Melania Chiponda is an African Ecofeminist popular educator and participatory action researcher. She believes that education should be a collective, transformative and empowering process that should raise critical consciousness and enable participants in the learning process to understand the world in a way that is liberating. Melania believes that research processes should be collective, participatory processes that should centre the participants' lived realities and experiences in the co-creation of knowledge. Based on her values and beliefs, Melania has landed herself into enriching spaces that challenge structural injustice, systemic oppression, and extractivism as a development model to rethink, reimagine, and nurture hope. Melania works with the working class, peasant and indigenous women and groups across Africa and worldwide to defend lands and territories, build movements, honour, and produce alternative knowledge that speaks to people's realities. The Legal Empowerment Learning Lab is one of the critical sanctuary spaces that enable participants to share knowledge, educate each other, strengthen each other, communicate amongst themselves and develop narratives that challenge the dominant narratives. Melania is honoured to be part of the Learning Lab's story because together, participants developed some ethical commitments which infuse liberating action into life.
As a first generation Nepali immigrant I was drawn to the law as a tool to advance social change, especially for women. Years later, I was living and working in New Delhi, India at a local human rights organization on reproductive rights issues. It was exhausting, creative work–with legal petitions filed across the country addressing maternal mortality, unsafe abortions, and forced sterilizations. We secured legal “victories” that recognized these violations as human rights violations, and yet, these decisions failed to translate to real changes on the ground. It was clear that our approach was not working. Even though community members–those directly living the injustice–carried generational wisdom, history, and knowledge–they were rarely brought into discussions with lawyers around legal advocacy. That drove us (three women defenders) to co-create an organization dedicated to redistribution of legal power through grassroots legal education and advocacy.
In partnership with indigenous and Dalit women, we helped build collectives of community paralegals in the most unexpected of places. Indigenous women in the tea gardens of Assam and Dalit women in the informal settlements of Delhi were trained on basic laws/rights and skills. Over time they became community paralegals who collected data on human rights violations, filed cases, organized protests, and accompanied community members through their justice problems. Over time we became collaborators who learned to listen, embrace collective problem solving, and translate laws into an accessible language that our community partners could use. We worked in partnership with women leaders to create opportunities to learn, activate, shape, and ultimately transform the laws that impact their lives. And it worked. Through collaborative advocacy, litigation, and organizing—creative, community-rooted solutions emerged that resulted in higher wages, better hospitals, and a moratorium on forced evictions. Crucially, at the center were women who saw themselves
as agents of change.
Many years later, now at the Bernstein Institute I see that what we were doing – what we were practicing was– participatory action research and learning. We were defining and redefining what matters to those directly impacted, building knowledge, and creating opportunities for individual and social transformation. I just never saw it as “research and learning” because that was limited to people in fancy institutions with fancy titles. Well, not anymore. What we are doing at the Lab is disrupting that paradigm, we are actively saying that all of us have critical knowledge to share and learn from and with. The Lab is a space of inclusion, heart, and brilliance–where people from all over the world gather to co-learn and co-dream. Join us.
It is possible that my journey to the Lab began long before I even took my first breath. I was born to a radical mother (who I called édi) who found ways to survive and cultivate joy amidst a tremendous amount of violence in communist Romania. As a very little person, because of my édi, I began to name and think about persecution and poverty and injustice as the dictator starved our community and I began to observe the ways that people resist and love, despite it all. This learning continued in the United States where my family arrived as refugees when I was almost ten years old. In the US, I witnessed the cost of structural and interpersonal injustices on the souls of those I loved and could see how the unjust systems seep into the bones of those that are pushed to the margins yet are forced to labor to tend to all. My trajectory as a participatory action researcher, educator, and activist is rooted in these histories that span across oceans. As a critical social psychologist, I have been asking questions about what it means to refuse dominant narratives and what conditions allow communities to dream up more ethical futures. I had the honor of pursuing these questions in collaboration with individuals labeled as intellectually disabled within a sheltered workshop on the West Coast of the US. I had the gift of pursuing these questions with undergraduate students that the white-supremacist hierarchical structure of the university system was not built for. I am deeply committed to participating in movements that invite everyone to build ethical, just futures, to generate knowledge that reflects who we are and reflects the world we would like to breathe into being. The legal empowerment lab is a uniquely radical community of love. Being able to connect with fierce activists and incredible organizers and brilliant academics from all over the globe in this space stitched from an ethic of care, we get to trace the ways our particular stories- with all their intimate details- tell us about the dynamics that wrap around the whole world. At the Lab, we invite each other into one another’s worlds and are nourished. There is a feeling of home-ness in this community. We are not only talking about issues that can respond to the injustices our communities experience and witness, but we are enacting the very dynamics that can do that. The Legal Empowerment Lab, because of the extraordinary individuals within it, moves at the pace of trust and love opening portals to radical healing and transformative futures.
