Critical Legal Empowerment: Environmental (In)Justice Community Action Workshop

A reflection written by Hailey Corkery

The Author’s Journey

Hailey Corkery

I had never heard the phrase “legal empowerment” until someone mentioned it to me a few months into my first year at NYU Law. Before learning about this framework, I was only exposed to the traditional “lawyer-client relationship” model, which emphasizes the lawyer’s expertise and power to influence the client. This model also often creates tension between the client’s rights to make decisions in their case and the lawyer’s professional responsibility to provide good counsel. Having come to law school to advocate for marginalized communities and hold powerful actors accountable for human rights violations, this paradigm felt counter-intuitive to me. My first year courses insufficiently challenged existing legal norms. Many of my professors and classmates encouraged the acceptance of the law as it stands, and there was an aversion to the students who spoke up about the oppressive nature of some laws that are in place. After months of discomfort with these dynamics in my classes–which led me to question my decision to come to law school–my introduction to the legal empowerment framework was incredibly exciting to me. I truly believe social change comes from community mobilization, and I have always wanted to center my advocacy around this premise; the idea of legal empowerment presented me with tools with which I can strive to accomplish this advocacy without reinforcing repressive systems and inequitable power dynamics.

During my 1L summer, I worked at National Foundation for India, where I collaborated with grassroots activists to develop conflict resolution strategies for community leaders in the Northeast region of India. This experience made me even more sure that working closely with communities on the ground is the best way to seek justice, so I began seeking more opportunities to conduct  work in this way. When the Critical Legal Empowerment Fellowship was announced, I was eager to apply to collaborate with the Bernstein Center, NYU Law Review and community organizers to create a space to discuss legal empowerment strategies and hear from practitioners and activists who employ them.

I am interested in environmental justice because of its inextricable link to social justice and human rights. I applied for the environmental (in)justice workshop as part of a larger pivot in my legal studies; I had just joined a project focused on human rights and climate change in the Caribbean as a part of the Future of Human Rights Practicum and knew I would be interning at EarthRights International for the coming summer, so I was enthusiastic about joining the Environmental Track Team and learning more about the field. The Community Action Workshops The Environmental Track team consisted of myself, Professor Meg Satterthwaite, and our workshop anchors–Jay Monteverde and Kerri Evelyn Harris from Namati. After weeks of planning and strategizing with the team and Tuttleman Fellow Tyler Walton, we conducted three virtual Community Action Workshops. Our goals for the first workshop were to foster a collective understanding of critical legal empowerment within the group and interrogate environmental injustices and the ways our current legal system is equipped to deal with them. For the second workshop, our anchors presented case studies from their own work with Namati to illustrate critical legal empowerment in action. In our final workshop, we facilitated a discussion surrounding actions to redistribute legal power to communities and move towards a healthy and inclusive justice system.

There were a variety of perspectives in the Zoom room; our participants identified themselves as lawyers, practitioners, academics, organizers, community members, and students. Participants also came to the room with different ideas about what legal empowerment and justice look like in practice; for example, some participants discussed needing to make the “lawyer-client relationship” more equitable while others rejected that framework and the term “client” entirely. While this lack of consensus made me nervous at first, it did not hinder the safe space we strived to foster during the workshops. Rather, the diversity of viewpoints added to the richness of discussion.

The “Void”: Unequal Distribution of Knowledge and Power between Lawyers and Communities

Environmental Injustice

In the first workshop, participants interrogated the problems occurring within the environmental justice space. A participant who identified as a student and activist brought up the challenge of the “void…between lawyers and the people who are in these communities that are suffering from those issues of environmental injustice.” They also highlighted the fact that attorneys often do not have time to be on the ground with the communities they are trying to serve, which means that they only have a small idea of what the problems are. This causes community members to have to do a lot of work themselves; many people have to “become the advocate, the lawyer, the litigator, and everything else at one time. [People on the ground] end up having to study the legal issues themselves, which is a long process.”

Another participant agreed, adding that this also creates risk for community members: “In addition, there is the danger that folks in the community often face when we speak out around environmental and other injustices.” These points were an incredible way to kick off the event, as they highlighted the unjust burden placed on impacted communities. Communities know the problem the best, and lawyers keep themselves too far away to learn this expertise. Communities that are marginalized already don't have the time, energy or resources to educate lawyers on the nuances of the problems they are facing, while also trying to learn the law and how to effectively advocate. Lawyers need to do more work to both support the legal education of communities and to reach out to learn and incorporate the community members' experience-based expertise into whatever collaborative strategy is being activated to address injustice.

