30 under 30: Sara Wood, Senior Outreach Paralegal for SPLC
Sara Wood graduated in 2014 with a dual degree in social work and psychology. She has been with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for the the past five years. One of her major accomplishments during that time was settling a federal lawsuit in 2017 against an Alabama town that jailed low-income individuals solely because they didn’t have enough money to pay their court fines and fees. Through the settlement, SPLC obtained compensation for those wrongfully jailed. In the fall, Wood will attend law school so she can continue to fight for the impoverished residents of Alabama. Learn more about Wood in the question-and-answer interview below.
You have bachelor degrees in Psychology and Social Work. How did you first develop an interest in these fields?
For over half of my childhood, I was raised by a single mother in rural Mobile County, Alabama. We lived for several years in St. Elmo, Alabama, a small unincorporated community a couple of miles inland from the bayous of southern Mobile County. My desire to do public interest work is informed by my own personal experiences growing up in a working class family. I understand many of the struggles vulnerable individuals and communities face because they are the same struggles faced by my family and the community in which I grew up. I was the first person to go to college in my family, and I developed an interest in psychology and social work because I wanted to develop the tools needed to advocate for social justice.
What was your career path after graduation?
I started working with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) immediately after graduating from Auburn. I had plans to only stay with the SPLC for a year or two before taking the plunge into law school, but I fell in love with the work and wanted to deepen my understanding of the type of advocate I wanted to be in the world, so I’m still with the SPLC over four years after graduating from Auburn.
Would you describe your role as Senior Outreach Paralegal for SPLC?
I work with a team of deeply devoted and brilliant advocates, including attorneys, outreach paralegals, and policy staff, on federal and state litigation, policy initiatives, and developing advocacy campaigns. Many of my days are spent crisscrossing Alabama and Mississippi investigating civil rights violations and meeting with impacted individuals and communities with the hopes that our team will be able to provide some form of relief to those communities—either through litigation, policy reform, or other types of advocacy. I also work on legislative initiatives in Alabama, including reforms to court debt and bail practices, driver’s license suspensions, predatory lending, public benefits, and healthcare.
What has been your favorite part or experience(s) in your job so far?
It’s easy to get burned out by this type of work when you’re trying to navigate so much brokenness, including broken systems, broken communities, and broken people—broken by poverty, racism, addiction, and so many other things. But there are so many beautiful parts of this work that keep me going—one being my colleagues. I often hesitate to even call them my colleagues because they’ve become my family. I’m inspired every single day by their unwavering commitment and dedication to ensuring a more just world. I am also deeply inspired by the individuals and communities we serve, including the bravery and resilience they embody. One of our clients, who is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit we brought challenging bail practices where individuals were stuck in jail for months solely because they could not afford to post bail, went on to enroll in school after we obtained her release from jail. My team settled a federal lawsuit in 2017 against an Alabama town that jailed low-income individuals solely because they didn’t have enough money to pay their court fines and fees. Through the settlement, we obtained compensation for those wrongfully jailed and court procedure reforms. It’s really hard to pick a favorite experience because there are just so many!
Can you describe the work that the SPLC does for those who don't know?
The SPLC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. I work within the legal department at the SPLC on the Economic Justice Project. Our team works tirelessly to ensure that people living in poverty in the Deep South, especially communities of color, are not punished or exploited because of their economic status. Our work is focused in three main areas: (1) ending debtors’ prisons and reforming court debt abuses—where individuals are punished more harshly in the criminal justice system solely because of their economic status; (2) protecting low-income consumers by ending predatory lending and abusive debt collection practices; and (3) protecting access to social safety programs for people living in poverty, including Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps).
What classes and/or professors do you feel best prepared you during your time as a student for your future career?
Kyes Stevens, with the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, and Professor Angie Burque, in the Social Work Department, taught me so much about what it means to be an advocate in the world and how to truly meet people where they’re at in their life experience. Dr. Carole Zugazaga, also with the Social Work Department, inspired me to work to eradicate the systemic barriers engrained within our society. Dr. Barbara Baker, with the Women’s Leadership Institute, empowered me to really lean into the things I hope to achieve in life. There are so many other professors and individuals I met through Auburn University that not only prepared me for my career, but also for the myriad of things life has thrown and will continue to throw at me.
There’s a lot of focus being placed on STEM fields and their importance, so much so that there is this notion that a liberal arts education is no longer valuable. As someone who graduated from the College of Liberal Arts, what are your thoughts on this? What would you tell parents?
I’m a firm believer in the notion that it takes all kinds to make the world go round. While STEM fields are crucial for a functioning society, liberal arts are just as important. It should never be one without the other—both fields need each other. Areas within liberal arts encompass the core of the human experience. A liberal arts education encourages students to think critically and empathetically; it teaches students about the political, social, cultural, and economic aspects of the world we live in; and it helps students develop a skillset to navigate and rectify the myriad of challenges that exist within our world. I would tell parents to let their children make their own decisions and allow them to follow their own dreams and passions.
What are some key skills you developed while at Auburn that you think best prepared you for the job market/real world?
Throughout my time at Auburn, I had opportunities to apply what I was learning in the classroom to real world experiences. I worked as a youth HIV prevention educator with Unity Wellness Center, assisted with algebra classes in Alabama state prisons, worked as a healthcare counselor helping people get coverage under the Affordable Care Act, and interned with Alabama Appleseed and the Federal Defenders. These real world experiences and the connections I made through them, coupled with classroom instruction at Auburn, were invaluable in preparing me for my career.
If you could go back, is there anything that you would have done differently during your time at Auburn?
Between my class and work load, I did not have a lot of extra time for social activities. If I could go back, I would have carved out more time in my life to make meaningful social connections with my peers.
What’s next for you? Any long-term career goals or aspirations?
I’m beginning law school at Tulane University this upcoming fall. Throughout my professional experiences at Auburn University and through my current role at the SPLC, I have observed hundreds of court proceedings across the Deep South, met with hundreds of defendants, and met with countless individuals who are stuck in jail solely because they cannot pay for their freedom or because they are suffering from mental illness. Many patterns can be observed and conclusions drawn about their cases, but one pattern is especially obvious: the lack of adequate public defense for people living in poverty. It is my long-term career goal to work as a public defender in the Deep South to provide client-centered, holistic representation to those who need it the most. Because you cannot expect to win by playing defense without good offense, I am also passionately interested in impact litigation and legislative advocacy to reform the policies and practices that harm communities of color and impoverished people.
Interview conducted by Jaylin Goodwin, a recent master's of communication graduate.
Last Updated: May 31, 2019