Monday, April 3, 2017
A few weeks ago, I had a moment. I suppose you could call it a “teaching moment,” since it occurred in the classroom, but really, it felt more like a moment, moment. You know, the kind where the world seems right, even if just for a few minutes. When somehow it all falls into place with stunning alignment and grace and we are a taught a lesson; the kind that resonates deeply in the body, like ancient knowledge that you can’t quite name or fully grasp but you know it when you see it.
At 10:00 pm the night before the first ever REEL (Re-imagining Excellence through Empowering Leadership) Conference, I quickly agreed to jump in and teach a 45 minute workshop on restorative justice when one presenter cancelled. My audience would be teenage boys, who attend the Kingston YMCA alternative education program. Most of the boys live a very difficult reality; they come from garrison communities where violence and retribution are the norm. Looking back, I realize the arrogance and potential foolishness of my haphazard decision, but I’m glad I didn’t have that awareness at the time, as my second-guessing could have easily turned into a “no.” One lesson I will most certainly take with me from my time here in Jamaica is that sometimes I just need to get it done, loosen the choke hold of that perfectionist bent, settle on “some is better than none,” and handle it.
After the haze of the late-night, last minute decision wore off, I acknowledged how stunningly out of my depth I would be. My Americanness, including my comparative wealth, which allows me augmented “safety” and “control” over my environment was directly at odds with the boys’ lived experience. The story I played in my mind was one of doubt: am I going to be able to convey, and in such a short amount of time, an alternative to retribution, another potential way of being in the world, a chance for possible repair instead of reprisal and the creation of more harm. Is that even possible? Is it even my place to try?
Luckily, another story simultaneously played. I’ve attended enough Clinical Law Conferences to have developed a fairly sturdy (even if at times tentative) trust in the power of teaching techniques, and so I would rely on those. Tactile learning, a circle and intuition would be my guides. In the classroom, I was adamant that the chairs, which were in rows had to be in circle. This meant the 20 minute task of re-arranging them prior to the boys arrival, but put those chairs in a circle we did (it must have seemed silly to everyone -- even to myself to a degree -- but I just knew we needed to see each other). Once everyone walked into the room, I patiently but diligently stuck to the format. I made all of us, including the teachers, sit inside the circle and we removed all empty chairs. We started with my request “tell us your name, your favorite junk food (a universally important question) and what you want to be in the future.” Pulling this information was difficult, the boys did not have much confidence or practice in speaking this way. I had to ask several times for quiet, push through the snickering, re-direct, constantly re-affirm the importance of each person’s response and ask countless times for everyone to speak up. And though there were fleeting moments of wondering whether this was the best use of our time together, I felt a strong pull; the act of naming and staking a claim on the future felt important and so even though it was a little tenuous, the circle held.
Next, I had the boys pretend to be actors (victim, police, community members, judge, offender, lawyers, etc.) in both the traditional and the restorative justice systems, using physical space and proximity to illustrate the concepts. The method seemed effective and we had fun. On the grand scale, I moved the room from the immediate “I would shoot his family dead” response to a consideration of “maybe” when asked if anyone would be willing to listen to the offender’s story. I considered this a success, but I’m kind of a glutton; I wasn’t satisfied, I pretty much always want more and because it just didn’t quite feel like enough or like it was done, I scrapped the script and started talking from the heart. It was messy, but it provided the opening we needed.
First, I acknowledged my privilege and then we talked…about anger, about witnessing horrific events, about endless cycles of violence, and about how as a society we instruct people not to do harm often through the use of state sanctioned forms of harm, control and force. The teachers, feeling more confident in this space, joined in, and together we validated feelings and passed along information about the effects trauma can have on our lives. We did our best to try and affirm the worth and dignity of everyone in the room (the future firefighter, graphic designer, lawyer, the one who likes KFC, Lavonte, “Tony,” and the one I ran into at the bus station…) Looking around, I could tell the boys heard it, many even appreciated the sentiment, but there was still a disconnect, a gap that I was desperate to, but didn’t have the words or experience or time to close.
And then it happened, as it often does, at the last minute, when you’ve got nothing left…
One of the teachers, who had been participating and asking questions throughout the workshop (which if I’m being honest, unnerved me a bit because of our tight time frame and because I thought “this is a workshop for the boys, not the teachers”) raised her hand again just in time for the final comment. By her insightful questions, I could tell that she was working through something and so even though the questions took us a little of “my course,” I had done my best to provide space and answer them.
