Kate Weyenberg

Monitoring Justice in Minnesota's Courtrooms

At first blush, it looked like it might be difficult for senior Kate Weyenberg to find an internship that suited her. Weyenberg, a double major in political science and justice and peace studies, with a minor in criminal justice, wanted an internship that aligned all of her passions. With help from Mike Klein, her academic adviser, she decided on WATCH, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that works to make sure judicial proceedings are fair, especially in cases of violence against women and children.

Weyenberg interned there in fall 2014 and hopes to return to volunteer. Her job consisted of doing background work and occasionally acting as a court monitor.

“I think I’m very used to my lifestyle at St. Thomas,” Weyenberg said. “This internship just opened my eyes to different lifestyles and different things people are going through. … Other people are living in fear or going through cases I didn’t know about.”

Helping the community

WATCH was founded in 1992 and employs several methods to help keep the judicial system fair in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. It pays particular attention to cases of domestic and child abuse, sex trafficking and sexual assault.

Volunteers and interns go into courtrooms to observe judicial conduct. Ellen Sackrison, volunteer coordinator, said the intern and volunteer training covers courtroom terminology, social issues in the state of Minnesota and Minnesota statues.

Part of Weyenberg’s job was to look up cases WATCH would likely be interested in, summarize them and decide which WATCH would send court monitors to.

WATCH also strives to keep the community informed, and uses social media to help achieve that.

“If we see something unfair, we want to give it back to the community,” Weyenberg said. “We want to do a lot of background work, and we want to see the community take action and see them raise questions toward the court.”

Sackrison said another important part of the work they do is to provide a voice for the victims in cases.

“Victims don’t necessarily know who we are, but we’re there watching to make sure the process is fair,” Sackrison said. “It’s a silent way to advocate for people who are affected by gender and domestic violence, sexual assault and whatnot, as well as people who don’t know what happens in the courtroom. The community doesn’t, and most of the time people are shocked as to what they hear.”

She added that the volunteers and interns provide a valuable lens: If they don’t understand terminology or something happening in the courtroom, it’s possible a layperson, who may be a victim in a case, won’t either.

Kate Weyenberg

A valuable learning experience

Weyenberg said moving from an academic, abstract standpoint to a personal and sometimes emotional one could be challenging for her.

“The first case I monitored was a sexual assault case between a man from Hennepin County and a woman from Hennepin County, and the girl was my age,” Weyenberg said. “I was in awe of what had happened. Sitting in that and hearing her testify about what had happened was, I think, very personal.”

Another vital lesson was how long and complex many of the cases can be.

“The court system takes so long, and I didn’t realize that when I started,” Weyenberg said. “I like to finish things, so to see something take that long was really difficult for me.”

According to Klein, a faculty member in the Justice and Peace Studies Department, he could see Weyenberg growing through her experience, building on her already empathetic roots to become more aware of the machinations of the legal system and nonprofits, and how to effect change in all of that.

That sort of growth is precisely why the department asks its students to do internships.

“Internships allow our students to be able to engage with the daily reality of peace and justice,” Klein said. Importantly, Klein said, they want to see students move beyond the “big ideas” in the classroom to testing them out in the real world.

Klein said they have about 14 sites where students regularly intern, and many of their internships are brought in by students themselves.

“We’re looking for something that’s project-based,” Klein said. “The student can start something, work on something and end it. We’re looking for a partner in the community who can give (students) training they need, supervision and evaluation throughout the process.”

He added that WATCH fits well and also helps to integrate the different areas of justice and peace studies.

“For something like this internship for WATCH, it’s really part of a bigger picture of peacebuilding,” Klein said. “The notion that we have to continually transform systems in order to create a more peaceful world through justice, through relationships and systems.”

An action plan

Weyenberg compiled her experience with WATCH for a chapter in Leadership for Social Justice: Profiles in Peacebuilding. The book, published in March, is the work of Klein’s Leadership for Social Justice course. Klein said the book includes profiles of peacebuilding organizations, an explanation of their work and an “action plan” on how the organization might continue to make change.

All of that reflection and growth prompted Weyenberg to decide she’d like to attend law school, and she eventually hopes to work in a small nonprofit like WATCH.

“People like Kate give me profound hope for the world,” Klein said. “I never really know my impact as an educator, but I know people with her compassion and drive are going to make a difference and ultimately fulfill the mission of the university.”