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Carolina Rizzo
Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice

As the senior member of the first class of Semester in Detroit (or SID, as we’ve begun to call it), I entered this program with a set of clearly defined goals and ideas of what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to intern with an organization whose mission and values aligned with mine, an organization whose work I truly respected and an environment where people really take pride in what they do. Furthermore, as a prospective law student starting law school in the fall I wanted to find out, before it was too late, whether the field of law would be a good match for me and I am happy to say I found all those things at Sugar Law.

Founded in Detroit in 1991, the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice began as a national litigation and policy project of the National Lawyers Guild. Today, Sugar Law is a nationally-recognized non-profit legal center whose main goal is to provide legal advocacy, representation, education and technical support to empower community groups, worker’s rights groups and individuals seeking systemic change towards economic and social justice. On my very first day as an intern I accompanied our Legal Director, John Philo, to court (my very first time stepping into a courtroom!) but throughout the internship I also got the opportunity to join him in meetings with community based groups, union-members and activists in the city of Detroit, to study the WARN Act and how different states, including Michigan, have adopted it, and moreover to gain an understanding of how people and organizations, when they come together, can change their communities for the better. Most of my work, however, has been focused on a particular wage and hour project that Sugar Law is planning to launch soon.

Through my preliminary research for the project, I learned that amidst this financial crisis an increasing amount of low-income workers, many of them immigrants, are forced to take temporary and casual jobs to feed their families. This desperate situation exposes their vulnerability to employers who sometimes take advantage of them by failing to pay their wages. In the state of Michigan, even though last year there were over 7,000 wage and hour claims reported to the Department of Labor (an 11% increase since the year before) there are not many non-profit organizations in Michigan that process these types of claims, which means that even though these cases are becoming more common, a growing amount of hard-working people will continue to be taken advantage of.

This need is precisely what our Wage and Hour project will address and I am very grateful to have the chance to be part of this endeavor. When looking at the big picture, I can also say that my internship placement is enough reason to feel fortunate as a person as well as a student: I have not only had the chance to work in a meaningful project, but also among people who are are good at the important work they perform, who are passionate about what they want our society to look like, and who have made, already, a positive, long-lasting impact on my life.