And so in those last minutes of our time together, Ms. Taylor closed us out and brought us home. And somehow, she did it, she managed to fuse it all together: my words, their words, my knowledge, and their lived experiences. She spoke in the way that only a Jamaican woman could, only in a way that someone who has worked for a long time to gain trust and garner respect could, and only in a way that a mother who intimately knows suffering could.
She opened up and told us her story. It was a deeply personal story, one that I’m not sure her colleagues even knew, filled with pain, loss, restitution and redemption; one of those stories where the universe delivers both the poisonous sting and the antidote simultaneously rolled into one bitter-sweet pill. She was restorative justice personified. And we were stunned and silent; the room reverent as the energy shifted and stilled. We heard and finally we understood the power of forgiveness and the healing that can bring. I have no doubt that her story has wedged itself into the hearts of those young men the way it flowed directly into mine. And as we go forward to maneuver the difficulties of this life, I know we will all hear her words echoing inside us, providing us with choices which we couldn’t see before, a wider spectrum of possibilities that now exist in all our worlds.
And so I learned once again about the real value of restorative justice and why I do this work, and I learned once again about myself. Ms. Taylor’s lesson was the re-enforcement of what so many have tried to teach me over and over again...trust the process, trust yourself, check your ego at the door along with those western, hierarchical methods of learning, get out of the way, and just be the bridge, let it simply be an honor to be the conduit that facilitates the real knowledge residing in all of us.
 The nature of poverty in the garrison constituencies in Jamaica, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/095624780501700207
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Ah Coachella. California's yearly music and arts festival affords lot of opportunities for its attendees - amazing music, lots of star sightings, entire websites devoted to the fashion strategies to employ while attending, and being able to file your taxes unsuccessfully. Wait? What?
At least ten people tried to file their taxes from the Coachella campground post office this past weekend. Ironically the "post office" isn't a real post office, nor sponsored by USPS, and "acts more as an intermediary" between the festival "and the real local post office" according to the California Mercury News. Megan Hampton, who runs the Coachella "office, was quoted as saying "No, I can't 'just take it...How do they have their taxes here? I don't know."
Jeff Baker @JRBProf - better get that clinic outreach #JusticeBus ready for this weekend. Sounds like there are folks who could use your clinic's help - maybe even Kanye or Kesha. If not this year then perhaps we need to plan a road trip and ask Prof. Paul Caron @SoCalTaxProf to tag along. As long as actress Vanessa Hudgens @VanessaHudgens can tell us what to wear. I'm in @hagan_carrie. Maybe I'll have a #Suitsy by then.
Friday, April 15, 2016
Columbia Law School’s Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic Unveils Earned Income Tax Credit Information Tool Kit and Online Portal.
The federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program brought millions of families above the poverty level last year. In 2014, 27.5 million low-and-moderate income workers received more than $66 billion in EITC. The average amount of EITC received by tax filers last year was more than $2400. Still, the IRS estimates that roughly $1 billion dollars is regularly left unclaimed.
Building on earlier work with the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), Columbia’s Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic partnered with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County on two projects. The first is an EITC “Tool Kit” that is designed to help advocates across the country explain to their clients and constituents how to qualify for EITC benefits. The second project is an EITC online information portal. This lay-focused website provides an overview of the EITC benefit, eligibility requirements and filing process. In addition, users have access to an eligibility calculator, filing forms and a list of resources for free help with filing for the EITC. Information about both the Tool Kit and Portal has been circulated to all 134 LSC-affiliated offices as well as other prominent service providers and community organizations.
One does not have to owe taxes or expect a refund to claim the EITC. Even those who are not required to file a federal tax return can apply. Also, those eligible for the EITC can go back three years to claim it.
Both projects exemplify the work of the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic. In the Clinic, students use technology to create products and services that allow public interest legal organizations and the courts to expand access to justice. In this project, the Tool Kit contains information about the EITC and gives legal services attorneys an overview of the need to promote EITC awareness. It also provides advocates a convenient set of resources geared towards encouraging low-to-moderate low wage workers to claim the benefits they’ve earned. Similarly, the Portal is designed to be an online “one-stop shop” for anyone to learn more about the EITC program. The students created the portal to break down seemingly complex tax filing information into straightforward language that is accessible to the public.
These two projects aim to address the overwhelming unmet demand for free civil legal services. Because many legal aid/legal services offices are understaffed in proportion to the communities they serve, many persons do not receive the legal help that they seek. One way to close this gap is to make information about significant resources available to the community. Here, while it is important for public interest lawyers to spread the word about vital benefits, there is no need for a lawyer to actually assist applicants in filing claims. Instead, the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic has made the information about how to file for the EITC available for free online. In so doing, more people can receive the much needed benefits they deserve.
