Confronting Discrimination from Mokubilo to Jackson

Marni von Wilpert and friends in Mokubilo, Botswana

Marni von Wilpert’s Uncommon Path

After graduating from Berkeley in 2005, Marni von Wilpert left California to serve as a social worker in the Peace Corps. She was sent to Mokubilo, a rural village in eastern Botswana. There, she provided services for babies born with HIV and children who had lost one or both parents to AIDS. She also helped with education, treatment, and care for HIV-positive adults.

“I witnessed a lot of discrimination in my village,” said von Wilpert. “Kids were kicked out of the one primary school in the village and told they couldn’t come back because they were showing signs of HIV infection. A lot of women were divorced by their husbands because women were often the ones to test first since they’re the ones to get pregnant. There was only so much I could do as a social worker. I became convinced that legal assistance could make a meaningful difference in the lives of people who faced discrimination. From my village in Botswana, I applied to law school.”

HIV/AIDS support group in Mokubilo
HIV/AIDS support group in Mokubilo

During her first year at Fordham Law School, von Wilpert met Susan Butler Plum, who visited the campus to promote the Skadden Fellowship program. “I wanted to do HIV work in the states as an attorney, so my third year of law school, I applied,” said von Wilpert.

When applying for the Fellowship, von Wilpert knew she wanted to work in the Deep South. “There’s poverty everywhere in our country. I live in D.C. now. I’ve lived in New York, I’ve lived in California, but there are a lot of lawyers in those places,” said von Wilpert. “There aren’t a lot of lawyers providing legal services in the Deep South.”

She approached the Mississippi Center for Justice, a non-profit public-interest law firm, to host her. “They said, ‘We’re getting calls left and right from people who have HIV who are facing employment and housing discrimination. We have no idea how to deal with it. Can you help us?’”

Yes, she thought she could. Her project proposal was to form a medical/legal partnership with HIV physicians who, once they had a patient in care, could offer referral service to von Wilpert as their HIV legal services provider. She would provide free legal services to people living with HIV/AIDS who faced unlawful discrimination in employment, housing, and medical care. Her proposal was accepted.

Things did not begin smoothly. “Between the time I got the Skadden Fellowship, graduated, and passed the bar, the HIV medical partner had lost funding,” said von Wilpert, who arrived in Jackson with no medical partner to help start the medical/legal partnership. Close to tears, she called Butler Plum, who said, “We’re going to figure this out.”

With a plane ticket funded by the Fellowship, von Wilpert flew to D.C. to try to salvage her project. There, using Butler Plum’s network, she sought advice from people at Whitman-Walker Health, a non-profit community health center and leader in HIV/AIDS care. Her project got back on track. The Mississippi State Department of Health agreed to be a partner, and von Wilpert successfully launched Mississippi’s first medical/legal partnership between the Mississippi Center for Justice and the Crossroads Medical Clinic.

Marni von Wilpert speaks at the Mississippi Center for Justice
Marni von Wilpert (center) speaks at a Mississippi Center for Justice event.

Back in Jackson, people with HIV/AIDS began to access free legal services. With experience, von Wilpert became more confident in her work and how to manage difficulties, which arose on a daily basis. One woman ended up on the street when she was evicted from a homeless shelter because she had disclosed her HIV-positive status. “That was the last place she had to go,” said von Wilpert, who found her temporary housing. A few months later, the woman, overwhelmed with medical bills, couldn’t make rent. The threat of eviction loomed.

Again, von Wilpert turned to Butler Plum for advice. Through an emergency fund that former Skadden Fellows and Butler Plum contribute to, a check was cut to pay the client’s rent while von Wilpert and colleagues proceeded with the woman’s litigation. They won the case. “I don’t know what I would have done had Susan not been there,” said von Wilpert. “She really cares about these clients. I can see it in her actions. I can see it in the way she speaks.”

After her Skadden Fellowship, Marni von Wilpert clerked  for  the Hon. James E. Graves, a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. She now works as an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board. Butler Plum is still a mentor to her. The medical/legal partnership von Wilpert started in Jackson continues to provide comprehensive medical and legal care to people living with HIV/AIDS.

Title image: Marni von Wilpert (far left) with villagers she worked with in Mokubilo, Botswana

About Martha S Henry

Martha Henry is the Director of Communications for the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health AIDS Initiative.