Drew Wilds ’21 completed her academic career at the College of Saint Benedict with a capstone that earned Distinguished Thesis honors. She was one of just nine seniors whose efforts were highlighted from a three-semester-long independent research or creative project, indicating her contribution was above and beyond expectations.
Now in her second year at Loyola (Marymount) Law School in Los Angeles, Wilds has continued to crank out high-level work. She recently received first honors – indicating her writing was tops in her class – for a paper on how the 13th Amendment can be used to enable Congress to pass legislation that would cover pregnancy health care in prisons. Not surprisingly, the subject matter was basically a sequel to her research at Saint Ben’s, which delved into how race impacts incarcerated pregnant women.
“I was always interested in the prison population, and some of my coursework touched on prison labor and how it’s basically similar to slave labor,” said Wilds, who was a double-major in political science and peace studies at CSB and Saint John’s University. “The inmates aren’t paid, or paid very much, and they’re forced to work.”
Her native California experienced a rash of catastrophic wildfires when she was an undergraduate, and Wilds was distressed to learn the state not only used prisoners to help fight those fires, but they got around a dollar an hour. And, when they were released from prison, those same prisoners were ineligible to become actual firefighters because of their felony status.
“That sat wrong with me and, as I was looking at different research topics – even in my other coursework – prisoner populations kept coming up,” said Wilds, who served the Institute for Women’s Leadership as feminist social justice coordinator during her junior and senior years at Saint Ben’s. “Reproductive justice is really important to me. I felt like there wasn’t enough information on campus about reproductive and gender justice, and I focused on that for event planning and programming. When it came time for my thesis, I wanted to explore the intersection of those passions.”
Wilds grew up just north of LA, in Oak Park, California, and graduated from the all-girls Louisville High School in Woodland Hills. Representatives from Saint Ben’s visited for a college information day, and she was intrigued – especially when her mom and grandparents moved to Minnesota to join family who had previously relocated to Eden Prairie.
“I can’t seem to escape the Catholic institutions,” Wilds said with a laugh before turning serious. “They’re mission-driven and, even though I’m not overly religious, they align with my mission and values … I was interested in an all-women’s college, but I liked that the classes were co-ed with Saint John’s University. On top of that, I really wanted a liberal arts experience.”
She got that, and then some. As a Bennie, Wilds was a John Brandl Scholar, a Marie and Robert Jackson Fellow, a John Robson Scholar, participated in the Bonner Leader Program and studied in Greece.
Brandl Scholars receive $6,000 stipends to support full-time 10-week summer internships anywhere in the world and are offered mini-grants to cover travel or other expenses related to civic or scholarly engagement. Wilds spent her Brandl internship with the Jubilee USA Network, a Washington D.C.-based non-governmental organization advocating for debt relief for developing nations, during the summer of 2020 – when COVID-19 unfortunately reduced her to virtual contributions. Jackson Fellows are involved with civic engagement and work devoted to improving community life. Wilds worked with the League of Women Voters as a Jackson Fellow in 2019. Robson Scholars receive support up to $5,000 for one year in recognition of academic excellence and interest in public policy.
“I’m from a single-parent home and I’m the first woman in my family to graduate from college,” Wilds said. “Money was always kind of tight, and doing public interest and community-driven work doesn’t tend to pay the bills. The monetary and emotional support that Saint Ben’s provided put me in position where I had a strong application and a goal that I’ve continued to pursue when I got to law school.”
Indeed, Wilds has worked with the Women Lawyers of Los Angeles and the Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF) at Loyola. This year, she took part in the Civil Rights Litigation Practicum and Rights in Systems Enforced Clinic to advocate for survivors of violent crimes. She has stepped into leadership roles as events co-chair for the Women’s Law Association at Loyola, is a community service chair for PILF, and is a general board member for ACLU Loyola. Last summer, she worked with Public Counsel’s Center for Veterans Advancement, creating a toolkit for veterans seeking to appeal their benefit determinations. After the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims granted claimants the right to appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, affecting nearly 400,000 veterans and their caregivers, Wilds satisfied a dire need for a comprehensive guide to the process. This summer, she will work for Public Counsel again, with a focus on its Women and Girls Rights project.
