Gabriele Josephs knew he wanted to make a difference through politics and was inspired by mentors to pursue a law degree rather than a PhD. Now, as a freshman at the University of Virginia School of Law, he is researching how online platforms play a role in understanding race.
A native of Freeport, Bahamas, Josephs earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Richmond.
At UVA Law, Josephs is a Legal Fellow of the LawTech Center and a member of the Black Law Students Association, which competed in the National Black Law Students Association’s Thurgood Marshall Memorial Moot Court Competition in February. Prior to law school, he internshipd with Virginia Sen. Jennifer McClellan ’97 and Richmond City Councilman Parker C. Agelasto, and was a fellow in public policy and international affairs at the University of Michigan.
In our occasional Star Witness series, Josephs spoke about his grant project and what he learned during his lawmaking internship.
Why law school?
In my case, there is an elimination process to answer this question. I got into elementary school very firmly because I firmly believed it would culminate in a PhD somewhere in science, maybe political philosophy or something. 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 at some point I fell in love with the idea of working in science. Political philosophers often keep the real distribution of power in society at a distance, preferring ideal theories instead. I ended up writing my thesis on a topic in political philosophy, but I didn’t want to do a doctorate. Pure partying in the ivory tower was probably never my calling. I wanted something practical. I’ve spent some time in various internships trying to figure out whether a master’s in public policy or a law degree is better. I came to UVA thinking I would do both, having been accepted into both law school and batten school [of Leadership and Public Policy]but I have now decided to just study law.
The other half of the story is about my inspirations. My father was a lawyer and judge in the Bahamas, where I grew up. One of the most formative experiences of my life so far was working under Jennifer McClellan in the Virginia Senate. She is a UVA law graduate and one of the best people I have ever met. She regularly hires social workers to work in her office, so our outreach for a state Senate office has been unusually robust—outreach I was fortunate to be able to participate in. Sen. McClellan and her staff were always ready to offer help where they could when constituents, and sometimes even non-voters, brought concerns to their office simply crying out for redemption. This is my model. I hope I can approach customer and public problems with that level of compassion and drive to solve.
What kind of work do you do as a LawTech Center Legal Fellow?
At a fairly young age, somewhere around 15, I stumbled into the most viciously racist section of the internet I have ever been to. I was a teenager in the Bahamas at the time and had an extremely limited view of racing for various reasons. The Bahamas is a predominantly black country, and when you’re a member of the demographic and social majority, you’re the social standard — for better or for worse — so being stereotyped is a harrowing experience.
True to their reputation, much of what goes on in these openly racist spaces is simple insults, where the overall value of the speech is in their ability to belittle and insult. But one aspect of the whole experience that struck me was that some of these people were making verifiable claims about the world. This kind of overt racism is often voiced in an echo chamber. I liked to pierce this echo chamber with rebuttals on the merits, which was often easy because their use of racial science was almost never particularly sophisticated – all full of omissions and obfuscations and sketchy dates.
With the LawTech grant, I can now take what I’ve learned about these smelly spaces and what I’ve learned about how these people use racial science into formal research that tells a story about how online platforms support these trends to some extent. professor [Danielle] Citron remarked how interesting it was that our interests matched so well (she has written a book called Hate Crimes in Cyberspace). She was as great a mentor as I was on faculty.
What have you learned from your internships with legislators?
It was my internships with lawmakers that kind of pulled me out of my troubles in a dark valley, realizing that science wasn’t the place for me. Each successive internship cemented my interest in bringing about real change in American society.
I also learned how deep people’s reserves of anger for local politics can go. The City Council is not generally viewed as the big league in politics, but most Americans live in or near cities, and as such, city government has an outsized influence on the day-to-day aspects of our lives. You understand that very quickly when people yell at you about garbage collection.
What do your classmates not know about you?
I edited Wikipedia when I was about 11 or 12 and for some time after that. As part of that, I taught myself how to program in Python and I built a robot that edits Wikipedia. It’s not nearly as impressive as it sounds. Most of what it did was add data to all the many maintenance tags scattered about the articles on the site. It managed to accumulate about 11,000 edits before I shut it down. I wasn’t very argumentative as a kid either: I would pick up different interests – like learning to code in Python, or reading about spies and intelligence agencies – and they would kind of become an obsession and then I’d just drop them. Who knows where I would have ended up if I had continued my interest in computer programs (or spies, for that matter).
What’s next for you?
I will think about it. I hope to take on litigation. I’ve been jumping around as to where exactly that might be: maybe antitrust, maybe the False Claims Act, maybe trademarks, maybe real estate. I also think mass torts and product liability would be interesting, especially since I had a great torts professor, G. Edward White. I also don’t think there’s any question that I’ll end up doing some politics and political work.