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
“Radical lawyering,” I then wrote to myself in field notes, “somehow has to be anchored in the world we’re trying to help change. Built from the ground up. Made a part of what my relatives, friends, and allies do in rebelling against all that has oppressed us and our ancestors, all that seems now still likely to subordinate our descendants. Informed by how we cope and fight and by how we laugh at ourselves. Mindful of how we sometimes get hemmed in and corrupted and deluded by big institutions and tiny habits. Aware of how we sometimes convert apparently insignificant opportunities into important advantages, defiantly making strengths of our weaknesses.”
Gerald López, Introduction, Rebellious Lawyering: One Chicano’s Vision of Progressive Legal Practice (1992).
When I was in law school in the mid-90s, I went to a conference at Yale titled "Rebellious Lawyering." To this day, it was one of the best conferences I have ever attended. It was inspiring, invigorating, and creative, and convinced me that I had found my tribe. The impetus for and foundation of that conference was Gerald López’s influential book Rebellious Lawyering: One Chicano’s Vision of Progressive Legal Practice (1992).
For years afterwards, I kept the conference poster displayed above my kitchen sink. "Not another cog in the wheel," it proclaimed. The poster remained up even during my eight years as a corporate lawyer when I found a supportive firm (Pillsbury) that allowed me to be a "Rebellious Lawyer," at least in my pro bono work on behalf of children and non profits.
Thus, when I heard about the possibility of a "Rebellious Lawyering" symposium, my ears immediately perked. My tribe was reuniting!
In the ensuing months, the symposium has now come together and will take place on Sunday, May 1, 2016, during the annual AALS Conference on Clinical Legal Education in Baltimore, Maryland. The half-day symposium will include an opening keynote address by Gerald López “reflecting on the major themes of his book and a plenary session immediately following the keynote with clinicians who are interpreting and extending these themes and who will be reflecting on the lessons of Rebellious Lawyering for clinical legal education.”
Related to the symposium, the Clinical Law Review will be issuing a special Spring 2017 symposium volume, Rebellious Lawyering at Twenty-Five. The issue will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the publication of the book.
According to the RFP circulated by the Clinical Law Review:
Rarely has a critical text had such a deep and abiding impact on lawyering practice and theory as Gerald López’s Rebellious Lawyering. Lopez’s text (and a group of related works of legal scholarship written during an especially fertile period of critical thinking and writing on poverty law) has inspired generations of lawyers and shaped public interest legal practice since its publication almost 25 years ago. The imperative for lawyers to ally with those mobilizing in poor, immigrant, and communities of color against overpolicing and inequality is as strong today as it has ever been.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Rebellious Lawyering, the Clinical Law Review invites the submission of abstracts describing potential full-length articles and essays, as well as shorter comments and dispatches, for inclusion in a symposium issue reflecting on the meaning of the text two-and-a-half decades after its publication.
Authors are encouraged to reflect broadly and critically on rebellious lawyering in general, and the book in particular, to offer case studies, critiques, theoretical amendments, pedagogical insights, and other kinds of engagement with these ideas. What insights does rebellious lawyering offer us today? How have concepts of rebellious lawyering shaped our practices as lawyers and clinical educators? How do we describe an instance or series of instances of lawyering rebelliously? How have we failed to lawyer rebelliously in a given moment? How does lawyering and legal education today nurture and/or suppress rebellious practice? How can the ideas contained in the text be deepened, updated, reconstituted, extended? In style and substance, we hope for creativity and rebelliousness in the submissions.
Abstracts are due by October 30, 2015. The journal will expect to notify authors of symposium acceptances in November. If you wish to participate in the Clinical Law Review symposium, please email abstracts describing your proposed symposium contribution by October 30, 2015 to firstname.lastname@example.org. While there is no prescribed length for an abstract, we anticipate that many abstracts will be in the range of 1 - 3 pages.
If you have any questions about the symposium, please direct them to Sameer Ashar, Chair of the Clinical Law Review’s symposium committee, or to any other symposium committee members:
Amna Akbar, email@example.com
Sameer Ashar, firstname.lastname@example.org
Phyllis Goldfarb, email@example.com
Brenda Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, April 27, 2015
We have just received a call for help from our fellow clinicians in Baltimore.
"Lawyers and law students are needed for jail support and legal observing for demonstrations in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. We are building an infrastructure to support community organizations in Baltimore who are exercising their civil and human rights."