Jay also talked about the power dynamics involved in lawyering: “It’s an issue of power communities don't have because they don’t have legal knowledge. The legal knowledge is with lawyers and there’s tons of power with that. We need to figure out how that knowledge can be distributed so that it informs the community power building approaches…[to] increase everyone’s ability to participate. And not just be a client and have someone speak for them, but everyone’s ability to be directly engaged and involved. We’re focused on…shifting the legal knowledge to those same communities who don’t have it and are suffering from social disempowerment. Lawyers need to understand that it's not just about getting a case to a resolution and having a final judgment or getting a settlement, but actually about shifting power dynamics.”

Kerri also touched on this, mentioning how “lawyers often swoop in. We all think of superman as great, but he just swoops in and swoops out. We don't want to do this; we want to work actively with the community to create that change, even if we’re the spokespeople in the courtroom. The mindset has to be different than what is taught in law school.” Kerri’s point speaks to the separation between lawyers and communities as well as the value of historical collective memories. The reason “swooping in and out” does not work is because it does not provide an opportunity for the power of communal memory and knowledge to be utilized.

Unjust Systems Need to be Transformed

While reflecting on the challenges mentioned above, one participant highlighted the “importance of lawyers working with marginalized communities in a way that’s supportive. Working with legal empowerment strategies with Indigenous communities has been very humbling because it has really highlighted my lack of power as a lawyer because once you have overcome the challenge of connecting lawyers and communities the system is often not set up to work in favor of that collaboration.” This reflection stressed a crucial point–knowledge transfer is not the end-all-be-all. While this strategy can allow practitioners to give power to the people to combat the injustices they face, oppressive systems and unjust laws will always continue to be roadblocks to progress. Because of this, lawyers and the communities they partner with need to be creative about how to overcome systemic hurdles to seek justice.

Centering Black and Indigenous Communities

Practitioners in the room also brought up the issues people on the ground face within the particular contexts they work in, which brought the connection between environmental justice, land, Black communities, and Indigenous communities to the conversation. One lawyer discussed their experience working with Indigenous communities in Guyana. They told us about the challenges they grappled with, including the power imbalance between marginalized communities and extractive industries as well as the ways impacted communities are not given opportunities to participate in systems that affect their lives and are not granted access to education and legal skills.

Another practitioner brought up their experience working on environmental injustices in Southern Maryland. In this region, Black farmers are often displaced from their property. These communities also face the dangerous, misguided presence of law enforcement and local governments as well as corrupt legal counsel. These issues make it hard for those seeking justice to make headway. Additionally, displacement often takes place around sacred burial grounds, both in Black and Indigenous communities. Another lawyer then talked about how when lawyers go into Indigenous communities and take the approach that “this is what the law says, and this is what we need to do,” they “forget these communities’ historical collective memory.” They then emphasized the need for practitioners who enter these communities to learn and help communities preserve their historical memory.

These details asserted an essential consideration for practitioners tackling environmental challenges–the inextricable connection between environmental justice and the rights of Black and Indigenous communities. Environmental justice is “decidedly race-conscious and aims to address the disproportionate burden of pollution placed on Black, Indigenous, people-of-color (“BIPOC”) communities and low-income communities and, in turn to ensure that the benefits of clean air and fresh water are also available to all without regard to race, nationality, or income.”[1]

Additionally, Indigenous groups have ancestral beliefs and practices that reflect their special relationship with the Earth. Colonialism has not only suppressed these traditions, but has also perpetuated environmental damage. Because of this, as well as Indigenous peoples’ leadership in the protection of the Earth, BIPOC communities and their rights must be centered in environmental advocacy.

Case Studies from Namati

In the second workshop, Jay and Kerri told the group about the legal empowerment strategies Namati is implementing in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. They especially highlighted the work Namati is doing in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Buzzard Point, in Washington, D.C, the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore, MD, and Sussex County, Delaware. In all of these places, pollution is causing residents to develop health complications, including cancer and respiratory issues. This presentation of Namati’s work highlighted three key takeaways: the power of bringing legal knowledge to impacted communities, the need for practitioners to use their privilege to put themselves in risky positions marginalized individuals cannot afford to, and the importance of building trust.

Utilizing Legal Knowledge and Practitioners’ Privilege

Namati is organizing a Complaint Campaign, in which they work closely with community organizers who know the residents to submit complaints to regulators. This, Jay said, is a “prime example of bringing legal knowledge to communities and working with them so they can directly use it and can leverage legal and regulatory ‘magic words’ to create a community body of evidence of environmental harms.”

