Since graduating from UC Berkeley School of Law in 2006 and until March 30, 2012, Purvi Shah was an attorney with Florida Legal Services' Community Justice Project in Miami and codirector of the Community Lawyering Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law. She now directs the Center for Constituional Rights' new Social Justice Institute, for community and movement lawyering training, in New York City. Shah wrote for the November–December 2011 Clearinghouse Review; see her Left High and Dry: Water Utility Shutoffs and Tenants in Foreclosed Properties.”
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
I support two local community organizations in their campaign to fight the foreclosure crisis in Miami’s low-income neighborhoods. Together we combine legal advice and representation, know-your-rights training, and legislative advocacy with organizing. As opposed to traditional legal advocacy, which often serves to atomize disputes, working with organizers to bring together families facing foreclosure is powerful. Through organizing, families who once thought they were alone gain courage to fight back after they realize that hundreds of others in the same situation are willing to take a stand. Nothing is more exciting than to see people shake off the shame and isolation that leaves so many feeling powerless and disconnected, as they begin to feel the power of collective action.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as causing particular anxiety? Why?
It’s the same work that gives me satisfaction. The scope of the foreclosure crisis in Florida is immense. While we work with organizers to maximize the impact of our legal services, most foreclosure defense attorneys in Miami don’t engage in community-based legal work. They’re spread out; many defend cases against the same foreclosing plaintiffs, but each does so alone and without any systemic or structural focus. So a primary aspect of our work is building a bridge between community organizations and the legal community. In fact, one of the biggest successes of this campaign so far has been that Legal Services of Greater Miami has become a core partner to this campaign and is working side-by-side with the organizers.
If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?
Nothing is more exciting than to see people shake off the shame and isolation that leaves so many feeling powerless and disconnected, as they begin to feel the power of collective action.
I firmly believe in the community lawyering approach, where lawyers and organizers work collaboratively to address the root cause of injustice. If I had more power I would deepen the institutional commitment to community lawyering at legal services programs. For me, joining forces with organizers is not just a personal preference; it’s a pragmatic necessity in a world with dwindling resources for legal services. Our programs no longer have the ability to represent each person coming through our doors. If that’s the case, then we need to start engaging in systemic advocacy to both build the power of communities to defend themselves and start chipping away at the root causes of injustice.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
I am a science fiction junkie. This year, my favorite book was the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
Much of your work is at the intersection of legal advocacy and community organizing. What differences, if any, do you perceive in the two approaches?
Many of the classic conflicts between organizers and lawyers can be attributed to differing theories of social change, of why our world is the way it is. Some lawyers believe that if every poor person had a lawyer, the courts would administer a just result. Others believe systemic social change can result from carefully targeted class actions. Both these models assume the legal system is inherently just—that if you can simply have a lawyer, or have the right case argued to the right judge, justice will prevail. Another view is that poverty stems from failure of social and other support services, including legal services, to “cure” what is “wrong” with individual poor people. We believe our clients’ poverty is a symptom of the larger disease of systemic oppression and conscious inequality. As a result, we use legal advocacy to build the power of organized communities to advocate for themselves. In this model, rather than saviors or gatekeepers, lawyers are tacticians in the struggle for change.