One strong thesis leads to another
Christi Siver, a professor of political science at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, was Wilds’ undergraduate advisor. Siver said she’s not surprised that Wilds continues to make a name for herself, or in what way.
“I could tell right from the beginning that Drew had this spark, and she was super-bright and had no fear about asking questions or engaging in challenging scholarship,” said Sivers, who taught Wilds’ first political science class – introduction to international relations – and supervised her capstone thesis. “With Drew, there was never any doubt in her mind that she wanted to go to law school. She was 100 percent invested in that and really aimed to do the kind of work that she’s doing now.”
Last semester, one of Wilds’ classes explored the impact of human trafficking. Its final project could be on any research topic as long as it could be related to the 13th amendment.
“It’s not very talked about or used because it abolished slavery and indentured servitude,” Wilds said. “But there’s language about badges and incidents of slavery. My argument was that the mass incarceration of Black women and their treatment is very akin to antebellum slavery and its control over the female Black body. It was very clear in the minds of the framers of the 13th amendment that they wanted to prevent that from happening, so we can use that to create legislation that will protect those women.”
Her paper built on her research at CSB, which set out to examine the viability of pregnancy for Black women in prison. She was frustrated to discover there was no mandate to report who is pregnant and/or their pregnancy outcomes. In many states, Wilds was unable to even determine how many Black women were in prison. Data was kept on the number of men and women, and the number of inmates by race. But the two didn’t overlap. She instead relied on qualitative data, and Siver said Wilds’ research was valuable for illustrating what measures and policies were in place in different states to question why such data isn’t aggregated and to show a need for that to change.
“There seems to be no accountability in place or standardized law for how pregnant people should be treated when they’re incarcerated, and I was disappointed by that,” Wilds said. “Being put behind bars is pretty strenuous on the mind and body and, since Black women already suffer from higher infant mortality outside of prison, my prediction was that occurs at an even higher level inside.”
Aspiring reproductive and gender justice attorney
Wilds finds it encouraging that some states are now considering alternative housing for non-violent offenders who have given birth so they can breastfeed and form an initial bond with a child.
“I have a strong desire to go into reproductive and gender justice when I graduate,” she said. “I think it would really be great to be a part of change in those areas.”
That’s why she chose Loyola, which has a public interest concentration among its tracks and offers plenty of clinic and pro bono work in California, where she wants to practice after a final year of law school. But she will always maintain a connection to Minnesota via her family and Saint Ben’s, which played a unique and vital role in her life.
“I have a lot of love for Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s,” Wilds said. “I feel like I grew a lot when I was there. The institution valued me as a person, not just a GPA. I went through a tough time in high school. I was doing well academically, but mentally I was having a really rough go of it. College was a scary idea at the time, and I received a lot of rejections to places I thought I wanted to go. Saint Ben’s really pushed for me to come and made me feel wanted. That was a big sell, feeling like I could add something to the community.”
She did. And as a measure of gratitude from CSB and SJU, Wilds received the Presidents’ Student Leadership Award as a senior.
“I think what she’s done speaks to the value of a liberal arts college,” Siver said. “It was so valuable for Drew to take advantage of the opportunities she had here – to do the peace studies classes and get involved with some activism. She learned about state and local government, and she got some training in urban planning. She can navigate that world from the top down or the bottom up. She understands how challenges have to be addressed, where you can run into roadblocks and how you can overcome them. She’s getting very well prepared for the life that she wants, and I know she’ll pay it forward. She wants to open doors, but she also wants to jam them to remain open for people coming behind her.”
Drew Wilds wants to act as a resource for anyone attending Saint Ben’s or Saint John’s – or considering enrolling at the schools – to share perspective about being a pre-law student or attending law school. If you would like to get in touch with her, email Dr. Christi Siver at [email protected].