Inspiring Action for Social Justice

Neda Saghafi

Neda Saghafi, JD ’18 | University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

When Neda Saghafi, JD ’18, applied for the Teach For America program, she had only one destination in mind — Baltimore. She wanted to live on the East Coast and Baltimore was less costly and crowded than Boston and New York. Her path to law school was a bit more circuitous.

In 2011, she relocated from the West Coast to teach English to Students of Other Languages (ESOL) at Moravia Park Elementary School in the northeast corner of Baltimore City. Her students included a diverse group of young refugees from Iraq, Sudan, Nepal, and Bhutan. There, she began to see how the educational system and society at large intersect with young girls’ lives — and shape their interactions with their male peers.

After three years in the Baltimore City public school system, and seeing how “things were broken and ‘solutions’ were in place that weren’t sustainable,” she decided to do something about it. She wanted to tackle the issues she saw in the classroom from a grass-roots angle but she also wanted to confront the larger, systemic issues at play.

“Teachers can create immense changes,” she says. “I just think that law school fit my personal skill set for creating the most change.” So she applied to the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

A May 2018 graduate, Saghafi is preparing for a career in public interest law and social justice. Her studies focus on gender violence in society, particularly violence against women (VAW), and how in some societies cultural patriarchy and international or domestic VAW go hand in hand.

Saghafi’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Iran. Though she grew up in the U.S., her heads of household came from a country where women’s rights were restricted. “I think that gave insight into my interest in how culture shapes our relationships and how the dynamic of gender plays out,” she says.

By no means does Saghafi believe that law and policy change is the solution to all problems, but it’s one solution that can make a big impact. “If I feel something is unjust, I can develop the tools and find the resources to do something about it,” she says. “That inspires me to take action.”

Her friends agree Saghafi is not one to wait for others to spark change. “I still remember reviewing her résumé when she asked to volunteer with us,” says Adam Dodge, a close friend and the legal director of nonprofit shelter Laura’s House, where Saghafi interned in California. “Her credentials were ridiculous. We simply don’t get prospective volunteers walking through the door with Neda’s educational and extracurricular background. When it comes to this work, she is just so driven. It’s really inspiring.”

Adds friend Sana Shaikh, a PhD candidate at Brandeis University, “When we were Teach For America Corps members, Neda not only taught students during the day, but she completed her coursework at night, and during the weekends drove throughout the city to support her students in various recreational and sports activities. Complacency and idleness are definitely not in her nature.”

Saghafi is a catalyst for justice, every day committed to serving those who suffer historic or systemic disadvantages within the legal system.

Since enrolling at Maryland Carey Law, Saghafi’s résumé has included an internship at U.N. Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. In the U.N.’s EVAW (Ending Violence Against Women) Section, she wrote briefs for the interim chief of the department and developed concepts for better collaboration between the U.N.’s other sections. In that role, she facilitated timely conversations with #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke and represented U.N. Women at the fifth Annual 30 Under 30 Film Festival, whose opening night selection featured international films about U.N. Sustainable Development Goal #5: Gender Equality.

Saghafi has served as a research assistant for Maryland Carey Law professor Leigh Goodmark, JD, evaluating alternative approaches to criminalization for perpetrators of intimate partner violence, and interned at the University of Maryland SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors, where she assisted with writing and researching court-related documents, legal and policy research, and legal memoranda.

For Saghafi, it’s not about taking on every opportunity — it’s about the impact she can make. “When given a job, I want to do something with it,” she says. “I don’t want it to just be a résumé filler — I feel an obligation to make it impactful.”

She did just that a few years ago, when she organized a panel discussion at the law school on another issue near and dear to her heart, “Battling the Stigma of Mental Health Conditions.”

According to a 2014 American Bar Association (ABA) survey, 17 percent of law school students screened positive for depression, 23 percent for mild to moderate anxiety, and 14 percent for severe anxiety. In another ABA survey, 42 percent of respondents thought they needed help for mental health or emotional problems in the last year.

“The stigma for mental health is already so great, but it seems exacerbated in the law school community,” Saghafi says. Within the profession, there’s a fear of being deemed incapable of completing complex tasks for those who seek mental health treatment. The character component of the bar application only heightens the pressure. “Law students may not seek help until it’s too late,” she says. 

Saghafi was inspired by the ABA’s Mental Health Day, where law schools across the country are encouraged to sponsor educational programs and events to break the stigma of depression among law students and lawyers. She also gathered a team of law professionals and advocates of mental health for a discussion on campus.

“As a student, Neda consistently used her intellectual gifts and leadership skills to serve others, whether they are victims of domestic abuse, employment discrimination, or human trafficking operations,” says Donald B. Tobin, JD, dean and professor at Maryland Carey Law. “Given her outstanding performance as a student, I know she will be an amazing lawyer.”