There is a immediate need for attorneys licensed in Maryland with criminal defense and civil rights experience.
If you would like more information, please see the following website: http://www.fergusonlegaldefense.com/baltimore
Friday, December 5, 2014
These last few weeks have been devastating. I find myself at extremes—on the verge of tears or boiling over with anger. I do not understand the range of responses to the loss of human life. I cannot understand the lack of civility, accountability and respect for the sanctity of human life, regardless of technicalities, action, inaction, past action, body size or skin color…
But what has been most devastating is the silence. The silence of my colleagues, my students, my profession….Never have I found so many of us with so little to say. And while the silence may be benign, it certainly does not feel that way. I cannot explain why the silence seems so deafening, so sinister, so dark, so loud, but it does. The silence feels like indifference or defeat.
And I understand that we are silent for so many reasons. Because we aren’t ready to, aren’t sure how to, don’t want to talk about it. Because we don’t want to offend, admit, deny, accept, acknowledge or be complicit in it. Because it’s complicated, nuanced, jumbled, overwhelming and there are just no clear solutions, resolutions or easy answers.
But silence cannot be the answer, especially not for us.
This is ours. We create it, sustain it, perpetuate this system. We are not outsiders, on the periphery, the borders, or the edge. We are in the belly of the beast; we are the beast. We are in it, we are it. It is us. This is ours. And so it is our responsibility to act, to fix, to change, to remedy. How? There is no clarity here, the path undefined, hazy. But we start by owning it. This is ours. We own it and we march. We talk, we debate, we blog, we discuss, we bring it to light – in forums, in conferences, on the news, individually, in the classroom – we are unceasing. We use our tools: facts, precedent, policy and logic. We.Do.Not.Stop. Because this is ours.
Sunday, April 27, 2014
Twenty years ago today, the first elections were held in a free and democratic Republic of South Africa, and Nelson Mandela was elected the country’s first president. For many of us in the clinical community, ending the incredibly racist and violent apartheid regime was our first endeavor into seeking global justice, and was undertaken in our formative years. Although our individual efforts seem relatively immaterial, history documents that the international economic and political pressures imposed on the apartheid government played a decisive role in ending a regime that was built on the oppression, exploitation, and political and economic exclusion of others. Our witness of the ability of humanity to work together on a global basis to end apartheid in South Africa inspired many of us to make optimistic lifelong commitments to work towards global justice and to teach others to do the same. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Nelson Mandela taught us. Today, we have the honor of witnessing and supporting so many teachers in the clinical community and beyond who continue to heed the lessons we learned from Nelson Mandela. These heroes of law and democracy use education every day to promote justice and the rule of law, and to end oppression, exclusion, and exploitation all around the world. Happy 20th Anniversary to the Republic of South Africa, and to everyone everywhere who supports and promotes freedom and democracy!
Thursday, April 24, 2014
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a vocation as "a strong desire to spend your life doing a certain kind of work." This definition of vocation implies a calling to a particular field of work, a devotion to a cause or occupation that is more than just a job - a vocation is something that is, by definition, imbued with meaning and a higher purpose.
I have always thought of my career in law in its various incarnations as a vocation. As a lawyer, counselor, activist, and teacher, the connection between my daily work and what I see as one of the main purposes of my life (the pursuit of social justice) has been rich. But like anything else, the law is a tool that can be used to accomplish various ends - or, as Charles Hamilton Houston famously reflected, "A lawyer is a either a social engineer or a parasite on society."
One of the reasons I wanted to not just become a law professor, but to become a clinician specifically, is because of my view of law as a vocation. It seems to me that our society, rightly or not, presents the "parasite" model of lawyering much more prominently than the "social engineer" model. While both models of lawyering are extreme, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, I think this false dichotomy of what it means to be a lawyer causes us to lose something much more subtle and valuable - the notion that law is an honorable profession, and that lawyering can and should be more than just a job.
I am also aware of the temptation in our society to both romanticize (John Grisham) and sensationalize (Law and Order) the practice of law. My reflection of law as vocation is meant to get at something a bit different. At its core, law is a healing profession. If law is a vocation, lawyers are not merely hired guns - we are problem solvers. Lawyers are counselors and advocates - we stand by and walk with our clients not just because the rules of professional conduct require us to, but because our vocation calls us to do so. This is what I have learned from my teachers, colleagues, and students over the course of my career, and is ultimately part of the vision of lawyering and legal education that I hope to contribute to.