Blue Ridge Mile celebrates first year of community work, plans for future impact

A team of student advocates helps Rockbridge residents reinstate their driver’s licenses

Emma Malinak, Arts & Life Editor

Washington and Lee University’s Blue Ridge Mile Clinic has helped over 30 community members regain their driver’s licenses since it was established last winter term. The program is the first of its kind to invite undergraduate students into the courtroom to provide guidance and support to clients in need.
Finn Connor, ‘23, was a member of Blue Ridge Mile’s original leadership team and has witnessed the positive effects of the program over the past year.
“It’s such a powerful act to be a support to someone who’s navigating something that can, at times, be so complex,” Connor said. “It feels really gratifying to know that you are offering something helpful to a community member in a way that respects their dignity.”

Getting people back behind the wheel

Blue Ridge Mile, which operates as a part of the Shepherd Program, connects student advocates with clients who need help navigating the challenges and confusing rules of reinstating a driver’s license. Advocates work with people who have had their licenses revoked due to traffic violations, DUIs, previous incarceration or other interactions with the legal system.
Gabe Miller, ‘25, another member of the original leadership team of the clinic, said working with a variety of clients is one aspect of his work that he finds most fulfilling.
“Everyone has a different story or different reason why they’re in their situation,” he said. “It’s most rewarding because you get to know them on a personal level as you walk them through the process.”
Connor and Miller expressed that a driver’s license is a crucial tool in life, especially during the reentry process after serving time in prison. A license allows one to drive to work, the grocery store, and other places necessary for day-to-day survival. But a license is also key to being able to vote, getting employed and completing other tasks that require identification.

Student advocates in the courtroom

Blue Ridge Mile has three subsections to ensure that every need of the community is addressed.
The first component involves the service that advocates perform in the courtroom. Miller estimated that advocates spend about 10 hours in court every week acting as a support for clients.
While most of this work is completed on the student’s own time, it is anchored in two classes offered in the Poverty and Human Capability Studies Department. One serves as a training course for incoming advocates and the other allots time for previously-trained students to work in the courts and community.
Outside of class instruction, advocates receive guidance from attorneys at Drive-to-Work, a law firm in Richmond that focuses on restoring clients’ driving privileges. Miller said Drive-to-Work is using Blue Ridge Mile as a pilot program in the hopes of establishing other undergraduate clinics in Virginia.

First invited speaker “puts a face to the issue”

The second subsection of Blue Ridge Mile is its student organization. Because the W&L community can’t see the work that advocates do in the courtrooms, advocates have organized events in order to have a presence on campus.
Blue Ridge Mile’s first speaker event will be held on March 21 at 6:30 in the Harte Center. Connor has invited Jesse Crosson, the founder of the Second Chancer Foundation, to speak. According to the Second Chancer website, the foundation seeks to humanize the experience of criminal reentry and drive both awareness and resources toward the process.
Crosson served 19 years in prison before being released in 2021. He is now an advocate for criminal legal system reform through his work with the foundation and his presence on social media.
“He puts a face to the issue,” Connor said. “Being able to hear from someone who went into prison and changed his life while he was there and upon release has dedicated his time to both fixing the system that he was in and also providing services to people in the position that he was in is deeply moving.”
Miller said that law students and undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in law should take advantage of this opportunity to hear a first-hand account of the criminal justice system.
“The most valuable source of information and the people that you should be listening to are people who have experience with this system,” he said. “And that’s not usually the people that we think about speaking to.”
But Connor expressed that students who are not interested in law will still benefit from the presentation.
“We just want the university community to feel connected to this issue,” Connor said. “We hope that wherever they go after that event, they’re holding what Jesse Crosson has said. And that could impact them to act more humanely in any setting.”

What the future holds

The third component of Blue Ridge Mile, a research team, will be introduced next fall. Students involved in this part of the organization will investigate patterns in the types of clientele that Blue Ridge Mile helps and what types of barriers those clients face in the legal system. Student researchers will use their findings to provide insights for policy recommendations.
Regardless of which branch of the organization an advocate is a part of, Miller said students’ work is valuable because it addresses a local need that is tied to larger national concerns.
“The issues that we’re dealing with are nationwide and they touch on a lot of different issues with criminal reentry,” he said. “The fact that it comes from the community and it’s tied to a national issue is something that’s very important.”