Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

Visiting Professor Jeena Shah on Community Lawyering

Jeena Shah is a Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor of Law in Rutgers Law School’s Constitutional Rights and International Human Rights Clinics. She recently spoke with CLiME staff member Tara Marlowe to discuss her approach to community lawyering.

What is the mission and scope of the work at the Constitutional Rights and International Human Rights Clinics?

In the Constitutional Rights and International Human Rights Clinics, we work on upholding fundamental rights at the local, national and transnational levels. It’s about shifting norms in the U.S. and holding U.S. actors accountable when they commit human rights abuses at home or abroad. Some of it is traditional legal work, and some of it is experimental, to really push the bounds of our profession.

How does this work align with your focus on community lawyering?

The central organizing principle of my work is “How can we use legal tools to build power in subordinated communities?” As the venerable Ella Baker taught us, oppressed people have the right to determine the direction of their struggle, are the best positioned to understand how oppressive structures operate, and continue the struggle long after lawyers and outside organizers have moved on. Our students read about Ella Baker’s approach to her work, and then use any tools at our disposal – from filing lawsuits and conducting policy research to writing human rights reports and designing Know Your Rights trainings – to support the efforts of subordinated communities organizing to protect their basic human rights.

Can you describe some of your current projects?

At the local level, we have been building relationships with Black and Latinx organizers in Newark to help translate their efforts to address physical, economic, and social insecurity into concrete policy initiatives. What my clinic students have observed is that whenever communities talk about violence in Newark, whether it is state violence or intra-community violence, it is tied in with notions of equity – in housing, jobs, and education. The students have looked at different models across the country where communities have successfully pushed for responses to threats to safety that address the socioeconomic struggles at the root cause of violence. This is what the Movement for Black Lives has been calling “invest/divest”: divest from policing and prisons and invest in housings, jobs, education, healthcare, and other public goods.

At the state level, we are providing legal research support to the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, a network of grassroots organizations across the state. They work to build the power of existing community organizations and also develop new leadership. Over the last few months, the Alliance has been giving teeth to this notion of ‘sanctuary’ at the municipal and county levels. They are working to support a range of institutions, such as county jails, school districts, and faith-based institutions, in developing practices to protect immigrant communities. In that work, they come across a lot of legal questions, such as “What can local governments and faith-based leaders do to protect immigrant communities without flouting federal law?” We’ve been helping answer their legal questions and creating accompanying materials that make complex legal issues easily accessible to community members, such as short Know Your Rights skits.

At a global level, we represent a network of queer-led grassroots groups in Uganda. This network, called Sexual Minorities Uganda, determined that the increased persecution they have been facing in recent years has been, in part, due to the actions of anti-gay extremists in the US bringing their homophobia to Uganda. We represent Sexual Minorities Uganda in a lawsuit they decided to file against a particular anti-gay extremist in Massachusetts for his role in the persecution of LGBT Ugandans. We have tried to use every step of the lawsuit to support the network’s goals. By surfacing the role of Westerners in crafting homophobic laws in Uganda, the case has helped Ugandan LGBT groups organize and resist their oppression.

These are just some of our projects, but they represent our clinics’ efforts to use legal tools to build the power of oppressed peoples to lead their own struggles for the respect of their human rights.

Would you say that a lot of this work is pre-emptive?

Community lawyering can be defensive, but the work my students and I do in the Clinics focuses on helping communities be proactive to protect themselves against further human rights abuses. A lot of our work is about offensively taking steps to resist oppression, versus constantly being in a defensive mode. We recognize that when ordinary people gain a sense of their own power, they become formidable opponents to those who try to exploit or abuse them. 

Does the work differ by locality?

The ways in which to engage with or confront existing structures of power is very place-based. The advice we might have for how Newark can protect immigrants is going to be different from other places where there is greater anti-immigrant sentiment. Every human rights issue is so context-specific that having relationships with local community organizers is critical.

How do you see the role of a community lawyer vs. community organizers?

Community organizing requires people doing it day in and day out to build the trust of a community. I think it is rarely the place of a lawyer to be addressing what is the very messy work of bringing communities together. Our job as community lawyers is to give community members a platform to share what they are experiencing and how they are experiencing it. This analysis is much more accurate and also more compelling. And by providing communities with support as broadly as we can define it, we can provide them access to spaces where they can raise their own demands. Every time I have seen work done in this way, I have seen how effective it is.

For me, it is really critical for human rights lawyers to support community organizing efforts. When raids, arrests or other crises happen, it is your community around you that can provide that first line of support. When the lawsuit is won, it is the community around you that ensures that the reforms are carried out and stick. Systemic change to protect entire communities will only happen if we have community organizing behind it.

What effect does this work have on the students’ education?

This work has expanded my students’ notions of expertise. In law school, students often walk away from courses believing that when it comes to law and policy, lawyers are the experts. But in real life, when it comes to the law, those who the law is hurting the most tend to have far more expertise than any lawyers I know. There is so much valuable knowledge held by directly impacted communities that should be informing the way we seek to shape the law, if we plan to use the law for social justice.

This work also helps my students understand the role that power plays in shaping and enforcing law. They come to understand that the gap between what is written on paper on our Constitution or in human rights treaties the U.S. has ratified and what is happening on the ground to real people is the result of power differentials. And, until we are able to correct power imbalances by helping subordinated people have a sense of their own power and demonstrate it to those running political and economic institutions, the gap between the norms we value and the realities we experience will remain.

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To learn more about Jeena Shah's wotk at Rutgers, click here.

For information about Ella Barker, click here.

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