Karen E. Cunningham
Georgetown University Law Center
EJA Fellowship Recipient Summer and Fall 1999, Summer 2000
Director, Teen Dating Violence Program, Women Empowered Against Violence

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.”

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.
She never 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.
After Cunningham’s 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 says.

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.”
The 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.”
“After 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?”

She 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 be lasting.

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