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This Philadelphia Lawyer Is Battling Modern-Day Segregation in Schools

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Why you should care

Because education is a basic human right. 

Thurgood Marshall’s fight for justice and equality still resonates today. It’s a fight chronicled in the new movie Marshall based on the early career of the civil rights lawyer-turned-Supreme Court Justice. Marshall is in theaters October 13.

When you’re working on behalf of at-risk children, the challenges can seem endless. The biggest challenge? A systemic indifference in our education system to the kids who are most lacking in resources at home. This is where Maura McInerney comes in. An attorney and a child advocate for Philadelphia’s Education Law Center, McInerney has tirelessly fought on behalf of homeless and foster children, including a class-action lawsuit resulting in the dismantling of an inferior, segregated school and a federal case that affirmed that homeless children have the right to an education.

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Maura McInerney

McInerney’s commitment mirrors that of another advocate and attorney from an earlier time: Thurgood Marshall, who argued 19 cases in front of the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education, which was instrumental in desegregating America’s schools. It’s a parallel that’s hard to deny, and one reason she has been awarded OZY’s first Modern Marshall Award, given to a person who closely personifies the spirit of Thurgood Marshall, in honor of the soon-to-be-released film Marshall. In almost three decades of working on behalf of at-risk youth in Philadelphia and beyond, she’s accomplished miracles.

Her list of accomplishments is lengthy. After graduating from Fordham Law School in 1988, she started to work on behalf of children in foster care and those who are homeless. She co-founded a transitional housing program in Columbia, Maryland, worked as a litigator in the private and public sectors, and served as assistant attorney general for Maryland.

Birds of a Feather

McInerney was both shocked and deeply honored when she heard that she’d won OZY’s Modern Marshall Award. “Justice Thurgood Marshall was an inspiration to me from high school and certainly in law school,” she says, citing his pioneering work as a civil rights attorney and a Supreme Court justice. “His passion for racial and social justice and his willingness to take a stand continues to inspire me every day.”

“It taught me what it’s like to be seen differently than the person you are and how this impacts you as a child.”

Maura McInerney

Marshall cared deeply about the people he fought for, and McInerney is clearly cut from the same cloth. Like her mentor, McInerney believes that public education is the great equalizer that provides a way out of poverty and into employment and participation in democracy. “Education has always been and will always be a civil rights issue, but we often don’t see it that way,” she says. “We look for quick and easy fixes such as vouchers and unfettered charter school growth without accountability. We need to take a step back and look at who is in our public schools — many of whom are children living below the poverty line — and what we want to achieve. All our children deserve the chance to have a quality education that allows them to thrive.“

A Rough Start

It’s no surprise McInerney advocates for disadvantaged children. “I grew up with a significant speech impediment,” she says. “Everyone assumed I had intellectual disabilities. Adults spoke to me very slowly using loud voices, and other kids made fun of me and bullied me.” She even stopped talking for a period of time. Though she received speech therapy in sixth grade, her childhood experience has fueled her work.

“It taught me what it’s like to be seen differently than the person you are and how this impacts you as a child,” she says. “It changes the way you look at yourself and the world and what you think you can achieve in life. This happens every day to the children I work with, who are judged based on false assumptions due to race, poverty, disability or English Learner status.”

The Most Vulnerable

McInerney has little patience for the inequity and racial bias she sees entrenched in the American school and welfare systems.

“We’ve accepted the fact that some children — predominantly children of color — will attend schools that lack basic resources such as up-to-date textbooks, supplies, school libraries, science labs and technology that are necessary to gain employment or pursue higher education,” she says.

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Thurgood Marshall argued 19 cases in front of the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education.

Source Cornell Capa/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

And she doesn’t hesitate to help clients wherever they need it, whether it’s in the courtroom or while navigating daily life. Len Rieser, program coordinator at the Sheller Center for Social Justice, worked with McInerney at the Education Law Center. He says that McInerney is unique among lawyers who specialize in civil rights work. “She feels a solidarity with her clients,” he says, which is not always a given among lawyers who work on various causes. Instead of viewing a case as a battle to win, she takes a we’re-in-this-together approach.

Rieser recalls a complicated case where McInerney was under enormous time constraints and the odds of winning weren’t good. “Many lawyers would have scaled back their goals or negotiated a settlement, but Maura put her personal frustrations aside and stuck to her principles, and produced a really good result for her clients,” he says.

Jennifer Pokempner, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center who’s collaborated with McInerney, cites another case. “Maura served as a mentor for a young immigrant woman who was living on her own and helped her enroll in school, find housing and secure her immigration status,” she says. The young woman graduated from college and she and McInerney still keep in touch.

Caring Too Much?

Attorneys often have a reputation of being bulldogs with the opposition as well as with their own clients. According to Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director at the Education Law Center, McInerney takes the opposite approach. “Maura’s default position is always yes, which you could characterize as a weakness but is clearly also a strength,” she says. “She has genuine and deep sympathy for the clients and families she represents.”

Pokempner concurs. “Maura cares immensely for her clients,” she says, pointing out that this can occasionally affect an advocate’s ability to do her job. “Caring about the whole person seems the human thing to do, but it can lead to taking on more than you can handle,” she adds. “It’s hard to separate some legal issues from the multiple issues that clients often face. But I’ve seen Maura’s ability to see the whole person beyond their legal needs lead to incredible things.” As far as Pokempner is concerned, “Modern Marshall” is an apt title to bestow on McInerney.

“Maura is exactly the type of person who deserves an award like this,” she says. “She loves her work and her commitment to it is unshakable. She will continue to seek justice in the education system and fight for youth who have not been given the opportunities they deserve.”

Video: Scott Sinkler

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