In Sussex County, there is a biogas facility that is unhealthy for the community. The facility, however, took attention away from the negative effects through greenwashing. According to Kerri, “this is where legal empowerment and community comes into play. [The community] knew the regulations and procedures [which] allowed them to write up a stay, [which caused] more community members to find out about it and they were able to push back. That is the power of people, that is the power of having the conversation and figuring out how to use the law to the benefit of those who need it the most.” These two examples illustrate the force of legal knowledge and how, when it is granted to communities who are the most familiar with the issues at hand, it can be powerfully wielded to fight injustice.

Namati’s work in the mid-Atlantic also shows how practitioners need to use their privilege to protect marginalized communities. Kerri stated: “In Delaware specifically there are many things lawyers will not do because they are afraid of certain actors, like the poultry industry, so we need trained activists who will stand shoulder to shoulder with the community and will put themselves on the line.” Though practitioners may be afraid of powerful institutions because of potential risks to career and reputation, these possibilities are much less dire than the ones the marginalized folks involved face; activism is often dangerous to the livelihoods of these communities. Because of this, practitioners who work with these groups need to be willing to use their privilege and stand in solidarity with the communities they are advocating for.

Building Trust

During the discussion of Namati’s presence in the mid-Atlantic, Kerri also highlighted the importance of relation building for this type of work: “When you’re working with communities, especially the most impacted communities, there is constantly somebody coming in trying to save them. There is a sense that people are always coming in with these great ideas and then there’s no follow through. There is this feeling that they will be tokenized. So you need to let everybody know that you support them and you care about the impacted souls of this community. Setting yourself apart as an individual, or as an organization is so important because people need to see you as part of the community. And without that trust it is hard to move people to action.” This point is crucial–when working with marginalized communities, especially on issues that are often sensitive and personal, trust is essential to make folks comfortable enough to stand up to the injustices they face.

In Curtis Bay, for example, there are coal piles scattered all over the community. When Namati practitioners asked residents if they had any concerns about them, they said “we’ve never really thought about it, they’ve been there our whole lives.” However, these piles have negative impacts on health like leukemia. Since people do not connect the coal to these health impacts, “building that trust and showing up regularly is so important. That allows us to teach more techniques like how to have a complaint campaign, how to learn about regulations and procedures that will help them advance their causes.”

A core tenant of legal empowerment, as exemplified by these case studies, is the dismantling of the legal profession’s monopoly of the law. When legal knowledge is distributed to communities, these groups are given agency to tackle the injustices they face. However, legal practitioners must simultaneously leverage their privilege to lessen the burden on the people they are advocating for by, as Kerri put it, “standing shoulder to shoulder with the community.” Additionally, because of the risk many face by speaking out about injustice, lawyers must build trust with the communities they are working with.

Imagining an Equitable Future

In the third workshop, we initiated the discussion by asking participants what their “theory of change” is. A community organizer responded first, saying that “social change starts with community and your smallest concentric circle and thinking about who you can touch and what you can change in your immediate surroundings. Ideally that would need to exist outside of these dominant status-quo legal spaces that will normatively uphold systems of oppression, so you do that work, community build, you build up your collective action, your movement spaces, you build a vision for the future you want to create and start working towards that.” To me, this participant beautifully laid out the importance of starting with individual relationships and then moving towards mobilizing and organizing to build community cohesion, eventually creating a web of activated relationships.

The organizer continued by saying: “But I think once you get loud enough and successful enough these dominant systems will notice you and there will be this interface where they will try to stomp you out. So I think that existing independently of dominant legal and political structures…I don't know if that is entirely possible…you have to think about how you're changing the laws and the people in power so that those spaces also reflect your vision for the future.” This reflection did an incredible job of highlighting how one can utilize their web of relationships to establish alternate institutions that are safe, responsive, representative, equitable and effective. Because of the influence that the legal system has over our lives, these processes of building networks and establishing alternative institutions are where community legal education is really essential.

Another activist said: “When I think about community, I think of my own community, the Black community and Black diaspora. I’m thinking about communities that we have historically established to operate outside of systems and what organizational strategy within most communities look like…I think when we look at that today that calls for really going back to some of our ancestral wisdom and traditions when it comes to legal empowerment and mediation…what did it look like in our communities to lift those issues from an empowered standpoint of ourselves as a community? What does it look like to have folks disenfranchised at the center of this theory of change? To me, it looks like political, communal, and legal education to our folks. And it looks like asking ourselves: What are some of our nontraditional models of leadership? And what do those look like to bring them into the larger space for the community? The wisdom of folks really connected to the earth, the wisdom of the earth itself, the wisdom of farmers, the wisdom of seasons, and the wisdom of our healing in our spiritual tradition–those are important things that shouldn't be seen outside of legal empowerment.” This participant’s reflections shed light on how investing into the leaders of alternate institutions with the power of community and, through these leaders, engaging in the "traditional" legal structures can be used to combat injustice. They also stress the importance of continued relational accountability between movement leaders and the larger community that they are being upheld by.