I teach the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law and gratefully serve as the faculty director of the Bernstein Institute. My first formal human rights commitment was work to convince the mainstream human rights world that LGBTQ+ rights were human rights. Operating under the banner "Love is a Basic Human Right," I coordinated a network of activists inside Amnesty International and directed the organization's first LGBTQ+ human rights campaign in 1994. I decided to attend law school after working at Street Law and then as an investigator with Haiti's national truth and justice commission in 1995.
As a lawyer and teacher, I have worked with formal human rights organizations, UN experts, indigenous groups, and social movements to construct solidarity across vast divides of difference and inequality. The Clinic has worked alongside survivors of US torture and extraordinary rendition, supported communities seeking the rights to water and sanitation, accompanied anti-extractivist movements, and joined in Indigenous-led efforts for land rights. We work in places and spaces where institutions based in the global North—governments, companies, cultural practices and discourses—are actively and directly implicated in human rights violations, and where we bring something of value to the table in efforts led by those directly impacted.
I am thrilled to be a member of the Legal Empowerment Learning Lab, where the work we do to create knowledge with communities is aimed at being itself empowering, creative, and (re)generative.
Aakanksha Badkur is a lawyer, activist, and researcher working with Nazdeek, a legal empowerment organization working with marginalized communities in South Asia towards increasing their access to justice. She has a background in constitutional and public law, human rights, and environmental law, and is passionate about community-led research and action aimed at making systems more inclusive and intersectional.
Antonio is an undocumented queer immigrant working on anti-displacement campaigns in Chicago, Illinois. They are the Strategic Coordinator and co-founder of Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), an undocumented-led organization that empowers undocumented immigrants to resist ICE deportation and detention. Antonio has over seven years of experience in non-profit administration development, is an urban gardener, story-teller and co-founder of the Albany Park Defense Network and the Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU).
Ariadna Michelle Godreau Aubert
Ariadna Godreau-Aubert is a human rights lawyer and the founder and Executive Director of Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, a non-profit organization that offers education, community legal support and advocacy for social impact in Puerto Rico. She has worked in several access to justice initiatives, which include strategic litigation at local and international levels, the use of technology to increase legal literacy, and organizing movements lawyers. Ariadna is also an adjunct professor at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, where she teaches courses on human rights, political theory, and international relations. She’s a writer, with topics spanning human rights, gender, austerity, housing, and the right to protest.
Bethany Carson is a researcher and organizer at Grassroots Leadership, an organization that works for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation, and criminalization are things of the past. Since 2014, she has visited and organized with immigrants in detention centers across Texas through deportation defense, legal accompaniment, and detention closure campaigns. Bethany has authored reports on the role of private prison lobbying in immigration policy and the criminalization of migrants through federal prosecutions.
Bindhu Vijayan joined Beyond Legal Aid in November of 2017 with over a decade of experience in the area of immigration law. Bindhu’s experiences span across both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. After law school, she joined private practices specializing in immigration law. She gained invaluable experience in affirmative immigration matters, as well as defending individuals in removal or deportation proceedings before the Immigration Courts throughout the United States. After joining Beyond Legal Aid, Bindhu is committed to its model that is community-locate, community-collaborative, and community-directed and its mission in changing how lawyers and communities work together.
