A Reflection on the Role of Lawyers in Social Justice Movements

I stopped writing for a while because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to do, how I can support the movements and confront the issues I care about, and whether I even want to be a lawyer.

For me, working as a lawyer in the United States is complicated by the fact that many problems result not from a lack of enforcement of laws, but rather from unjust laws in the first place. Legal work can be hard to fathom once you realize that most lawyers work to maintain and often enable inequality.

As Bill Quigley once stated about lawyers – “we use our training, wealth, and position in society to facilitate commerce without conscience, to accumulate wealth without responsibility, and to serve the needs of corporations over and above the rights and needs of people … yet still, some lawyers can be revolutionaries.”

I used to be enamored with the idea of large-scale national and international reforms that could “fix” so many of the local problems I saw. I still believe strongly that our biggest issues must be addressed at those high levels – issues like global warming, unfair trade and labor practices, and the proliferation of the arms trade. But this is not the fight I want to engage with.

Instead, I’ve moved back to working with the groups that first made me know I wanted to do this work for the rest of my life. The homeless shelters, the youth groups, and the protesters. It is working with these groups that developed my passion and now fuels my commitment.

I realized I needed to work with people and engage with broader political and social movements. I’d missed being political. But I’d also mis-calculated the importance of community-based organizations. I’d neglected the importance of personal relationships and real community leadership for sustainable change. And I’d forgotten the energy that can often only be found when engaging in local campaigns.

And so, six months after a summer in Burma, and a year and a half after leaving home in Canada, I now find myself at the Community Justice Project in Miami. This organization, and the individuals who work here, embrace the ideals and political beliefs undergirding my own understanding of social change. They are supporting a taxi driver campaign for better working and living conditions, representing community groups in federal district court fighting for more affordable housing, and are working to develop creative approaches to improve conditions in Miami’s notorious trailer parks.

More than the issues it works on, it was the organization’s unique, humble, collaborative, and creative approach to lawyering that attracted me here. Their approach, like my own, is grounded in a deep unease with the way that legal representation of poor and working people has been “atomized, depoliticized, and divorced from any leadership by real organized constituencies,” and the fact that traditional individualized legal struggles have no impact on imbalances of power, and thus fail to prevent future harms to the community (see Elsesser, “Community Lawyering: The Role of Lawyers in the Social Justice Movement”). The Community Justice Project’s goal is therefore to become the go-to legal resource for grassroots organizing campaigns involving low-income and communities of color in Miami. Within this goal, lawyers here do everything from litigation, policy advocacy and community education, to movement-building.

I’m excited to learn more about the role lawyers can play in supporting real changes when they choose to be creative and work to support broader movements. I know this is only the beginning, and I hope others will join me in this struggle.

Reach out to me if you’re interested in learning about cool opportunities for lawyering or want to share your own experiences.

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