Profile in Public Service - Vivian Huelgo '97As a bilingual child of immigrants, Vivian Huelgo ‘97 has long felt a strong connection to those in vulnerable positions where access to justice is lacking.
“I’ve always felt I could do a lot of good by being bilingual, by being a citizen, and by having access to education and to the privilege that a law degree affords me,” she says. “I’m really drawn to this idea that I’ve been blessed with those opportunities, and I’ve always felt a commitment to give back.”
Huelgo’s dedicated career in service to vulnerable women—particularly those experiencing overlapping layers of oppression due to their immigrant status and gender and those who have been victims of gender-based violence and sex trafficking—is a testament to that commitment.
As Chief Counsel to the Commission on Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence of the American Bar Association and the Task Force on Human Trafficking, Huelgo oversees and assists lawyers representing victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, as well as victims of human, labor, and sex trafficking, through legal education programs, provision of legal technical assistance, publication of legal manuals, treatises and texts, and promotion of protective state and federal legislation. Huelgo has also helped create and develop national commission training institutes on “Use of Interpreters in Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Litigation” and “Fundamentals of Domestic Violence.”
After graduating from Fordham Law, Huelgo spent four years in the New York County District Attorney's Office serving as a prosecutor under the Honorable Robert M. Morgenthau and working on a variety of misdemeanor and felony cases. Quickly realizing her passion for helping victims of gender-based violence and sex trafficking, Huelgo began working at Sanctuary for Families, one of the largest legal services providers for domestic violence victims in the country. While there she engaged in outreach, policy-making, advocacy, and legal representation to assist domestic violence victims facing unique barriers to justice, such as non-English speaking immigrant populations and the LGBT community. She also supervised pro bono lawyers, oversaw law student advocacy programs in family court, and worked as Director of the Community Law Project.
After three years Huelgo joined the staff of Safe Horizon, an organization serving victims of crime, to supervise and train lawyers in the legal services unit handling cases in domestic violence, human trafficking, and immigration. But while she enjoyed directly and indirectly representing clients, Huelgo wanted to start making a more structural impact. “I really wanted to focus more on policy and training and changing entire systems in how they dealt with gender-based violence.”
In 2007, Huelgo spent a year in the New York City Mayor’s Office leading the development of a Family Justice Center and designing strategies to improve the ways city and state agencies and systems interacted to benefit victims of crime. Since Huelgo’s time at the mayor’s office, the number of Family Justice Centers in the city has
increased from one to four.
She also traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean on behalf of the U.S. Department of State lecturing on elimination of violence against women, domestic violence, multilingual access to justice, and criminal justice response to violence against women. Huelgo also trained judges, police, lawyers, and NGOs there on better ways to respond to gender-based violence through policy and practice.
“The goal was to get people to look at the issue of gender-based violence through a human rights lens, and implement policies abroad that are already in place in the United States, such as the Violence Against Women Act.”
Huelgo continues working for systemic changes in her role as Chief Counsel, in which she helps develop policy for the ABA. In her almost four years as Chief Counsel, her team took a particularly active role in reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act to extend to all victims, including Native American women.
During her travels and throughout her successes, Huelgo has not forgotten her Fordham roots. She remains grateful for the support and opportunities that the Law School offered her as a student, and credits Assistant Dean Nitza Escalera for introducing her to her first internship at the Puerto Rican Defense and Education Fund. Huelgo says it was during this invaluable experience that she was first exposed to the issues of overlapping oppressions, sexual violence, immigration, and human trafficking. Huelgo was a student leader in the Battered Women’s Advocacy Project, now called the Domestic Violence Action Center, one of the first student-initiated projects housed in the Public Interest Resource Center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary and presented Huelgo with its Ongoing Dedication Award in October.
“Being at the Law School and wanting to be a public interest lawyer, I distinctly remember feeling that I had the support of the administration and leadership, and of the Public Interest Resource Center in particular. The notions of access to justice and the larger community are intrinsic to Fordham’s education, and that always motivated me.”
In 2004, Huelgo gave back to the Fordham Law community by serving as an Adjunct Professor, teaching Interviewing, Counseling, and Negotiation and subsequently a course called Domestic Violence: Social Work and the Law.
While public interest is just one of many possible career paths for those with a law degree, it’s the only one that feels right for Huelgo.
“I just can’t imagine doing something where I’m not connected to communities and giving back to them, or changing things for vulnerable populations, particularly for women.”