Carol Anne Spreen
Dr. Carol Anne Spreen is an Associate Professor of International Education in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. Her scholarship brings together interdisciplinary and comparative approaches to examining education policy and practice. Her current research projects address three areas: (1) teachers lives and work, i.e. understanding how international policies and organizations impact teachers and classroom practice; (2) defining educational quality and school achievement beyond standardized tests through a rights-based framework, and; (3) using participatory/action research to study the impact of poverty and inequality on education.
Claudia Muñoz is the Co-Executive Director for Grassroots Leadership, an organization that works with communities across the United States to abolish for-profit private prisons, jails, and detention centers. Born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, she has lived in Texas since 2001. She began to organize with other undocumented youth after her nephew was detained by ICE, helping to secure his release. She has worked for various labor and immigrant rights organizations throughout the country since 2009. She is a graduate of Prairie View A&M University.
Dyari Mustafa works as a project coordinator in Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights in Kurdistan Region, Iraq. He works as a peacebuilder, youth network coordinator, in a dialogue program between the different ethnicities in Iraq, human rights activist, and legal empowerment coordinator in his city, Sulaimani. His range of works are all connected with the, so called, minorities in his community such as the IDPs, Yazidis, Refugees, Christians and so on. He was engaged with the of legal empowerment movement in 2019 when he attended the legal empowerment course in Budapest. From then, he has been working as a Jiyan Foundation’s legal empowerment project with Syrian Refugees in his city. Dyari holds bachelor’s degree in business administration and minor in law from the American university of Iraq, Sulaimani.
Ellie Happel directs the Haiti Project of the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law. She also serves as a Global Justice Clinic Staff Attorney. Since 2013, the Clinic has worked closely with the Kolektif Jistis Min (Mining Justice Collective), a coalition of Haitian human rights and social movement organizations that came together to monitor the development of the extractive industry in Haiti. The collaboration aims to build the power of communities affected by mining to know their rights, access information, generate data, and monitor human rights violations. In addition to the Haiti Project, Ellie co-supervises the Clinic’s Legal Empowerment team which is documenting legal empowerment strategies to increase access to justice for those navigating the U.S. immigration system. Happel lived and worked in Haiti between 2012 and 2017 and returns frequently in connection with her work. Prior to law school she worked in environmental justice and public health in Nicaragua, Peru and Washington, D.C. Happel is a 2011 graduate of NYU School of Law where she was a Root-Tilden-Kern scholar. She holds a B.A. in Metropolitan Studies from New York University.
Erin is the Director of Global Learning and Practice at Namati. Together with her team, she draws on learning about legal empowerment to develop methods for supporting communities to know, use, and shape the law. She works hand in hand with Namati’s country teams to iteratively develop effective strategies for addressing injustices related to health, citizenship, land rights, and environmental justice. Her background brings together experience in community organizing, participatory research, and program design.
Felipe Mesel, born in La Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1992, is the Global Program Associate at Movement Law Lab. He studied laws at the National University of La Plata and completed his degree in 2015. He taught three courses in the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences: Political Rights, Introduction to Sociology and Introduction to Social Sciences, this last one for law students who are imprisoned. He is a lawyer specialized in Socio-legal Studies of Urban Land by the National University Autónoma of México (UNAM) and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and he is doing his Master in Urban Economy by University Tortcuato Di Tella. Professor at the UNLP School of Law in the seminar “Critical Legal Studies and Community Lawyering” and member of the international research networks CLACSO and Contested Territories. He is an advisor on housing issues for the Ombudsman of the City of Buenos Aires, and currently he works as a lawyer and researcher in the Right to the City Area, for the Civil Association for Equality and Justice (ACIJ, a CSO based in Buenos Aires), in an action-research project financed by IDRC called "Challenging urban segregation in large Latin American cities: Community legal empowerment and access to justice". The project aims to identify and analyze the use of legal tools and the practices of legal empowerment driven by communities regarding situations of socio-urban segregation in informal settlements of Buenos Aires (Argentina), La Paz (Bolivia) and Quito (Ecuador).
