concept forward with me in other human rights endeavors, especially the RI Coalition Against Human Trafficking. Our organization helped to address issues such as the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy, religious freedom, racism, homophobia, sexism, Darfur, and others. As Co-Chair of Act Out! I had the pleasure to do a presentation on the History of Activism at Drew University presented to the President of the university, several faculty, students, alumni, and concerned citizens.

The skills I developed during our campaigns– I contributed articles to the student paper, organized events, networked with other organizations, participated in rallies, and did a great deal of public speaking—have given me confidence in leadership and public speaking that will enhance my ability to be an effective lawyer. One of the proudest times for me revolved around my campaign for transgender rights, much inspired by the gender theorist, Judith Butler, and the biologist, Anne Fausto Sterling.

During the Spring of my sophomore year at Drew, I planned, in its entirety, a panel discussion on transgender rights and issues. The Women’s Studies department asked me to speak on its behalf. My diverse panel included a Biology professor, a psychology professor, and a graduate student from the Theological school.

The event proved a success. We had a substantial turnout from a variety of groups, ranging from the Catholic Campus Ministry, the theological school, and a Muslim students association, to the GLBTQ Alliance, and the feminist groups on campus. I also had the privilege of having in attendance representatives from Garden State Equality and Stonewall Democrats. The President of Stonewall Democrats at the time invited my colleagues and me to the first ever march for Transgender Rights in New Jersey, which in turn led to ground-breaking pro-transgender rights legislation.

I have also selected my job experiences deliberately to reinforce and build my legal aspirations. This summer, I was able to work with the Honorable Justice O. Rogiree Thompson, the first African American woman on the RI Superior Court, with a tremendous history and an exceptional ability to fairly process both sides of cases and interpret and apply the law. I learned from Judge Thompson patiently explaining complicated legal issues and seeking the opinion of interns through intense discussion of the cases. The interns participated in regular discussion with Judge Thompson, one another, and court room personnel, attended all court proceedings and in chambers conferences, attended site visits, and were encouraged to attend other interesting court proceedings.

During my internship with Judge Thompson, I spent some time researching a fairly complicated case, Town of Richmond v. Richie Realty Corp and State of Rhode Island v. Richie Realty Corp. [consolidated], concerning environmental issues, public nuisance, and zoning. The end result of my research was the compilation of a memorandum I presented to Judge Thompson.

This experience was especially enriched because of my coursework at the University of Rhode Island. I have taken two law-related classes, American Legal Systems with Attorney Henry S. Monti from Gemma Law and Constitutional Law with Attorney Bill Dolan from Brown Rudnick. American Legal Systems helped me to establish basic principles, an understanding of procedure, functions of the court, and so forth. In the Constitution Law class, I read opinions of the Supreme Court, mostly appellate, beginning with Marbury v. Madison and concluding with Roe v. Wade. We learned how to brief a case, and spent a considerable amount of time dissecting legal concepts and their origins, such as judicial review, the supremacy clause, interstate commerce, regulation of employment, implied powers of Congress, procedural and substantive due process, and others through the opinions of landmark cases. This learning peaked my intellectual curiosity and desire to unpack difficult concepts of the law.

During the Spring Semester of my sophomore year, I also interned with the Law Offices of Scott E. Tanne Esq., a firm that focused its practice on bankruptcy law, where I worked organizing case files and being immersed in the legal environment. This experience introduced me to the work inside a law firm. Last but not least, the summer after my sophomore year, I had the opportunity to intern with the Law Offices of Mark B. Morse, Esq. in Providence, where I worked with Attorney Morse and group of attorneys on Inventors Greenhouse v. Hasbro, a federal contracts, intellectual property, and patent case. I participated in attorney-client meetings, attorney meetings, testified on the stand as a live witness for several deposed witnesses who were unable to attend, took notes for Attorney Morse, and interacted with clients on a daily basis. The experience introduced me to the litigation aspect of legal work and allowed me to actively observe the litigation process from start to finish.

My legal experiences, college courses and achievement, and personal life have all brought me to this point where I wish to dedicate my professional life to defending human rights through the law. I hope to advance these efforts further when I am a lawyer. To me, the law is an immense component in fighting human rights violations. I will work harder than I already have to master the law and be the best attorney I can to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

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