BY: 3L Kat Gafycz, as interviewed by Chrissy Holman | DATE: Nov 18, 2021

3L Kat Gafycz (she/her) is a senior staff editor for the CUNY Law Review, a student in the Health & Environmental Justice Practice Clinic, and she’s about to be a published author of a groundbreaking article that she has been invited to present at the Climate Change Symposium.


First and foremost, congratulations on your future publication in the Texas Environmental Law Journal (TELJ) and invitation to present your work at their spring symposium! Before we delve into this huge accomplishment, I’d love to discuss your journey that brought you to this point in time. 

Like many law students, your path to a legal education was winding and iterative. You switched from Biochemistry to English, and moved to England to attend Oxford and the University of Brighton for your Master’s in Critical Theory. The idea of studying law didn’t interest you at the time, despite your mother’s insistence that you’d be good at law. You’d already learned that just because you were good at something didn’t mean you’d find it fulfilling and motivating. Your perception of law at the time was that law was rigid and eternal. 


When did you realize that being a lawyer entailed more than paperwork?

My first real experience with acting like a lawyer came before law school. My mother couldn’t afford an attorney for her divorce appeal, and I was at a point in my life where I had just finished a Master’s degree but didn’t think I wanted to stay on the path I had been on, so I helped my mom write her appeal. I know now that her victory probably had almost nothing to do with my helping her, but that win really felt like “wow, this is actually really fulfilling and meaningful work.” All that paperwork actually had a positive material effect in the world, and I wanted to pursue something that felt concrete, instead of theoretical, as my former academic life had been.

Why CUNY Law? What did you hear about the school before you applied, and were the rumors true?

CUNY Law was my first, and honestly only, choice when I was in the process of applying to law schools. I had heard about its strong social justice and public interest focus, and that really attracted me; it was, in part, the reputation of law schools as conservative and capitalistic that kept me away for so many years. The rumors about CUNY Law were definitely true! The student body is diverse and full of activists, and the professors naturally integrate social justice topics into the curriculum.

One of your favorite professors once told you that law is just “telling a story.” What does that mean to you personally in the context of your legal journey, and how did that shift your perception of law as this rigid, eternally timeless entity? 

My academic career before I chose to pursue law was all about stories: English and Philosophy are all about narrative and making meaning. In many ways, my academic background prepared me well for what the practice of law actually looks like. I had, for a long time, understood law to be very black and white: either something is legal, or it isn’t, and the answer to that question must be pretty clear. But, of course, it makes sense that if that were true, the entire adversarial system wouldn’t really need to exist—but it does.

We need people who know how to tell other people’s stories well, both clearly and passionately, because—with all due respect to Aristotle—the law isn’t reason unaffected by desire. Justice isn’t a fixed concept; it is subject to the emotions of all of us whose job it is to interpret the law.

Your two favorite areas of law are family law (specifically child advocacy) and environmentalism, and after a stint at Our Children’s Trust, you’re on a quest to combine those two areas into a body of scholarship. What is the relationship between child advocacy and environmentalism?

To my mind, child advocacy and environmentalism are the same issue at different magnifications. Child advocacy work is granular; it is direct service for individual clients. Environmental work is that same passion for the wellbeing of young people, but from a higher altitude. The threats of climate change and environmental degradation affect every child, and they are the ones with the least amount of power to protect their own futures.

Environmental work, by its nature, cannot be short-sighted, or aim to benefit only our own generation. The entire point of saving the planet is to ensure that it’s still livable long after we’re gone. That’s another way of looking at these two fields in relationship to each other: child advocacy work is for what children need now; environmental work is for what children will need when they’re no longer children.

You began the quest to publish when Professor Richard Storrow encouraged you to submit a paper you’d written for him as part of an independent study. Can you talk a little about the central thesis of your paper and the story you’re telling? Who are you telling this story to?

Professor Storrow was the first person to see something in my thinking worth publishing, and I will forever be grateful to him for that. The work I did for him was about the obstacles faced by LGBTQ+ youth in foster care, and, while it ultimately wasn’t accepted for publication, Professor Storrow’s encouragement was the reason my current paper is going to be out in the world. The paper that is going to be published in TELJ proposes a change to statutory and regulatory systems that was inspired by the Juliana v. United States case. That case seeks declaratory judgment from the court that youth have a constitutional right to a habitable environment; unfortunately, the case has spent years languishing in court battling over the issue of standing.

My paper proposes something that I call “affirmative” citizen suit provisions: basically, statutory provisions that grant standing, specifically to youth plaintiffs, such that they can bring suit against a given agency’s act (or failure to act) and avoid the back-and-forth of establishing Article III standing. The purpose of granting standing to youth plaintiffs, specifically, is that they don’t have the option of expressing their political desires regarding environmental agendas via the ballot box. Essentially, the story I’m telling is that young people are most affected by the threats of climate change, but the least able to exert political influence to get their government to act. I’m telling this story to anyone who has either an interest in child advocacy or in environmental law, in the hopes that the overlap between these two seemingly disparate fields becomes more obvious.