Francesca Feruglio is a human rights researcher, trainer and activist. Currently she is the Coordinator of the Working Group on Monitoring of the International Network on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. In addition, she develops legal education programs focusing on housing and welfare rights in England for Law for Life, the foundation for Public Legal Education. Francesca also co-founded Nazdeek, a legal empowerment organization in India. She has been involved in research, advocacy and capacity building with grassroots groups, international NGOs and academic institutions and focuses on socioeconomic rights and issues around citizens’ participation in democratic governance.
Gabrielle co-supervises the Global Justice Clinic’s projects on Haiti Justice & International Accountability and Torture, Rendition, and Detention. She previously served as Managing Attorney at The Door: A Center for Alternatives, where she represented young people in immigration and family law matters. While at The Door, Gabrielle expanded services for Francophone immigrants and became a New York Community Trust Leadership Fellow. As a student, Gabrielle earned a Ford Foundation Public Interest Law Fellowship to work with Conectas in Brazil in 2013, documenting human rights violations of Haitian migrants en route to Brazil. Prior to law school, Gabrielle worked at the United Nations Office of the Special Envoy to Haiti as a research specialist.
Jhody is the Founder and Director of the Legal Empowerment and Advocacy Hub (LEAH), a grassroots organization dedicated to growing legal empowerment in the US through the Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative. Jhody is a 2018 Soros Justice Fellow and formerly incarcerated Jailhouse Lawyer. She has worked as a central Florida organizer on Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to over 1.4 million Floridians with felony convictions and is the founder of the Florida Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. In 2019 Jhody received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award and the Peacebuilder of the Year award. She is a proud Mother, community peacebuilder, defender of Justice and Black Woman, and aspires to become a certified license human rights attorney and teacher of the law.
Luciana is manager in the Legal Empowerment Network, convened by Namati. She works with network members in Latin America, building collectively a learning and action agenda, and also participates in global research projects on legal empowerment in informal settlements and gender justice. She is a Human Rights lawyer from Argentina, with a Law degree from Universidad de Buenos Aires, a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Development from Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (UPC), MS in International Affairs and Development from the New School (USA).
Lucy Claridge is Senior Counsel & Head of the Strategic Legal Response Centre at Forest Peoples’ Programme, a human rights organisation working with forest peoples across the globe to secure their rights to their lands and their livelihoods. Prior to joining FPP, Lucy was Director of Strategic Litigation at Amnesty International, litigating and advocating human rights issues before international, regional and domestic bodies. She has also worked as Legal Director at Minority Rights Group International, focusing on strategic litigation, advocacy and capacity building to improve access to justice for minority and indigenous communities worldwide.
María Elena Torre
María Elena Torre is the Director and co-founder of The Public Science Project at the CUNY Graduate Center. For the last 15 years she has been engaged in critical participatory action research projects nationally and internationally with schools, prisons, and community-based organizations seeking to further social justice. Her work introduced the concept of ‘participatory contact zones’ to collaborative research, and she continues to be interested in how democratic methodologies, radical inclusion, and notions of solidarity impact scientific inquiry. Before becoming director of The Public Science Project, Dr. Torre was Chair of Education Studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts.
Matthew is senior program officer for Access to Justice at the American Bar Foundation (ABF). Prior to joining the ABF, Matthew was senior policy officer for legal empowerment at the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), a program of the Open Society Foundations. His work included leading OSJI’s migrants’ equality project, supporting OSF partners in Puerto Rico on housing justice and displacement, providing technical assistance and field building support to legal empowerment efforts by OSF regional and national foundations in the US, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, and global advocacy and coordination on civil access to justice and Sustainable Development Goal 16.3. Prior to his work with the Open Society Foundations, Burnett helped to launch the Immigration Advocates Network, a groundbreaking collaboration between leading national immigrants’ rights organizations in the US, where he served first as associate director from 2007-2011 and then as director from 2011-2017.
Michelle Fine is a Distinguished Professor of Critical Psychology, Women’s Studies, American Studies, and Urban Education at the Graduate Center and a founding faculty member of The Public Science Project. A critical scholar and activist committed to critical participatory action research, Michelle works with communities under siege to document counter stories for policy and organizing. Her scholarship addresses racial and gender justice in schools, the carceral state and youth organizing. Recent book, Just Research in Contentious Times (Teachers College Press).
