Ayesha Cotton (’19) finds purpose in LeBron James’ I Promise School
By: James Grega
The road that led Ayesha Cotton (’19) to The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, and ultimately, to a job at the LeBron James Family Foundation I Promise School as a fellow, was one that took many twists and turns. At the end of it though, Cotton has put herself in a position to help others.
As a young child, Cotton learned about the relationship between the legal system and the consequences of drug addiction while witnessing her father’s struggles. That experience was eye-opening for her and was one of the factors that sparked her curiosity about the legal system. Her father passed away in 2008, just before she started high school. However, throughout the years, she realized that many in her community like her father, were not aware of their basic legal rights.
“I started doing my own little probing and becoming more curious, and I realized that not a lot of people in my neighborhood and the people that are affected by the law know the law. They don’t understand the reason why they were pleading a certain way,” she said. “I missed a lot of time with [my dad]’,” she said. “I wanted to help someone else to not have to go through that.”
But first, college. Cotton landed on Howard University, a historically black university (HBCU) in Washington D.C. where she majored in psychology.
“I wanted to get away, and I wanted to be around people like me. It was one of the best decisions ever because there were African Americans from diverse backgrounds and experiences,” she said. “Going to a university where people look like me and express themselves like me was very rewarding.”
Cotton came to Moritz with an open mind, unsure of what area of law she would enter. However, her passion for working with underprivileged people, especially children, began to shape her future.
“I love mentoring and trying to do my best for children because they are one of the most vulnerable groups,” she said. “They have endless potential but need support.”
While at Moritz, Cotton got involved with the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas as a hearing officer in the Intake and Diversion program. She worked with juveniles who have committed misdemeanor, or in rare cases, felony crimes. The program offers a five-week course in which offenders take part in Teen Court, which simulates a trial situation.
“It reminds me a lot of the kids I grew up with,” she said. “They act like the lawyers and the jury and the bailiff. They give the dispositions and I serve as the judge. If they complete the program successfully, they get their record sealed and in five years can have it thrown out.”
When it came time to start applying for jobs, Cotton was referred to a posting in Akron, Ohio by the Moritz Director of Public Service & Public Interest Programs, Cybele Smith. The job? Working as the I Promise Fellow at the LeBron James Family Foundation I Promise School.
The school, which just completed its inaugural year in 2018-19, is operated by the Akron School District and currently consists of 240 third and fourth graders, some of whom were once deemed at risk of not graduating much like the NBA superstar was as a child growing up in the same area. The school provides students with free tuition, uniforms and even a bicycle and helmet. Students that graduate are also guaranteed paid tuition to attend the University of Akron. At the end of its first year, the I Promise School reported test scores that exceeded expectations, a trend and mission Cotton said she wanted to help build on.
Smith recommended that Cotton apply for the position because of her passion for children and advocating for them. “When reading the fellowship description for what the candidate should demonstrate I said to myself ‘that is you,’” Cotton said.
Cotton’s job description includes helping families with custody issues, unhealthy living conditions and working with victims of domestic abuse to find safety and distance from their abusers.
“Anything that might have a legal tinge to it,” she said of her job description. “For me, that was big because I experienced that growing up. I can’t focus on school when my lights get shut off or my dad gets arrested. I remember taking bookbags of clothes to school just in case they took our stuff. You can’t focus in that situation.”
Cotton came to law school unsure of what her path would be. As she graduates from Moritz and prepares to start her new position at the I Promise School in September, Cotton is in a position to do what she is passionate about – help those who are from a similar background as hers.
“This is why I wanted to go to law school,” she said. “To have that knowledge and understanding and to actually advocate for individuals in need.”