A Conversation with Lauren Kaeseberg
If you could say anything to the current students of Darien District 61, what would that be?
When someone tells you that you are good at something, believe them. Work hard at getting even better. Try new things. Primary schooling is a “blip” in your life that will go by quickly–squeeze out every morsel of every opportunity that comes your way because you never know what you’ll enjoy doing or where you will find passion.
Even though it may seem overwhelming at times to fit in with other kids, or school work seems hard, trust yourself and believe in yourself. It all goes by very fast, and before you know it you’ll be looking back at it all as a memory. Be kind and always remember that everyone has their own struggles, but everyone also has something that makes them very happy. Figure out what makes you happy and share in the joy your classmates have at what makes them happy, too.
Who were some of the memorable teachers you had and why?
I don’t have to think twice about this: Dean Rodkin and Judy Hanson. If I had to make a list of the top five teachers/professors I’ve ever had, all the way through law school, they would be at the very top, without a doubt.
They provided experiences and opportunities that allowed us to discover, for ourselves, our own capabilities and gave us the confidence to go out in the world and discover new passions.
More than teachers, they were adults who believed in us, and pushed us to be young adults who saw the future as bright and exciting.
What are some of the special memories of your time spent in Darien District 61?
There are too many to be able to include here! I was very active in the student council, and that provided innumerable opportunities to learn leadership skills, advocacy and public service that really planted a seed for me. This included traveling to student council conferences (to Galena, Ill., for example) and student council camp. More than those experiences, however, the day-to-day functioning of being on the council taught me so much and enabled me to find my love for giving back and being invested in my community.
In addition, I was very involved in choir, led by Judy Hanson. We had once-in-a-lifetime opportunities through that program. I was one of the lucky students to be in the Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat production with Donny Osmond, an experience that continued through high school. In addition, we traveled to Disney World and other locations around the state. This exposure really helped me to grow and gain confidence being “on stage,” even though “on stage” would mean something different later in life.
I truly look back at my years at Eisenhower as the most important foundational years of my educational career.
What clubs, sports or extracurricular activities were you involved in?
Primarily student council, choir/Showstoppers/Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I was in the EJH Band’s Flag Corps in seventh grade but was not very good at that at all, ha! I also have great memories of doing videos with the counselor, Mr. Evanson. Those were classic, and just so much fun. EJH really gave me such a variety of experiences that I look back on with such happiness and nostalgia. The “old friends” that I still have to this day are from the EJH days, not even high school. We had a great bond, much of which was encouraged by our teachers.
Did you receive any special recognition or awards, or are proud of any personal accomplishments in school?
I was very proud of what we accomplished with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That was such a competitive process, and I still remember the exhilaration we felt when we won the tryouts and found out we’d made it!
When were you born?
Where did you live when you attended school in District 61?
Where do you live now?
Darien. I just moved back here from Chicago in 2014
What grades did you attend in Darien District 61?
Seventh and eighth grade.
What are some of your accomplishments and noteworthy activities since leaving District 61?
I went on to Hinsdale South High School where I focused much of my extracurricular energy on journalism and became editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. I also stayed involved in music. I was a member of National Honor Society and the Quill & Scroll Honor Society.
After Hinsdale South, I attended DePaul University in Chicago. I focused my studies on political science, Spanish, history and graduated with a degree in secondary education. After graduation, I taught high school for a couple years in Chicago.
While I was teaching, I met an attorney who was a death penalty defense attorney and I learned of her work alongside Gov. George Ryan to examine the death penalty system in Illinois, including the realization that there were innocent people on death row in our state. After meeting Gov. Ryan and a man who would be exonerated from death row (Madison Hobley), I felt thunderstruck and knew I wanted to go to law school.
I attended Cardozo School of Law in New York City because that is where the Innocence Project was founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. I was a member of the first class of “Public Service Scholars” at Cardozo and had some amazing experiences there. My first summer, I was a legal intern at an organization working with young people who had been victims of human trafficking and was able to obtain a green card for a client, which was thrilling. When I started my second year of law school, I became eligible to apply for the Innocence Project clinic and I did so. I then participated in the clinic for the 2005-06 school year, interned there that summer and was a teaching assistant for the 2006-07 school year. I had the incredible opportunity to contribute work that helped exonerate and release a number of innocent people from Illinois, Texas and someone on death row in Mississippi. In addition, I worked with exonerees after their release and found that to be immensely rewarding.
After graduation, I moved back to Chicago and worked for a small criminal defense firm in Waukegan, Ill., where I worked on major felony cases including homicide, assaults, on down to misdemeanors. I handled many of the appeals and always maintained a caseload of pro bono innocence cases.
In September 2009, I left the firm after I was asked to join the defense team of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. I then worked full time on the Blagojevich case. I was part of the team for his first trial, as well as his second trial, where I cross-examined witnesses, etc., and handled all of the litigation and motions. I was part of the team representing him at sentencing and was then appointed to his appeal.
When that case “ended,”’ for purposes of a full-time job I was lucky to join the Illinois Innocence Project as a staff attorney in May 2013. I am now the legal director in the Chicago office. We are a nonprofit legal organization that represents individuals in Illinois prisons who maintain that they are innocent of the crimes for which they are convicted and imprisoned. We use DNA testing where appropriate and engage in investigations to uncover new evidence of innocence. In 2015, two of my clients were exonerated and released; they had served 29 years and 21 years in prison, respectively. In January, I was lucky to walk alongside another one of our clients as he walked free after 18 years in prison for something he did not do.
In addition to the casework, we focus on policy and education as well. I am an adjunct professor of law at Northern Illinois University College of Law, where I oversee our externship program.
What are some of your current involvements (including jobs, activities and interests)?
My job keeps me very busy. In addition to that, I have a 3 1/2 year-old-son named Atticus who is my greatest joy and keeps me very busy.
I’m an avid reader. Also, I’ve recently found a love of genealogy and have been tracing my family’s roots back to the Revolutionary War and Plymouth Colony. I’ve also started tracking my partner’s family roots through Mississippi and South Carolina in the era of slavery.
What are some of your plans/goals for the future?
I hope to continue to do the work of freeing the innocent. It is a true passion and I feel so lucky to have a job that I love.
Are you single? Married? Have any kids? Pets?
I live with my partner, Lester, and he and I have a 3 1/2 year old son, Atticus. We also have a dog named Sofie who we adopted from a rescue organization in January 2015.
Anything else you’d like to share with us?
I am so honored to receive this recognition. I truly look back at my time at EJH with such fondness, but also with a knowledge that it is where I really gained the confidence to be myself and where I first learned how to effectively use my voice (literally and figuratively!) It was the most influential two years of my educational career.