Noor Muhsin Ali
Noor is a practicing lawyer working at the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan Region of Iraq. She provides legal information and advice, including court representation, to victims of ill-treatment, persecution and gender-based violence. Her clients are usually single, divorced or widowed women without source of income, female and juvenile prisoners, IDPs, refugees as well as the survivors of atrocity crimes committed by the so-called Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. Noor graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Human Development in Sulaymaniyah in 2014.
Poorvi Chitalkar is a Learning Agenda Specialist at Namati. In this role, she leads efforts to drive collective and comparative learning amongst practitioners in the legal empowerment field. The learning agenda aims to address knowledge gaps by focusing the efforts of hundreds of organizations on a set of common questions and create space for practitioners to come together, reflect and generate ideas for innovation. Prior to Namati, Poorvi worked at the Global Centre for Pluralism (Canada), where she led research on the sources of inclusion and exclusion in diverse societies around the world. Poorvi has also worked at the International Development Research Centre (Canada), the Ombudsman of Ontario and practiced law at the Bombay High Court (India). Poorvi lives in Washington, DC.
Sabrina Dycus is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at NYU. Her research interests are in law and society, sociology of knowledge, and social theory. Sabrina uses qualitative and quantitative methods to study how courts respond to the introduction of new adjudicatory techniques, such as the rollout of videoconference technology in immigration courts. She also uses qualitative methods to explore how administrative adjudicatory bodies operate as sites of state penal control and how pro se litigants, particularly pro se litigants who are incarcerated, develop legal expertise. Sabrina is a licensed attorney and holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and an M.P.A. from the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. Before beginning her doctoral program, Sabrina was in private practice.
Shreya Sen is a feminist researcher and activist, deeply invested in issues around gender, childhood, sexuality, violence, health and education. Shreya advocates for structural and systemic changes in various Institutions, through training, research and resource building, to make them more diverse, inclusive and easily accessible to marginalized communities. She is a part of various autonomous activist collectives, both online and offline, that aim to build stronger support networks for people looking for safe spaces. Shreya preaches and tries to practice the motto “nothing about us, without us”. She believes that the only legitimate form of social justice and development work is one that is intersectional, participatory and works “with” people, rather than “for” them.
Tim Kakuru is the Director of Programs and Impact at BarefootLaw.. He specializes in innovating upon ways of providing legal services to the end of making access to justice available for all. He is enthusiastic about the untapped potential in underprivileged groups and societies and how they can be supported to rise as humanity enters into a more digital and cyber-connected world. He has over ten years of experience working for social betterment causes from his days as a law student; and believes deeply in the power of applied knowledge and the potential of citizens to improve their livelihoods given the knowledge of the laws that affect them. He is also a co-founder of SEMA (which is working to create a worldwide revolution in public service; that citizen feedback becomes central to how governments improve their service delivery) and an advisor to Serving Up Hope, a startup on a mission to provide sustainable tennis programs for underprivileged children around the world, improving social, physical well-being and self-esteem.
Tom Weerachat is a native of Chiang Mai, Thailand where he currently works as Asia-Pacific Program Coordinator for International Accountability Project. Tom is a community trainer, a teacher, a traveler, and a Mekong activist. He supports local communities and civil society groups to promote their right to information and meaningful participation and to ensure development is designed and lived by the same people. Tom has years of experience working with local communities on community-led research and advocacy in Southeast and South Asia. Tom has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Chiang Mai University.
Tyler is a Tuttleman Project Attorney with the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at NYU School of Law. He also serves as a Supervising Attorney with the Global Justice Clinic’s project supporting the Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative. He works on legal empowerment, researching and co-developing strategies with affected community members to access and exercise their rights and shift power paradigms back towards communities and individuals. Prior to joining the Bernstein Institute, Tyler was a fellow at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre where he led the program on freedom of expression, working to combat closing civic spaces in southern Africa and address new human rights issues caused by the rise of the Internet and digital technologies. He also served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi developing participatory community health programs to advance gender equality, access to safe drinking water, and HIV prevention and mitigation.