Legal Empowerment

Photo of women's profiles looking forward

With a rising tide of authoritarianism, and more than 5 billion people understood to be living outside the protection of the law, grassroots movements for justice are more important than ever. Legal empowerment, a growing field of human rights practice, scholarship, and education, empowers affected communities to use the law to find solutions to their justice problems. Legal empowerment takes many forms, from community paralegal programs, to mediation and dispute resolution initiatives, public-financed legal aid services, and law and organizing strategies that marry impact litigation with broad mobilization efforts.

The Bernstein Institute is the only U.S. legal academic center dedicated to advancing research, education, and advocacy on legal empowerment in the United States and globally. We teach law students to act as allies instead of “experts,” and partner with grassroots activists, lawyers, and scholars to think collectively about how to use the law to address structural injustice. A central tenet of the work is the shifting power - with lawyers, organizers, and communities working together to expand access to justice, keeping the community in the lead in defining the justice they seek.


We support and learn from our grassroots partners as they build the power, dignity, and knowledge of impacted communities. We currently have projects in the field of immigration and criminal justice and help to identify, analyze, and work to dismantle legal and regulatory obstacles to legal empowerment; prepare law students to play the role of community partners; and bring research methods to bear on efforts to measure, assess, and evaluate the change our partners are making.

  • The Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative (JLI) is a partnership between the Legal Empowerment and Advocacy Hub (LEAH), a community justice organization founded and directed by Jhody Polk, a formerly incarcerated jailhouse lawyer and the Bernstein Institute. JLI advocates for the legal empowerment of current and former jailhouse lawyers - the process of knowing, using, shaping, and eventually transforming legal systems - as a core strategy to ending the cycle of incarceration and enabling communities to obtain freedom from the inside out. JLI targets three primary areas with its work: building a national network of current and former jailhouse lawyers, co-developing training and curricula that focus on legal education and legal empowerment for currently incarcerated peoples, and supporting justice-impacted individuals to leverage their skills and expertise for opportunities in employment and education post-release. JLI is also working in partnership with the NYU Law's EPIC Prison Teaching Project, to strengthen the legal education curriculum offered to people incarcerated in New York state prisons.  
  • Justice Power, a project that uplifts the work of immigration organizations in the U.S. who partner with communities to know, use, shape, and transform the laws and systems that impact their lives. The work involves the documentation of methods such as, an accessible, interactive website that houses information on the respective models, narrative testimonials from affected communities and resources; Teach-ins to share nuts and bolts of legal empowerment methods to broader immigration services community; Participatory research to advance an evidence base for legal empowerment; and Advocacy to push for a more inclusive, dynamic justice ecosystem which centers communities.
  • 2018's conference, Reimagining Justice: Realizing Human Rights through Legal Empowermentwhich brought together leading human rights activists, lawyers, and scholars from over 25 countries, including Bangladesh, China, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States to assess the state of the legal empowerment field, identify key research and methodological opportunities, and build a stronger global movement for grassroots justice. Speakers shared strategies on using legal empowerment to address some of the most urgent issues of our time - from climate change to the refugee crisis, immigration, mass incarceration, and attacks on women and LGBTQI communities.
  • Co-convening the Legal Empowerment Leadership Course, a five day program dedicated to nurturing knowledge, methodology, and empirical research on legal empowerment with practitioners and academics from all over the globe. A faculty of respected practitioners and academics lead course participants in an in-depth exploration of key themes, including the history of the global movement for legal empowerment, the intersection of legal empowerment and community organizing, and the role of grassroots legal advocates in realizing systemic change or ensuring effective service delivery. The course is a collaboration between the CEU’s School of Public Policy (SPP), Open Society Justice Initiative, Namati, and the Bernstein Institute.
  • Investing in the next generation of human rights lawyers through the placement of a Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellow at a legal empowerment organization.
  • Educational programs for the Law School and broader community on the importance of community-driven justice strategies to advance human rights.


The Institute is also involved in a number of participatory research and learning initiatives aimed at co-creating knowledge about the field of legal empowerment. 

  • In October 2020 we launched the Legal Empowerment Learning Lab, a groundbreaking workshop dedicated to advancing research and learning on legal empowerment with a focus on participatory methods. The Lab opens up democratic forms of inquiry to explore what works, what matters, and what's needed to achieve transformative justice from the grassroots. The Lab features 30 grassroots practitioners and academics from more than 15 countries who bring deep experience and expertise in community-driven justice. From working in Syrian refugee camps in Iraq, to informal settlements in Argentina, rural villages in Zimbabwe and beyond, participants have come together to learn the nuts and bolts of participatory action research. Together they are engaging in collective inquiry, action, and reflection to address some of the most urgent issues of our time—from climate change to the immigrant and refugee crisis, mass incarceration, and attacks on women and LGBTQI communities. 
    • Each session is co-designed and co-presented with a practitioner and an academic, and covers topics spanning Introduction to Participatory Action Research, and  Community-Led Research Design, Participatory Data CollectionAccountability + Ethics, and more. Through the sessions participants are developing their own action-research plans and building a community of practice anchored in legal empowerment and participatory learning.

  • Led by the expertise of those directly impacted, the Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative invests in jailhouse lawyers as a core strategy to ending the cycle of incarceration. Central to the JLI is a national membership of nearly 400 jailhouse lawyers across the country who write regularly to our team and share information about their legal struggles, desire to support their peers with their justice problems, and demands to build a more inclusive and just legal system. Towards that end, we launched a participatory research and advocacy project to identify policy demands articulated by incarcerated jailhouse lawyers with the aim of connecting those policy demands to targeted advocacy campaigns and outside advocacy efforts.
  • We support the building of a collective learning agenda for the field in partnership with Namati. While there are a number of studies documenting the impact of legal empowerment efforts, important gaps remain. More investigation is needed to build a broader evidence base and identify best practices emerging from experimentation across the field.