Georgetown University Law Center
EJA Fellowship Recipient Summer and Fall 1999, Summer
Director, Teen Dating Violence Program, Women Empowered
fellowship was invaluable, Cunningham says, “because
in public interest, having experience and
having the opportunity to know people in
the field and make a connection makes all
Like many law students interested in public service, Karen
Cunningham dreamed of taking on the really huge cases,
the ones that change national policy and enact sweeping
changes for the underprivileged.
thought then that she could make just as much of a difference working one-on-one
with teenage women. With the help of an Equal Justice America Fellowship, she
became director of a Washington, D.C. teen dating violence program that helps
reroute young lives onto promising paths.
first year at Georgetown University, she worked for a summer at the Legal Aid
Society of the District of Columbia, where Equal Justice America funded her work. “I
went there and I just – I loved it. I loved working directly with the clients,” she
Cunningham liked it so much, in fact, that she wanted to continue there during
the fall semester. The trouble was, she says, “nobody funds during the
school year for public interest. Except!” Equal Justice America.
“I really want to stay and keep doing this, but I can’t afford to
without getting paid anything,” Cunningham told EJA Executive Director
Dan Ruben. EJA then awarded her another fellowship so she could continue her
work at Legal Aid in the fall.
The fellowship was invaluable, Cunningham says, “because in public interest,
having experience and having the opportunity to know people in the field and
make a connection makes all the difference.” After her second year at Georgetown,
EJA sponsored her for the summer at the Washington, D.C. organization Women Empowered
Against Violence (WEAVE)
After Cunningham graduated in 2001, she returned to WEAVE and became director
of the Teen Dating Violence Program, a program she started to meet the unmet
needs of D.C.’s teenage women. Equal Justice America continues to help
her efforts by sponsoring law students to work at WEAVE.
WEAVE takes a holistic approach to helping women, she explains, which means the
teen program does much more than provide legal assistance for violence victims.
Workshops teach teens how to manage their money, how to find different housing
options, how to have a healthy relationship and how to help friends get out of
abusive situations. WEAVE trains police officers, teachers and social workers
and also tackles legislative barriers that prevent teenagers from getting the
assistance they need.
Cunningham loves working with young women, she says. “They’re really
bright, interesting people with so much potential, so much energy.” Although
domestic violence work can be disheartening, she feels like she’s helping
prevent future problems for her teens.
Cunningham remembers one particularly tragic situation from her first summer
working at WEAVE. A 45-year-old woman arrived seeking help and relief from brutal,
relentless abuse by her husband. She had been in a relationship with him since
she was 15 years old.
Many people think teenage relationships don’t really matter, even if they’re
abusive, Cunningham says, because they’re nothing but short flings. In
this particular situation, however, a teenage romance “actually turned
into 30 years of abuse for this woman.”
tried to build some independence, Cunningham says, but “as soon as she
got anywhere, her husband completely sabotaged her.” When she got work
as a secretary, he gave her a black eye and she lost the job. He got her hooked
on cocaine, and every time she tried to get clean, “he would plant little
baggies of cocaine around the house.”
30 years of only this, it was really daunting to her to break out of this relationship
and make a change,” Cunningham says. WEAVE offered its support, but the
woman eventually moved and staff lost track of her.
The story saddens Cunningham to this day. She can’t help wondering, she
says, “what could she have been and become and made of her life, if when
she was 15, there was somebody at her school talking to her about what to do
if you’re abused?”
hopes that story is never repeated in the lives of
any of her young clients. “We’re hopefully making
a difference in their whole life, in a way that would
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