Ally of the Month: Legal Intern Hillaria Goodgame
West Philadelphia resident Hillaria Goodgame says she has always felt at home within the LGBT community, even though she isn’t technically a member. “The LGBT community has always been a kind of safe haven for me,” she explains.
A first-year student at Drexel University’s Earle Mack School of Law, Hillaria spent the last three months as an intern in Mazzoni Center’s Legal Services program, and looks forward to returning again in the fall. She traces her beginnings as a community ally to a friend she made back in middle school.
At the time, Hillaria and her family attended what she describes as “a fairly traditional, all-Black church” in suburban New Jersey. One of the deacon’s sons had returned to the family home with an illness.
“We knew he was very sick,” she recalls, “but no one ever talked about why.”
Hillaria and her family would go to his house for weekly bible study, and she would find myself talking to the young man, James, who was several years older than her. “He would tell me stories about traveling to New York City and Miami,” she says, “and it all sounded like places where everyone could be themselves and be loved.”
She says she always enjoyed their conversations, although there was a lot she didn’t fully understand until much later. “I don’t know when exactly, but eventually I realized he had AIDS,” Hillaria says, “and that was what caused the tension in the house.”
What she recalls is the curious silence, and the feeling that, as she puts it, “nobody seemed to acknowledge who he was.”
“I remember very clearly one conversation we had,” she says. “I remember him asking me to always help people that were ‘different’ in some way. He warned me not to be judgmental of others, and he told me to never be afraid of being myself.”
James eventually passed away, but his words made a major impression on Hillaria. “I maintained that I would always keep my promise to him,” she says. “I feel that it’s a basic human right not to be judged for who you are, or want to be.”
Hillaria had been adopted by a family of lawyers, and says she’d always known she wanted to join the profession. She describes her path to law school as “somewhat non-traditional” –she worked for several years while attending Community College of Philadelphia, completing her undergraduate degree at Temple University, and raising her young son, who is now eight years old (and, in her words: “my sunshine.”)
She entered Drexel’s law school in the fall of 2011, and it was there that she encountered Mazzoni Legal Director David Rosenblum, who was promoting the agency’s legal services program for low-income LGBT individuals during a nonprofit event on the campus, and inviting interested students to apply for internships. Hillaria knew right away it was the right match for her.
“I feel as if this is my community,” she explains. “As a woman, and a woman of color, I totally understand feeling legally disenfranchised because you’re different or the ‘other.’”
She says she’s proud to be part of a program that makes an impact every day. “When you’re in that [disenfranchised] position, it’s so important to have that person saying ‘yes, you have the right to be who you are,’ and to know that someone is there to ensure your legal protection,” she says. “That’s what Mazzoni Center’s legal program is all about.”
Hillaria credits her parents with instilling in her a passion and respect for the legal profession. “They taught me that law isn’t just a privilege, but it’s a responsibility,” she says.
It’s also a great way of keeping her promise to her long-ago friend. As Hillaria says, “law is the best way to defend people who could not defend themselves.”