Karla Lopez-Owens is a native of Cuernavaca Morelos, Mexico. Karla and her family illegally crossed the Mexico-U.S. border in 1999, and lived in the country without a legal status for many years, like the reality of nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States.
Currently, she is finishing up her third and final year at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. She aspires to pursue a career in the public sector as she feels a sense of gratitude to her community in central Indiana who has helped her reach her dreams of becoming an attorney.
How long have you lived in Indy?
I’ve lived in Indy most of my life. When we first came to America, however, we lived in North Carolina for a short amount of time. My mother worked in a factory processing turkeys there, but the frigid temperatures had unpleasant and lasting side effects on her joints. After speaking with my tia who was employed as a housekeeper in Indy, my mom decided to move us here and work alongside her. Through this job and others, my mom met some very kind people who helped us establish our lives here, like my stepfather Gary Owens and her former boss, Trevor Harris.
Why have you focused on using your skills in the nonprofit sector?
In many instances, those working in the nonprofit sector have many demands and limited resources to fulfill these demands. When I started volunteering at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic (NCLC) in 2009 or 2010, I did a lot of translations and interpreted in many different settings.
I chose to invest my energy here because I saw how the immediate assistance (whether that be a translated medical document or birth certificate) immediately furthered the client’s needs (completion of an application that had been waiting on this particular document). The services provided by NCLC and other nonprofits alike, are precious and valued by families who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them.
While I am no longer working with NCLC, I continue to support their mission as well as other organizations providing relief to families in Central Indiana seeking shelter from abuse and in search of better days.
How did you find your current position?
I am currently finishing off my third year at IU McKinney School of Law and employed with Munoz Legal, a law firm focusing on immigration and criminal defense. During my time at McKinney I have been involved with organizations such as Equal Justice Works, the Black Law Student Association and the Hispanic Law Society.
I have also just submitted my application to be a part of the wrongful conviction clinic which is a founding member of the Innocence Network. Per the description: “Students represent clients claiming actual innocence and seeking relief from wrongful convictions in a state post-conviction and federal habeas corpus proceedings. … Legal remedies may be limited for persons who have spent decades in prison as a result of convictions based on false science.”
I think people who are deemed “criminals” in our society are often misunderstood if not written off all together. We ignore the complexities surrounding their lives which eventually lead them to unfortunate decisions. We ignore the fact that in many instances, criminal activities are fueled by necessity. Not always, but these are the complexities we need to examine and evaluate in order to change the outcomes of so many coming from these circumstances.
I am a believer in redemption, and I believe if we shift our focus more on meaningful rehabilitative measures instead of retributive measures, with the right attention, care and resources, those “criminals” can thrive and become agents of positive change in their neighborhoods and everywhere else.
What would you say to another young professional considering a nonprofit job?
Do it. Everyone has this idea that being a good person or carrying out altruistic acts requires you to travel outside of the country (mission trips, etc.). While good can be done anywhere, the issues and problems at home aren’t given the type of attention needed to meaningfully abolish them.
Positions at nonprofits allow you to work at home and often address issues that are uncomfortable to talk about, issues that are very real for so many people, yet we ignore them because it’s inconvenient and disrupts our lives. Poverty, adequate housing and access to affordable medical care are all issues that can be combated in our own communities if there are enough willing individuals focusing our attention to them. We should be focused on helping individuals better their living circumstances here at home, and I think nonprofits are a means to do that.
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” –Eleanor Roosevelt.
If you could learn a brand new skill, what would it be?
I would learn to dance cumbia and samba. I love music from Latin America and wish I’d acquired my family’s dancing genes, because even though I am from Mexico, these rhythms don’t come easy to me.
If you were an inanimate object, what would you be and why?
I think I would become a book, that way I could still be useful even though I am “lifeless.”
What do you hope to accomplish that you haven’t yet?
Encourage enough young people from low-income backgrounds to get involved in public service, to run for office, to become judges and councilors. Facilitate this by pushing for changes like paid internships in the public sector, scholarships that focus less on standardized testing scores and more on community service, that kind of thing.
At the end of the day, a few of my goals include abolishing the status quo, disrupting the flow of money fueling mass incarceration and the oppression of the working class.
Share a little-known treasure of Indianapolis with us.
The home of Eugene Debs which is located in Terre Haute, Indiana. Eugene Debs was one of the founding members of the socialist party here in America. He spoke out against the WWI draft back in the early 1900s and was sentenced to prison after giving a speech opposing the military draft in Canton, Ohio.
He ran for public office from jail many times and this quote really resonates with me: "While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
Most important question: Why should I vote?
Voting is one of the easiest ways to be civically engaged. I realize there are a lot of disinterested and disengaged people when it comes to politics. While I understand where the sentiment stems from, I would urge these people to reconsider their stance. For example, local elections are vital since the people elected into office will make decisions that immediately affect us.
You should vote because so many of our friends and families can’t. There are masses of incarcerated individuals, falsely or wrongly imprisoned as a result of inadequate legal representation or any deprivation of their due process rights. You should vote because these wrongly convicted felons are serving unfair sentences and can’t vote in both local and federal elections that will impact their way of life.
You should vote because there are homeless people living in poverty who have no means to get the adequate paperwork to get a state issued I.D. and cannot vote. You should vote because there are mentally ill individuals who for one reason or another can’t vote.
You should vote because society’s most vulnerable are depending on you to.
Consider supporting the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance (IUYA), an organization committed to empowering undocumented youth to achieve high levels of education, influence public policy, and overall improve the quality of life of undocumented communities in the state of Indiana.