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Student Researchers



During her undergraduate studies, Briana Gastaldello was exposed to the prevailing social justice issues plaguing our communities and was given a space to discuss them. She loved being a part of those conversations, and that journey to find solutions led her to law school and fueled her desire to become an advocate for those who feel the weight of injustice. She began working with an organization that provides immigration services to low-income individuals and families and continued to work with the Public Guardian Ad Litem Board, learning how to serve the best interests of children in juvenile court. For the Racial Justice Initiative (RJI), she is working on legislative tracking for Illinois and Chicago, researching record expungement and assisting in analytics for the Chicago Police Consent Decree. The RJI allows her to stay engaged in the conversation and provides a channel for her to apply her growing skills to social justice issues in the community. 

As a third-year law student aiming to work in policy and advocacy-oriented legal work post-graduation, Elizabeth Haris became involved with the Racial Justice Intitative because she believes that the law alone is insufficient to address racial injustice and inequity in the U.S. She believes that by organizing with groups and individuals dedicated to the furtherance of racial justice and equality, as well as conducting important research and engaging in advocacy work centered around legislative and policy reform, law students and lawyers have the potential to accomplish historical legal changes and reimagine a more just and equitable future. 
As a research assistant for DePaul's Inside-Out Think Tank at Statesville Prison, she also assists incarcerated Think-Tank members with drafting of legislative proposals aimed at addressing Illinois’s outdated and oppressive re-entry and parole laws. The Think Tank currently is working to increase the level of undergraduate and law student engagement in the advocacy work associated with this project, and she is helping Think Tank members create a graphic novel that illustrates and explains the systems of oppression that profoundly impact the incarcerated community in Illinois. 
As a second-year law student at DePaul, Jack McNeil is passionate about the intersection of public policy, race and the law. While working on campaigns in Chicago and across the state, he saw democracy working for some and failing others–largely still built on today’s color line. He also saw firsthand the power of advocates and movement lawyers, some of whom he has the honor of working with now, such as the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, in his role with the Racial Justice Initiative. Following undergraduate, he worked briefly in the Illinois State Senate before COVID-19 hit, and he decided to go to law school to learn the tools he could use to deconstruct broken systems that perpetuate systemic racism today.  
As voting rights are under attack, due in part from the Supreme Court’s Shelby and subsequent decisions, he feels it is important for law students speak clearly and honestly about the issues that lay ahead for our relatively recent multi-racial democracy to not only survive, but to be strengthened to advance racial equity.  
As a former educator, Jessica Obi believes in equal access to quality education for all. Her previous work providing services to families living in local homeless shelters reinforced her belief in housing as a human right.  When she learned about the Racial Justice Initiative (RJI), she was thrilled about the opportunity to engage with issues close to her heart. She came to law school to gain tools to be a better advocate, and being a part of the RJI has given her the opportunity to work towards that goal.  
Her role with the RJI will include researching the Just Housing Amendment, which prohibits housing discrimination based on an individual’s criminal history. Specifically, she will be assessing the degree to which housing providers are complying with the Amendment.  
Beau Reeves joined the Racial Justice Initiative (RJI) to better learn how to help and improve marginalized communities. As an undergraduate, he had the opportunity to work as a data science intern with a nonprofit whose goal was to boost economic growth in low-income areas. His role involved collecting and analyzing school data across the state of Wisconsin to help the nonprofit find solutions to improve the schools in their own community. He has a similar role now with the RJI where he will work with the University of Chicago and their data analytics team to help determine whether the Chicago Police Department (CPD) is complying with a recently passed statute that requires the CPD to allow arrestees to make a phone call within the first hour of their arrest. He’s very glad to have the opportunity to use his IT background to help on this project.    
Ellerese Topacio joined the Racial Justice Initiative (RJI) to learn how to effectively combat racial inequities in her hometown of Chicago.  She lived in Chicago nearly her entire life and knows first-hand about the socio-economic effects caused by a citizen's racial identity. From overt racism to institutional barriers preventing minority groups from fulfilling their potential, she understands that there is an immense amount of work required to continue the momentum towards a more equitable society.  
In concert with the RJI, she is collaborating with the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights (CLCCR) to promote voter protection. She is researching ways to make the state's election laws more robust and combat the dilution of voting power, particularly among racial minorities. Cliff Helm and Ami Gandhi, two of CLCCR's leaders in voting rights and civic empowerment, have guided her throughout this experience. Their passion for ensuring that not only every voice has a vote, but every vote has an impact, resonates strongly with her. By the end of the semester, she intends to achieve some level of contribution in the fight to guarantee that no matter what language or race an individual beholds, they have the power to influence our democracy through voting.