Kerri then made a crucial point: “It is important to remember that when intentionally reaching out to communities and involving them in the change we’re working to create, we can't assume they are ready to do it. A lot of people, especially in the most impacted communities, have had their sense of self broken or diminished and this comes up time and time again. Someone can be ‘well-educated,’ someone can be a leader in their community, but when you meet with them one-on-one, there's hesitancy to take the next step. And part of our work needs to be the intentional rebuilding of the individual from the community, especially in communities of color. There is that feeling of ‘am I really supposed to be in this room? Do they really want to hear what I have to say? Am I qualified to be a representative of my community?’ We need to remind people that the power that is in them is important.” As legal empowerment strategies aim to center communities, practitioners must keep in mind how members may be hesitant to act and never coerce their participation in seeking justice. Rather, as Kerri stated, advocates can encourage individuals by reminding them of their power to enact change if they choose to.

The group then mulled over challenges to moving forward. A community organizer stated: “I think there seems to be a conflict between the speed in which change needs to happen on the climate side, the urgency that warrants, and moving at the speed of trust with the communities you're trying to engage with…being willing to meet communities where they are, build that trust, and move at their pace. And I’m kind of struggling with that because we need to have reduced our greenhouse emissions dramatically like a decade ago. So I'm thinking–how do you strike a balance and bring communities along and not rush the process? Because the sense of urgency in this very productivity-oriented world definitely leads to burnout. So I’m just thinking about that kind of conflict that seems to be occurring and how to track a balance there.” This is an issue I personally struggle with–when thinking about how to best engage with communities impacted by environmental injustices, I have a hard time figuring out how to balance the urgency of climate change with respect for impacted folks’ pace and capacity. The possible delays entailed in community-centered approaches might also be an argument for not using legal empowerment strategies when climate is involved.

Jay addressed this concern: “ I don't know that I have a good answer to that question of finding that balance with the exception of one piece; by trying to rush in the name of urgency without moving at the speed of trust, you end up with similar dynamics to how mainstream nonprofits interact with and impact the community…you end up repeating those sorts of patterns and you start to look like the things you wanted to be different from.” This is a vital point–while environmental crises warrant swift action, bypassing the trust-building phase that legal empowerment requires will only reinforce inequitable dynamics between “professionals” and communities. To me, while trying to strike a balance in pace is crucial when it comes to addressing environmental injustice, acting without a robust foundation of trust is counter-productive. I anticipate that this balance is something I will struggle with throughout my career, but I will strive to remind myself of the importance of trust and collaboration in these moments.

Jay also noted that “climate change is related to these deeper systems of oppression and historical centuries-long phenomena and solving it alone is not going to address those other things and can just perpetuate those same problems.” This idea is absolutely essential–environmental injustices are inherently intertwined with oppressive systems of racism, sexism, colonialism, classism, and ableism. If these are not acknowledged and combatted alongside environmental harms, no progress will be made towards environmental justice. While equitable, consensus building processes are not the most efficient, they are necessary; disproportionate harm is caused when efficiency is valued over fair distribution of cost.

While the group spent a lot of time during the workshops grappling with obstacles to environmental justice, the three events overall gave me a great sense of hope. These conversations highlighted tools that can be utilized to fight inequities imposed on communities–both by environmental injustices and legal entities who claim to be combating them. In addition to this, the workshops reminded me that there are many incredible lawyers, activists, students, and academics who are all working towards a more equitable world through community-centered approaches. As a law student and future practitioner, this experience has inspired me to think of myself as a “collaborator” rather than an “expert,” always center communities in my practice, and strive to redistribute legal power. The workshops were also a reminder of how much hard work has to go into ensuring the processes for addressing injustices are equitable. While this is admittedly daunting, the rich discussions I witnessed confirmed for me that the labor is beyond worth it–community-oriented strategies do make a difference. Traditional lawyering frameworks and dominant legal systems seem to be pervasive, which can be overwhelming and make efforts like these feel fruitless. However, Kerri ended the second workshop in a very powerful way that will always stick with me when I feel hopeless: “We always think of the Civil Rights Movement as this incredible moment in history, but only 8% of Black people in the U.S. supported the Civil Rights movement at the time, meaning there was an even smaller number of supporters across racial groups. You only need a small amount of people doing this work to create impactful change; get 10% of your community to strive for change and you can make so much happen.”

[1] Marianne Engelman Lado & Kenneth Rumelt, Pipeline Struggles: Case Studies in Ground Up Lawyering, 45 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 377 (2021).