Gabriele Josephs knew he wanted to make a difference through policy and was inspired by mentors to pursue a law degree rather than a Ph.D. Now, as a first-year student at the University of Virginia School of Law, he’s researching how online platforms play a role in understanding race.

Josephs is a Freeport, Bahamas, native who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Richmond.

At UVA Law, Josephs is a LawTech Center Legal Fellow and a member of the Black Law Students Association, who competed in the National Black Law Students Association Thurgood Marshall Memorial Moot Court Competition in February. Before law school, he interned for Virginia Sen. Jennifer McClellan ’97 and Richmond City Councilor Parker C. Agelasto, and was a public policy and international affairs fellow at the University of Michigan.

In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Josephs discussed his fellowship project and what he learned interning for lawmakers.

Why law school?

In my case, there’s a process-of-elimination way to answer this question. I came into undergraduate school very much believing that it would culminate somewhere in academia with a Ph.D., maybe in political philosophy or something thereabouts. I wanted, and still want, to ask fundamental questions about the structure of society, which is very much the definition and mission of political philosophy. But I eventually fell out of love with the idea of working in academia. Political philosophers often keep the real distribution of power in society at some remove, preferring ideal theories instead. I ultimately did write my senior thesis on a topic in political philosophy, but I did not want to pursue a doctoral research degree. Pure cerebration in the ivory tower was likely never my vocation. I wanted something practical. I spent some time in various internships trying to piece together whether a master’s in public policy or a law degree was better. I came into UVA thinking I would do both, having been accepted into both the Law School and the Batten School [of Leadership and Public Policy], but I have now chosen simply to pursue a law degree.

The other half of the story is about my inspirations. My dad was a lawyer and judge in the Bahamas, where I was raised. Also, one of the most formative experiences of my life so far has been my work under Jennifer McClellan in the Virginia Senate. She is a UVA Law alumna and one of the best people I have ever met. She regularly hires social workers as staffers in her office, so our constituent services outreach was unusually robust for a state senate office — outreach I was fortunate enough to take part in. Sen. McClellan and her staff were always willing to offer help where they could when constituents and sometimes even non-constituents brought concerns to her office that simply cried out for redress. That’s my model. I hope I can approach the issues of clients and the public at large with that degree of compassion and drive to fix.

What kind of work are you doing as a LawTech Center Legal Fellow?

At a fairly young age, somewhere around 15 or so, I stumbled into the most viciously racist area of the internet I think I had ever been. I was a teenager in the Bahamas then, and for a variety of reasons I had an extremely stunted view of race. The Bahamas is a predominantly Black country and when you are a member of the demographic and social majority, you are the social default — for good or ill — so being stereotyped is a jarring experience.

True to their reputation, a lot of what happens in these nakedly racist spaces is simple slurring, where the sum total of the value of the speech is in its capacity for derogation and insult. But one aspect of the whole experience that did stand out to me was where some of these people would make testable claims about the world. This species of open racism is often voiced in an echo chamber. I liked to puncture that echo chamber with rebuttals on the merits, which was often easy to do because their use of race science was almost never particularly sophisticated — all full of elisions and obfuscation and sketchy data.

With the LawTech fellowship, I can now turn what I have learned about these fetid spaces — and what I have learned about how these people use race science — into formal research that tells a story about how online platforms are, to some extent, abetting these trends. Professor [Danielle] Citron remarked how interesting it was that our interests aligned so well (she has written a book called “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace”). She has been as great a mentor as I have had on the faculty.

What did you learn from your internships with lawmakers?

It was my internships with lawmakers that lifted me out of my travails in a dark valley, so to speak, when I came to realize academia was not the place for me. Each successive internship cemented my interest in effecting real change in American society.

I also learned how deep the reserves of anger that people have for local government can go. City council is not generally considered the big leagues in politics, but most Americans live in or near cities, and so city government has an outsized impact on the quotidian aspects of our lives. You understand that very quickly when people are yelling at you about garbage pickup.

What’s something your classmates don’t know about you?

I used to edit Wikipedia when I was around 11 or 12 and for some time after. As part of that, I taught myself how to program in Python, and I created a robot that edited Wikipedia. It’s not nearly as impressive as it sounds. Most of what it did was adding dates to all the many maintenance tags scattered across the articles on the site. It did manage to rack up about 11,000 edits before I shut it down. I also wasn’t very contentious as a child: I would pick up various interests — like learning to program in Python or reading about spies and intelligence agencies — and they would become something like obsessions and then I just dropped them. Who knows where I might have ended up if I kept up with my interest in computer programs (or spies, for that matter).

What’s next for you?

I am still figuring that out. I am hoping I get to do litigation work. I’ve bounced around where exactly that might be: maybe antitrust, maybe the False Claims Act, maybe trademarks, maybe real estate. I also think mass torts and products liability would be interesting, primarily because I had a great torts professor, G. Edward White. I also do not think there’s a question that I will end up doing some policy and political work eventually.

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