US Legal Empowerment Leadership Course

We held the first ever U.S. Legal Empowerment Leadership Course!

group of 50 people smiling and raising their arms together

A collective of 50 legal empowerment practitioners from across the country gathered in Santa Cruz county, California for the inaugural U.S. Legal Empowerment Leadership Course. Over the course of five days, a cohort of organizers, lawyers, and researchers explored the role of legal empowerment in advancing  community-centered justice through a mix of case studies, skill sessions, and small working groups. These sessions were built off learnings from a powerful global movement, and spanned topics such as Community-Driven LitigationPower Mapping and OrganizingCommunity Centered Legal Ethics and Role of Community Paralegals in Advancing Justice. During the week, participants gained the tools to learn and use legal empowerment, built deep connections with each other rooted in care and community, and explored actions to advance the movement such as reforming legal ethics laws, among others. 

Participants left the sessions feeling part of a broad ecosystem. They shared that they felt:

  • "inspired, and better equipped to continue their grassroots justice work.
  • One participant noted, “Legal systems have been intimidating to our communities and I have felt powerless. This course gave me back my power and my voice." 
  • Another participant shared that they "learned different strategies in using legal empowerment and how to deal with oppressive systems in different issues. It has opened my eyes and imaginations". 
  • Others shared that they felt validated to hear articulated so beautifully the vision of a diversity of players in legal work--"something I think is essential and in this space feels achievable," and noted that they “think [their] entire organization could benefit from legal empowerment.

At the Bernstein Institute, we believe that legal empowerment is more than a methodology, it is a way of meaning making and moving through the world. In addition to the 8 co-learning sessions, participants spent time learning and healing through movement. As legal empowerment practitioners we are not exempt from the harms of the system. Many of us actively experience the trauma and pain inflicted by the very structures we are working to dismantle. We recognize that collective care, wellness and relationship building are necessary aspects of legal empowerment. We offered a range of activities throughout the week including guided meditation, yoga, group hikes, and crafts. It was in these moments of human connection that relationships were fostered and our cohort became a community.  "I learned that I want to keep meeting this group, that this unity is just starting."

The U.S. Legal Empowerment Leadership Course was a transformative encounter for many. One participant shared how "It opened a new perspective on how to think and imagine legal empowerment" while another asked that we continue to meet, "Can we have a part 2 for this cohort? An opportunity to reconvene and share what we've worked after this course?

We are deeply grateful to our co-organizers at Beyond Legal Aid, the Legal Empowerment Network, and the Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative for making this Course possible. This is just the beginning of what is to come. In the coming year, we will host virtual gatherings with our growing community and support participants as they deepen their legal empowerment practice and advocacy. Stay tuned for more.