New Spartan: MSU Law welcomes director of Housing Justice Clinic

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Nicole GoNicole Godfrey has joined Michigan State University College of Law as an Associate Clinical Professor and as Director of the Housing Justice Clinic.

“I’m excited to start working with students in the Housing Justice Clinic, which I view as an expansion of my prior civil rights work,” she says. 

“To me, there are two interrelated issues that define the housing crisis—first, the shortage of affordable housing, and second, the disproportionate impact of the housing crisis on communities of color.”

Her students will help low-income tenants facing eviction and other habitability issues; will challenge discriminatory housing policies through the civil rights statutes; and will assist incarcerated people seeking housing after returning to the community. 

“By working on housing issues in these three areas, I hope students will be able to critically examine the impacts of U.S. housing policy on both individuals and communities and to gain experience assisting individuals and groups through direct service and systemic litigation,” she says. “I love watching students grow in confidence through their clinic experience. I love watching them grapple with complex problems and realize they have the tools to solve the problems, even if they don’t believe they do. I love watching them manage conditions of uncertainty and realize they’re learning the skills necessary to tackle new legal problems thrown their way.

“I’m looking forward to meeting with the students and getting to know them better. I’m also looking forward to working with my new colleagues and learning more about East Lansing and Michigan,” adds Godfrey, who moved to the Great Lakes State from Denver where she was a Visiting Assistant Professor at her alma mater, the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Godfrey—who started studies at Boston University College of Arts & Sciences as a pre-med student—earned her degree, cum laude, in International Studies.

“BU had a great international relations program, so I took the Intro to International Relations course, and I was hooked,” she says. “I love history, and it provided the opportunity to study both history and current events. I was also drawn to the field’s study of the complicated reasons groups of people and nations conflict and ally with one another.”

After graduation, she volunteered with AmeriCorps for Habitat for Humanity of Lee County, Florida in North Fort Myers, Fla. She had first worked for Habitat in high school when her school sponsored a house.

“I think the work that Habitat does is incredibly commendable. By providing homes to families through interest-free mortgages and sweat equity down payments, Habitat recognizes the importance of safe, decent, and affordable homeownership,” she says. 

“After I graduated from college, I wanted to spend some time working as an AmeriCorps member, and I couldn’t imagine a better organization to work for than Habitat. The experience also brought me lifelong friends—some of my closest friends to this day are my fellow AmeriCorps members from my years in Florida and Colorado.”

Her experience in Florida sparked her interest in going to law school.

“I wasn’t interested in being a litigator or even in being a practicing lawyer, necessarily, but I wanted to have a better understanding of the legal system and its impacts on people’s lives,” she says. “Many of my coworkers, the volunteers who worked with us, and the Habitat homeowners had experienced different aspects of the legal system in ways that impacted their lives, some for better, some for worse. I wanted to understand that and use that understanding to help people in some way. 

“I also knew I wanted to get an advanced degree in international human rights, so I looked for schools where I could pursue a dual degree.”

That school was the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, where she earned her juris doctor in 2009; and received the Clinical Practice Award for her work in the Civil Rights and Disability Law Clinic, where a friend had urged her to apply in the spring semester of her 2L year. 

“I wasn’t particularly interested—students in the civil rights clinic litigated complex cases in federal court, and I didn’t think I wanted to be a litigator—but I trusted this friend, and she was convinced I would love my experience. So, I applied—and it completely changed my career trajectory.” 

In this clinical work, Godfrey represented a man who had been in solitary confinement for 25 years at the time—almost the entirety of Godfrey’s life. 

“In working on his case, I had to learn about the complicated and racist history of incarceration in this country, and I was frankly stunned by what I learned. I started the clinic with no understanding of how we became the world’s number one incarcerator—locking up more of our citizens than any other nation, both per capita and in overall numbers—and by the time I finished, I knew I wanted to continue to advocate for people caught up in the injustice of our criminal punishment system,” she says. 

“Lucky for me, I was able to find a job doing just that, and I spent the first decade of my career representing civil rights plaintiffs in actions brought under the U.S. Constitution and federal civil rights statutes.”

Godfrey went on to earn an M.A. in International Human Rights, and a Master of Laws in Clinical Legal Education, both from the University of Denver.

“I sought programs where I could pursue a JD/MA in International Human Rights at the same time because when I started law school, I wanted to do international policy work. But that all changed when I did a clinic my third year of law school, and I wanted to be a litigator from that time forward,” she says. “I was granted the opportunity to enroll in the clinical teaching fellowship program at the University of Denver in 2015, which culminated in the LL.M. in Clinical Legal Education. I had loved my clinic experience so much, so I thought I would try my hand at clinical teaching to see if I could provide that type of transformative experience to future students, which is what led to my Master of Laws degree.”

Godfrey enjoyed her years in Denver, especially the Colorado sunshine. 

“Even in the winter, the sun shines almost every single day. And I loved the proximity to the mountains—it made it easy to get outside, which I love to do,” she says.

The Cincinnati native has now made her home in East Lansing, with her dog, Ruth; and in her leisure time, she loves to travel, read, and hike. 

 “I’m looking forward to exploring Michigan. I was able to spend some time this summer exploring the Detroit area, and I spent a few days on Walloon Lake for my birthday, but I know there is much more to explore. I’d only been to Michigan twice before I came to visit after receiving my offer—this is a whole new adventure for me,” she says. “All my family lives in Ohio, so I’m used to the Midwest. I try to get to Cincinnati as much as possible to hang out with my nephews and niece.”

She has fond memories of a 2003 undergrad International Mission on Medicine to Australia and New Zealand, where scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef and was the highlight of her trip. 

“I also found New Zealand to be stunning and loved the town of Rotorua,” she says. 

“Perhaps most relevant today, the trip sparked a passion for traveling for me, and I now travel as much as I can. Some favorites include Cappadocia, Turkey; Lamu, Kenya; Kigali, Rwanda; and Rovaniemi, Finland. I’ve also been to 49 of the 50 states, and I’m hoping to visit number 50—Alaska—next year!”

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