You’re currently in Professor Rebecca Bratspies’ Health & Environmental Justice Practice Clinic. What has participating in this Clinic taught you about child advocacy? 

Professor Bratspies is another reason my paper came into being at all. She was the one who passed along TELJ’s call for papers, and she generously gave me her time and insight over the summer to help focus my thinking, refine my topic, and give me the confidence to actually submit it. The Environmental Justice Clinic itself is full of people who are passionate, empathetic, and supportive; my colleagues study issues that I know nothing about, and sometimes didn’t even know existed, and it’s been a privilege to get to learn from them.

Every week, I get to listen to them talk about areas of law that they want to improve from an environmental justice perspective, and while I don’t necessarily know whether any of them harbor some passion for children’s rights, it’s deeply moving to know that they will be going out to do work that will indirectly benefit the children of their communities. It reinforces, to me, that child advocacy isn’t a discrete area of law; it is deeply connected to the varied work of my colleagues, and I like to think of all of us current and future public interest practitioners as, at least a little bit, child advocates.


You noted that a major struggle of yours in law school has been accepting that not all situations are equal, and some have more time to dedicate to studying law than others. As a 1L, a student once commented on your lack of overnight library studying, but you poignantly brushed it off as performative studying, and you work hard to resist comparing yourself to folks with entirely different circumstances.

We see this same shadow of performance in larger social justice movements, where it’s assumed that if you’re not seen on the front lines of every demonstration, you must be slacking. So much of the work of social justice is behind the scenes, and this concept is invalidating to those who do that thankless and invisible work.

How do you think this norm-setting contributes to burnout, where do you think it comes from, and how do you think it contributes to and perhaps exacerbates oppression?

The value placed on performance in social justice work is very similar to what is perceived to be valuable about legal work. We tend to think of activists and their accomplishments, in relation to their visibility, and we do that with lawyers—the glamour is in the courtroom, cinematic moments during trial that win a landmark case. And, while performance is itself draining, the real grind is the many hours spent reading, or writing, or banging your head against the wall trying to make sense of the law.

The people who actually get to claim the performative moments are the ones who are already privileged and better protected from burnout. That unequal division of labor exacerbates oppression, because it’s the marginalized lawyers who disproportionately carry the burden of thankless work, while our more privileged peers get to be the face of a movement.

Unlike your previous studies, law is not something that comes as easily to you as say biochemistry or critical analysis. Like all visionary writers who break ground in carving new legal paths and areas, you struggle with imposter syndrome. At the same time, you found writing on your own accord, without the motivation of grading, to be freeing. How do you recognize the ever-insidious imposter syndrome, and how do you mitigate it?

So much of law school, for me, feels like listening to other people talk and thinking, “wow, I’m not smart enough to be here.” Some of the mitigating efforts are admittedly external—if someone tells me I did well, or I had a good idea, I will live off of that for a minimum of twenty years. But the lasting work, even if it is a constant struggle, is learning to have faith in myself. I spent the summer writing a paper that I didn’t have to write, and it wasn’t because my motivation was, “this paper must be published, otherwise I am a failure.”

Instead, it was more like, “I have an idea, and it might actually be the single worst thought anyone in history has ever had, but if I don’t write it and put it out there, I’ll never actually know if that’s true.” There’s something freeing about embracing the possibility of failure and choosing to move forward with curiosity and openness anyway. Even if it turns out that I was never smart enough to be here, I’ve had a few years of being genuinely challenged in my thinking, and I got to learn from some truly amazing people who I never otherwise would have met.

Also, I like to tell myself that if Rudy Giuliani could become a lawyer, so can I. That’s the quickest remedy for my imposter syndrome.

You’re presenting your work this year at the Climate Change Summit in Austin, Texas. What do you hope to learn from this experience, who are you hoping to meet, and who should read your article?

Probably my biggest weakness, as far as legal skills, is anything that has to do with public speaking. I’m not good at it, and I hate doing it. But, I accepted the offer to be a panelist because I know this is true and want to be a little less bad at it. The first time I did oral arguments as a 1L, I received incredible support from Professor Jonathan Arias, and now in clinic as a 3L, I continue to be supported by Professor Bratspies; I think a lot about how both of them have seen my anxieties as a speaker, and I’m motivated to show them some progress. So, I hope to learn how to be an effective orator in practice, not just in theory.

I am also really excited to learn about the other panelists’ papers, and to meet everyone who works on TELJ, who will be attending the symposium, and maybe even meeting some complete strangers on the streets of Austin to get them excited about environmental justice. I’m hoping that my article is accessible to an audience beyond the legal or academic, but I’m also hoping that it inspires conversation amongst my colleagues, and that maybe it will result in a broader conversation about where my ideas can be improved, where they can go from here, and ultimately that a lot more ideas will be built upon its foundation.

How can folks interested in your scholarship contact you?

I am always available over email! I can be reached either at my CUNY address, or my personal email. Those are: