New job is demanding, but a fantastic opportunity

May 23, 2011
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Miriam Aukerman said she sort of fell into the legal field, and she feels fortunate to have taken that tumble because she finds law intellectually challenging and a good fit. The staff attorney for the West Michigan office of the American Civil Liberties Union also said her work has allowed her to positively affect people's lives in a way other professions wouldn't have.

After earning her undergraduate degree at Cornell University, Aukerman went to Oxford to earn a master's in international relations. Then she went to Germany and worked on refugee issues. After that, she spent three years at the Ford Foundation in New York and in Moscow doing work on international rights.

When her father, a minister, was diagnosed with cancer, Aukerman returned to the states to be at his side. When he passed away, she went to New York University Law School and then held a judicial clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York.

"It was somewhat serendipitous the way everything came together, but it really is a tremendously good fit for me in terms of where my skills and passions are. It allows me to combine really challenging intellectual work with the ability to make a real important impact on people's lives in a positive way," she said.

"I've had the chance to see the way a lot of different places work and people live, and it's given me a tremendous appreciation of other cultures and also, really, of our own culture, and a tremendous appreciation for the context of my new work and the importance of the (U.S.) Constitution."

Aukerman said the biggest break of her career came when she was at Legal Aid of Western Michigan for about a year. She was named a (George) Soros Justice Fellow by the Open Society Foundations, which gave her enough funds to start a re-entry law project here.

"When you're representing people with criminal records, you need assistance to overcome legal barriers to housing and employment. Getting the fellowship was a tremendous break for me. Once that ended, I had the contacts and the expertise to obtain funding to support that work, and to develop the re-entry law project at Legal Aid, which is sort of how I grew up as a lawyer."

The re-entry project Aukerman established doesn't just help parolees who have served hard time, as much of its focus goes to assist those who have had misdemeanor skirmishes with the law that didn't result in a jail sentence.

"I work with people who have all level of offenses — people who had very serious offenses and were coming out of prison, but also people who literally had two minor-in-possession convictions and could not get an appointment in a particular field because of having those. So it's everything — the whole range," she said.

Aukerman was born in Bremen, Ind., spent some of her early years in Sunfield, Mich., which is roughly halfway between Grand Rapids and Lansing, and then moved to Maryland. "I don't have any memory at all of Indiana. I spent a couple of years of my childhood in Sunfield, from age 2 to 4 or something like that, and I was raised in Maryland," she said.

Miriam Aukerman
Organization:
American Civil Liberties Union
Title: Staff attorney for West Michigan Regional Office
Age: 42
Birthplace: Bremen, Ind.
Residence: East Grand Rapids
Family: Husband, Charles Pazdernik; daughters, Thea and Cara.
Biggest Career Break: Receiving a fellowship from the Open Society Foundations.

Today, Aukerman lives in East Grand Rapids with her husband, Charles Pazdernik, and their daughters, Thea and Cara. Pazdernik chairs the department of classics at Grand Valley State University.

"It's one of the larger departments of classics and has grown. A lot of their students go on to study law and medicine, as well as pursuing advanced work in classics. It's a broad set of classical education in the best sense," she said. "A lot of state universities don't have a department like that. It's quite impressive that GVSU does."

GVSU hired Pazdernik in 2001, which is what brought the couple here. Aukerman was a freshman at Cornell when they met. They dated a long time before getting married and are celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary.

"He and I both were residents in a scholarship house that was run by the Telluride Association, which is a nonprofit educational association that provides educational scholarships to students and has a focus on community service and intellectual exchange among students. One scholarship house is at the University of Michigan and one is at Cornell. We were both students at the one in Cornell in my first year of college, and we've been together ever since," she said.

Thea is 7 and a first-grader at Wealthy Elementary, while Cara is 3. Thea had some advice for her mom when she learned the Business Journal was going to interview her. "She said, 'You can tell your friends bad things about me, but don't tell the reporter because I don't want all of Grand Rapids to know,'" said Aukerman with a laugh.

"She loves theater, she loves swimming, she loves writing stories and has quite an opinionated, forceful, strong personality. She's delightful. My little one is very sweet, very resilient, also quite determined and quite self reliant." Both girls are bilingual; they attend a German-language school on Saturdays.

"I try to take them to Germany once a year. My grandmother is still living over there. We were actually just there in April over Easter, and that is an important part of their lives and their experience," she said. The "there" is Kissel, Germany, which is near Frankfort.

"We just had a big family vacation with my family and my brother's family and their kids, and my mother and my uncle and my grandmother. So we had from ages 2 to 94. Either someone needed a diaper changed or someone needed an insulin shot. It was a lovely vacation."

Aukerman spends most of her free time with the girls; all three of them love to swim at the downtown Y and in Lake Michigan in the summer. She also likes to do yard work and cook. She even catered her own wedding and baked Russian Napoleon wedding cake from a recipe she picked up while living in Russia. "I'm a decent cook. When I was in college, I actually had a summer job at one point as a personal chef for the mayor of Ithaca," she said. "I like to cook, but I don't have many opportunities anymore."

Her spare time is a precious commodity while she gets things rolling at the ACLU regional office. The new post, which she started in December, demands much of her time now. Not only has she had to back off on her cooking, she also has had to pull back on her community-involvement commitments, but only for the time being. "The new job is pretty, pretty demanding," she said with a chuckle.

Aukerman said she never really thought about going into practice for herself or joining a powerful firm, as neither would have been the right fit.

"This is, obviously, a fantastic opportunity for me to be starting up this office this year for the ACLU. I see us developing a cadre of local cooperating attorneys. I see us starting to really develop relationships with the community on behalf of the ACLU. I see us starting to bring some important litigation here in West Michigan around civil liberty issues," she said. "Also I think, importantly, giving people in the community here a better understanding of what the ACLU is about, and that it's a principled organization that is dedicated to fairness and to justice. Those are my goals for the next year."

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