Rosalind Kabrhel

Each month, we interview an A&S faculty member for our undergraduate newsletter. In April 2023, we spoke to Rosalind Kabrhel, Associate Professor of the Practice in Legal Studies.

Photo of RosalindMeet Rosalind Kabrhel

Departments/Programs: Legal Studies, The Heller School for Social Policy and Management
Associate Professor of the Practice in Legal Studies
Expertise: Civil or Human Rights, Discriminaition, Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, Trial Law

Tell me a bit about your academic background and journey to Brandeis.

My academic path was unconventional, in large part due to family priorities. I attended three different high schools, combined my senior year of high school with my freshman year of college, transferred to another college in my junior year, and changed majors in my senior year. My family moved around a lot for my father’s job, and my mother had a terminal illness that required a lot of care, particularly in college. I have no siblings, so I made decisions in part to be close to home so I could help out. I took two years off after college to care for my mother in her final year and decide what to do with myself. I worked as a paralegal for a small law firm and a large international law firm, and decided I was ready to do some lawyering myself.

During law school in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill for senators John Glenn and John D. Rockefeller IV. I was part of a legal team investigating allegations of campaign finance violations during the Clinton Administration. Being part of this team exposed me to complex litigation in a highly charged political environment. I continued to work in politics and investigative law throughout law school and in my first job as a new lawyer, working for the Massachusetts Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee. During this time, I performed investigations to identify legal loopholes that created harms to our constituents, wrote policy briefs to outline the harms and propose solutions, and drafted legislation to address the identified loopholes. I also drafted and delivered political speeches, and helped develop a Student Advisory Council, where students were chosen to participate in an educational program about the legislative process.

Following a brief but formative stint in a law firm, I returned to state employment at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, where I was an Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division. Once again, I was part of a team performing complex investigations in a political office; this time against the Archdiocese of Boston (investigating child sexual abuse allegations) and negotiating consent decrees with large businesses accused of discrimination. I also handled cases of individual victims of hate crimes and discrimination. Through this work, I witnessed the harms caused by inequitable policies and behavior, and the limits of the justice system in remedying these harms; particularly for poor and vulnerable people.

One of my colleagues in the Attorney General’s Office had been a Guberman Fellow in the Legal Studies Program at Brandeis and she encouraged me to apply. I joined the program as a Fellow in 2008, and immediately knew Brandeis would be my second home. Over the years I have developed several new classes connected to my professional experience in civil rights and discrimination law, and I formed the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative (BEJI) with John Plotz and David Sherman, my colleagues from the English Department. I view teaching as an extension of my desire to improve the administration of justice in this country, and Brandeis is full of eager students who share this desire.

Was there a specific moment that led to your decision to pursue a career centered around civil rights work? How does your legal practice influence your teaching?

I wouldn’t say there was a specific moment, but my experience moving around as a child steered me in that direction. People love to put labels on people they don’t know or understand; to put them in boxes. I was always the new kid with the funny accent, so I experienced this. But I had also experienced many different ways thinking and living. I grew up understanding that people are more complex than the boxes they are put into by others, and that this complexity is important to appreciate – it’s actually the best part of humanity.

When I entered law school, I thought I was interested in intelligence or federal law enforcement. Investigative work is really interesting. However, I had the opportunity to intern with a well-known investigative firm staffed by several retired CIA and FBI agents. I heard them characterize people frequently as “bad guys” and “good guys.” There were those boxes, again. It bothered me. I witnessed time and time again how reductive people can be, and how the law frequently supports this mindset. I turned to civil rights law because it was an opportunity to work against people and structures that restrict individuals from being who they want to be; who they fully are.

I’ve thought a lot about this as it relates to my work with incarcerated people. The vast majority of those I have interacted with are thoughtful, interesting people who will forever be defined by the worst moment in their lives. They live in a box from which they can never escape. I am motivated to change this reality, and I want to inspire my students to do the same.

In my classes, I often tell students stories from my time as a practitioner. Assignments are frequently modeled after work that I performed on actual cases. Community engagement is also an essential part of my work at Brandeis. I invite guest speakers to contribute to my lectures, particularly to show students that people have different ideas about how the law works based on their relationship with it. For example, I bring social workers, psychologists, probation officers, and politicians to my classes. I also bring victims who want to share their stories first hand. I require students to get off campus and sit in a courtroom or attend an event – anything to get them interacting with people who are different than they are – so they can see the complexity in people, and in the problems that people are trying to solve. BEJI is an extension of this effort. There is nothing I could say or do in a classroom, no reading that I could assign that would equal the experience of stepping foot inside a prison and speaking with the people inside.

The Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative (BEJI) is a wonderful expression of Brandeis’s commitments to social justice and democratic inclusion. BEJI's website states that the initiative "opens educational pathways for those impacted by the criminal justice system and advances carceral studies at Brandeis." Are there ways that undergraduate students can get involved?

Of course! BEJI delivers educational programs year-round to folks in various stages of incarceration and reentry. Student can help with those programs, or they can help with BEJI administration and event planning. We also work with other organizations involved in carceral justice work, so there may be opportunities to work more directly with our partners.

This past March, you participated in a roundtable discussion with the Executive Office of Public Safety & Security and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections regarding reentry initiatives for incarcerated individuals. Can you provide a brief summary of what was discussed?

The Boston Pre-Release Center, a minimum-security correctional facility, has a School of Reentry where we run our educational programs. This is a unique facility insofar as incarcerated people must apply to be transferred there and be accepted. Acceptance is based on a few factors, but commitment to educational advancement is a key criterion. Right now, we have a class in Legal Studies that is being taught in the facility by Professor Aaron Bray with a combined class of Brandeis students and Pre-Release students. It is an incredible opportunity for both sets of students to learn from and inspire each other.

The roundtable discussion was an opportunity to demonstrate the success of the School of Reentry in reducing recidivism rates and improving employability and educational attainment of its students. Governor Healy has pledged an additional $10 million in state funding to support educational programs of this kind, and Professor Bray’s amazing course was an opportunity for legislators, EOPS and DOC representatives to observe this education in action. BEJI and Legal Studies plan to increase programming at Pre-Release in the coming years.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students who want to pursue civil rights law?

Take every opportunity to engage with vulnerable people whose voices are underrepresented in places where decisions are made. In my opinion, this experience is far more valuable to you as a human preparing to go to law school than filing documents in a fancy law office. People’s stories will stick with you forever. Engage in one (or more) of the many campus-sponsored opportunities to perform community service. Work with BEJI or The Right to Immigration Institute (TRII) to get hands-on experience that will complement your classroom work. Or, take any class in the legal studies program. Our faculty all emphasize civil rights in one context or another.