Career Spotlight: Jena Matzen (JD 94), Giving a Voice to the Voiceless in Durham, North Carolina

Published: February 19th, 2007

Category: News

I came to law school to gain a louder voice. While at UF Law, I researched indigenous peoples/Native American civil and environmental rights while working with Tom Ankersen in the Center for Governmental Responsibility (CGR) on his Mesoamerican Biodiversity Legal Project and while interning with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as a CGR Public Service Law Fellow.

The impact of Hurricane Andrew (which struck at the start of my second year, devastating my hometown of Goulds) on the Everglades migrant labor camp inspired me to pursue a summer clerkship at Farmworkers Legal Services of North Carolina (FLSNC). I found the work to be wonderfully compelling and satisfying, offering a work-life balance that supported my new status as a single parent of a young son.

After graduation, despite opportunities in Mexico and Colombia, I returned to North Carolina to work as a staff attorney with FLSNC, and later with the Immigrant’s Legal Assistance Project of the N.C. Justice Center. I engaged in policy advocacy and handled individual cases and class action litigation on behalf of immigrant workers and limited English proficient students in employment, civil rights, benefits and immigration cases. The work was stressful and at times infuriating, but I knew I was making the kind of difference I always wanted to make. I returned to international work in 2002 when I traveled to Colombia with Witness for Peace, a human rights group working in Latin America.

Our purpose was to witness the impact of U.S. drug policy (which is causing terrible environmental and human rights tragedies); to meet and speak with numerous governmental officials, human and environmental rights activists, religious leaders, farmers, and indigenous representatives; and then to come home and talk about it.

Upon my return from this revelatory, humbling and at times terrifying experience, I gave numerous presentations and appeared in several local newspapers to discuss what I learned and saw. Overall, I have had a wonderful career as a lawyer in the public sector. It has allowed me to do meaningful work and have a fantastic family life with my husband and three children.

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