South Carolina's "Corridor of Shame," which cuts through the eastern part of the state, is full of dilapidated schools—toilets regularly back up and overflow, mold cannibalizes ceilings, and paint peels from the walls. The area, which is populated mostly by African Americans, has produced outrage in the highest of circles: During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama vowed to improve conditions in the schools.
That summer, when Obama prepared to take on Senator John McCain in the general election, Casey Edwards, now a Duke freshman (and a Benjamin N. Duke Scholar and Alice M. Baldwin Scholar), was in Charleston, South Carolina. She was attending the Governor's School, a four-week program for the state's exceptional high-school students. At a film screening of Corridors of Shame, a documentary about the failing schools, her eyes were opened to the extreme poverty of her fellow South Carolinians.
That fall, back in her hometown of Chapin, South Carolina, Edwards—then a senior in high school began to learn about, and raise money for, a project to improve the schools' facilities. President Obama took office in January, and soon, the federal stimulus legislation began rolling through Congress. As part of the bill, South Carolina was slated to receive $700 million to fund education. There was just one problem: Governor Mark Sanford, making a stance for fiscal conservatism, refused to take the money unless it was used to pay down the state's budget deficit.
"I thought if we can raise our own pocket change to give to the schools, why would we not take federal stimulus funds to give to schools that are desperately in need," says Edwards, who noted the funding would have saved up to 5,000 teaching jobs. "It just seemed a bit absurd."
While raising money for her project to help the schools, Edwards had been in touch with Bud Ferillo, director and producer of the Corridor of Shame documentary. This time, when the governor made his stand against the stimulus funds, Ferillo called her. Would she be interested in suing the governor to force him to accept the funds?
Some influential Democrats were interested in having a student file the suit, and after a few weeks of deliberation, she signed on. Knowing her name would be attached to the suit, she attended multiple meetings with the lawyers who had drawn it up, asking questions and making sure she wasn't going to be merely a figurehead, or worse. Her parents supported her, and the connection to where the money would go if the suit were successful made her decision easier. "I personally knew a lot of the teachers who were going to lose their jobs," she says.
Casey Edwards v. The State of South Carolina reached the state's Supreme Court, which returned a ruling in her favor and forced Governor Sanford to accept the funds. While Edwards is quick to say that her experience is something she doesn't relish being labeled with for life, she's also glad she had it.
One of the classes she's taking through the Baldwin Scholars program this semester will focus, in part, on teaching women to be negotiators in all areas of their lives. No doubt, she has all of the prerequisites.