Radical Lawyering: Reflections on the Bertha Justice Institute’s 2014 Conference

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“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” –Lilla Watson

The quote, especially with the backstory, evokes a clear picture of how to approach Movement Lawyering. Because even though Australian Aboriginal Elder Lilla Watson is credited with the quote, she feels discomfort with it being attributed to her alone, as it was born of a “collective process.” It has been used in numerous activist contexts, capturing the collaborative nature of being part of a social justice movement.

The quote was also included in one of the presentations of the 2014 Bertha Justice Institute’s Social Justice Conference, a partnership of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Bertha Foundation, which was created to train and support the next generation of lawyers and legal advocates working for social change. As a Bertha Fellow with EarthRights International (ERI), which is a partner with the Bertha Foundation in the Be Just Network, this was a great opportunity to see how my work fits into a broader movement. The conference focused on reflecting on radical lawyering 50 years after Freedom Summer, an important movement for social justice. In many ways, Lilla Watson’s quote captures the collaborative approach of our work at ERI, as it does in many social justice movements. It was echoed in the points raised throughout the conference, where we learned theories and practical application skills on how to be an effective advocate for social justice. A “radical lawyer.”

In the morning talk, Bill Quigley, long-time activist and law professor and Director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University, framed his discussion around the elements of social justice action. He explained that being part of a movement requires an honest confrontation with the truth and a sincere willingness to face discomfort and risk in order to change those injustices. It also requires hope, which is born from “anger at the way things are,” and the “courage to respond.” He emphasized the point that “justice is a team sport,” so community is essential. The Lilla Watson quote was addressed as a key lesson of social justice movements, in discussing the need to reverse our perspective, especially coming in as lawyers.

I attended the morning workshop on the future of workers’ rights and broader issues around prioritizing capital over people. In the discussions that followed, one of the attendees, a practicing attorney working on social justice issues, raised the question of how to advocate for a group without overstepping your role. The session ended before the conversation could go into greater depth, but it left me reflecting on a two-part question: how do you avoid overstepping your role with regard to your legal obligations as a lawyer, and how do you avoid overstepping your role with regard to the movement?

One of the big takeaways from the lunchtime keynote address by Phillip Agnew, the young executive director and co-founder of the Dream Defenders, was need to re-evaluate our use of the word “solidarity.” While linguists have varying interpretations of the history of the word, they generally point to a legally-binding shared assumption of debt. In the context of social justice lawyering, that means a commitment beyond a few pro bono hours. Agnew suggested that we see the word beyond catchy progressive T-shirts and to apply it in a way that embraces its history, in which someone would stand up and officially offer to assume debt alongside the debtor, truly sharing the burden. He emphasized the concept of binding together the liberation of both parties, as distinguished from simply “helping.”

In an afternoon skills-based workshop on movement lawyering, we engaged in discussions on the role of a lawyer through the lens of an organizational theory of social change. The workshop introduced a framework that allows legal advocates to assist in strengthening the base of power of the communities to help them achieve social change. We discussed how lawyers need to be aware of the many privileges they bring into any given situation, including race, gender, class, and the privilege that a law degree itself brings. Lawyers are often not the object of the oppression or injustice, and do not face it in the same way as the people they are working with. Even with the best intentions, a lawyer’s role is understandably not always highly regarded, and their involvement can sometimes make a situation worse. We left the workshop with the instruction to always remember that it is the clients, the actors in the movement, to whom we as activist lawyers are accountable.

The final keynote address by singer and social activist Harry Belafonte showed us that being part of a movement for social justice is a lifelong commitment. Pushing 90, he is still an active activist. Well aware that this is the time of his life where perhaps he should be settling down, reflecting, he said that he just can’t, there is still too much to do. He also emphasized, and has demonstrated in his long career, that issues can be raised in many creative ways.

As a new lawyer, theoretical and practical guidance and support is immeasurably helpful to me. Many of us are not ourselves the objects of oppression. I am amazed daily by the community leaders and activists who I have the opportunity to meet and learn from while at ERI, who have faced the real risks and continue to fight. Even when we see injustice and want to help stop it, we need to be fully aware of the whole situation, including our place in it and what we might bring to it, both good and bad. Clients are not dependent on us; we are not “helping” them. Rather, we are standing beside them, offering what skills we may have that they may need, to work together to fight for social change.

 

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