Community Lawyering: Some Unexpected Guidance in Development

The following post comes to us from Professor Nancy Cook:

Recently there was an inquiry on the law clinic listserve seeking recommendations for good, short readings for students on the topic of community lawyering. There were some great responses, which were collected and later posted en masse by the chain’s originator, Stephen Miler. I was interested in this, not only because it’s a topic that relates to work I’ve been doing for twenty-some years, but because for the last year I have been exploring the possibilities for a law school/ community partnership here in my adopted city of Minneapolis, and this time, I’ve been documenting the process as I go along. Along the way, I’ve been educated by my own experience and by the experience, knowledge, and wisdom of others, many of whose writings appear on the list compiled via the clinic listserve. I have also discovered, however, as I’ve engaged in this ongoing documentation, that I’m equally likely to find experience, knowledge and wisdom in unexpected places. So here I share some of these less-than-obvious sources of guidance, with an invitation to you to share your own gems with me.

I should preface this with two things. First, I do not include here the actual history or events that relate to the development of our law school/ community partnership. That’s for another time. What I do want to share, however, is the definition of community lawyering that I subscribe to, since there are, without doubt, a good many variations on the theme. I quote here from a co-authored article, Conversations on “Community Lawyering”: The Newest (Oldest) Wave in Clinical Legal Education, 28 Wash. U. J.L. & Pol’y. 359, 363-365 (2008) (with Karen Tokarz, Susan Brooks, and Brenda Bratton Blom).

What are the core principles that self-identified community lawyers and community lawyering clinics have in common? First, community lawyering involves formal or informal collaborations with communities and community groups to identify and address community issues. Second, community lawyering is focused on empowering communities, promoting economic and social justice, and fostering systemic change. Implicitly, then, if not explicitly, community lawyers are invested in long-term community commitments to advance these goals. Third, the work of community lawyering clinics involves collaborative, and frequently interdisciplinary, practice. In sum, community lawyering is an approach to the practice of law and to clinical legal education that centers on building and sustaining relationships with clients, over time, in context, as part of and in conjunction with communities. It incorporates a respect for clients that empowers them and assists them in the larger economic, political, and social context of their lives, beyond their immediate legal problems. This approach contemplates a significantly different role of lawyers and clients than that in traditional law practice (and, perhaps, in traditional clinical law practice)—one in which the client community or community groups are the protagonists in framing and resolving their concerns, and lawyers act as team members, working both for and with clients.

And now, the random sources of guidance:

A Lecture on “Deafness in the Age of Cochlear Implants”
I am listening to a talk in conjunction with a university program on interdisciplinary studies. The speaker, a medical researcher, grew up hearing in a largely deaf community. She says in that community she came to understand deafness as a physical condition, not as a medical problem. Now she asks, how is it that society – including parents of the deaf — came to understand deafness as a medical problem?
She reports that in the 1990s the FDA approved the use of cochlear implants for children. Cochlear implants are surgically installed electronic devices that convert electrical sound signals into electric impulses.These stimulate nerves, which transmit the impulses to the brain and are received as sounds. The devices had already been available to adults in the United States since 1984. Once the FDA gave the go-ahead, many hearing parents signed up their deaf children for the implants. The deaf community’s protests against the FDA’s action, on grounds of ethics, identity loss, and cultural impairment, were ignored. Into the language came the word “audism,” referring to a view or belief that hearing is always to be preferred over deafness, and, relatedly, that auditory language is better than sign language.
One consequence of the shift in the treatment of deaf children is that deafness has been reframed as a processing problem, rather than a sensory difference. In other words, deafness is not a condition of not being able to hear; rather, a deaf person’s physiology is defective in its mechanical ability to take external sound and transfer it to an internal sound receptor. The problem-solving focus thus turned to auditory processing, not to processing language or to developing different channels for communicating. The shift was driven by companies that stood to profit financially from the use of implants.

Buddha Speaks
In the drawer of the table at my bedside in the hotel is a copy of book on Buddhism. Every now and then, I take a look; it’s like snacking on fortune cookies.

Awake. Be the witness of your thoughts.
No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.
In every trial let understanding fight for you.
See the false as false, the true as true.
An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that only exists as an idea.
A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker.
Do what you have to do resolutely, with all your heart. The traveler who hesitates only raises dust on the road.
Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace.

The Choice
Huffington Post
Posted by Ray Errol Fox
11/03/2012 11:31 am

[O]nly four years ago at the Republican Convention, …then Democratic candidate Barack Obama was callously mocked before a national viewing audience by a mincing Rudolph Giuliani, an infantile Arnold Schwarzenegger and a vapid Sarah Palin for having been a community organizer. Was it because a college graduate devoted fifteen-hour days to the less fortunate in a Chicago public housing project for the sucker’s salary of $10,000 annually?

… In 1985, Barack Obama moved from New York City, where he was employed as a financial consultant, to Chicago to work with local churches organizing job training and other programs for 5,300 poor and working-class residents who lived “amid shuttered steel mills, a nearby landfill, a putrid sewage treatment plant.” Michelle Obama pronounced it “a defining moment in his life, not just his career.” Announcing his presidential bid in 2007, candidate Obama said, “It was in these neighborhoods that I received the best education I ever had.” [It] “taught me a lot about listening to people as opposed to coming in with a predetermined agenda.” He insisted on “staying in the background while he empowered us,” says a woman who worked with him.

….Obama acknowledges he had few big victories to celebrate and only small, hard-won successes to cite. “But whether it was getting the city to fill potholes, provide summer jobs, or remove asbestos from the apartments or persuading the apartment managers to repair toilets, pipes, and ceilings, Obama encouraged residents to come up with their own priorities with the gentle admonition: “It’s your community.”

….What I learned from Obama’s considerable writings is: community organizers encourage people to be better individuals by coming together; their goal is to motivate others to work for the communal good; they let others think for themselves and form the conclusions that impact their lives.

Overheard at an Environmental Writers Retreat
– What is the best part of a natural disaster?
– Fear is easier to evoke than hope.
– De Toqueville tells us there are two major principles driving people in the US: the ruthless individual pursuit of private wealth, and an impulse to attend to the common good.
– We are all nine meals away from murder.

Two Truths and a Lie
Tonight a group of about twelve is gathering around a table at a local restaurant to celebrate a departing VISTA volunteer’s many contributions to her host organization, give her grief, and wish her well. I am among those who will miss her. A recent law school graduate, she has been a regular and supportive guide, helping to navigate and interpret as I’ve explored the Northside community.
In the relaxed atmosphere tonight, I listen to stories, get a feel for how people interact with each other, learn some history, measure attitudes. A drink or two into the conversation, a community outreach director, suggests an “activity,” a game. After a short discussion, we settle on “Two Truths and a Lie.” We go around the table and each person in turn makes three assertions about themselves, two of them factually correct and one false. I learn some pretty interesting things about my colleagues. I get some insight into how the outreach director operates.

from the Poets
So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture

So much is in bud.
(Denise Levertov, Beginners)

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
(William Stafford, The Way It Is)

%d bloggers like this: