By Julia Braulick,
Carleton College Class of 2020
I was excited to extern at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, because I am passionate about the environment and I wanted to get a feel for the world of environmental law. Most of my environmental experience is in sustainable agriculture and ecology, but I knew I would be just as interested in the legal side of things. I’d even considered going into environmental law, although I knew almost nothing about the field in reality. I had never even had a conversation with a lawyer or a lobbyist. Naturally, I was very happy to remedy that by spending two weeks at MCEA.
As an extern, I spent a lot of time getting to know what members of the MCEA staff do on a daily basis. I was lucky to be able to do informational interviews with almost everyone on staff. From my talks with more than a dozen lawyers and policy experts, I got a sense of how they spend their time, the projects they’re working on, and the path that got them to MCEA. I also sat in on many meetings, both within MCEA and at other groups like the Drainage Work Group of BWSR (the Board of Water and Soil Resources). As well, my co-extern Heather and I did some writing for the MCEA blog. The two of us wrote a post on the tension between urban and rural Minnesotans, and I also did one on the history of public waters in Minnesota.
I had never read a legal document in my life. But to gain a foundational understanding of public water in Minnesota, I read a thick stack of briefs and law-review articles. Frankly, it was exhilarating to find that I largely understood them, especially after learning a few legal terms. I also gained a greater understanding of how legal change is achieved and the processes by which a law can be altered. It is surprising to realize how mutable the law can be, despite its great authority. I have to admit I was a little awed by the way the Drainage Work Group edited a document outlining their proposed edits to Minnesota statute as if it were routine. Law was being molded right before my eyes.
As a consequence, I’m continuing to think about this paradox: government seems removed from everyday life, yet laws are made by essentially ordinary people who have been delegated to do that work. The law, time-tested as it is, doesn’t come from on high. It is still profoundly imperfect. I realized this more fully than ever during my time at MCEA. Indeed, I think I matured significantly as a citizen—and that is a gift much greater than the sum of its parts. To me, being a good citizen consists of: a basic comprehension of important current events; a desire to build bridges for the sake of progress and fairness; an understanding of others’ perspectives; and willingness to devote some personal time to civic matters. Externing at MCEA helped me develop each of these qualities. Especially, this experience motivated me to be more active in civic affairs because it showed me the major difference that a few highly focused individuals can make. If I do decide to go into law, I will use the knowledge I gained at MCEA to more confidently assess the merits of various career options within the law. Externing at MCEA broadened my perspective, and I know I will use this expanded worldview, along with my deepened knowledge of environmental regulation and policy, in the future.