The Power of Community Lawyering to Make Real Change, Even During a Pandemic

How Washington State Advocates Navigated Early Days of COVID-19 to Uplift and Partner with Communities

Real change in the fight for economic and racial justice always stems from community action. Effective advocates garner and activate issues identified by the communities they serve. Advocates must build strong relationships with community members and work alongside community groups to enhance impacted individuals’ power to make change. This is community lawyering.

Community lawyering is integral to the advocacy practice at Columbia Legal Services (CLS), a legal services provider in Washington State that is focused on building its community’s collective power. CLS’s approach requires near constant interaction and relationship-building with various community groups, organizers, and people impacted by the effects of poverty and racism. This includes regular meetings with agricultural workers, unions, and other advocates for farmworker justice in rural areas, as well as visits to prisons, and other weekly in-person meetings with prisoner rights’ advocates and partners.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged CLS’s community-led movement lawyering and systemic approach to advocacy. In the early days of the pandemic, Washington State, in particular Seattle, was a hot spot for the virus. As the virus spread across the country, outbreaks were closely linked to spaces where people are not able to socially distance. Moreover, it became clear that America’s legacy of structural racism would lead to higher infection rates in Black and Latinx communities. CLS Deputy Director of Advocacy Nick Allen and his team knew early on that their incarcerated and farmworker clients were at risk due to their living and/or working conditions.

“Needless to say, the interactions we were used to having with our clients and community groups became impossible almost overnight,” said Nick, also an alumnus of the Shriver Center’s Racial Justice Institute. In the face of the pandemic, when close human interaction has dangerous consequences, Nick and his CLS colleagues decided that they had to come up with a new model for meaningful community lawyering. “I have been amazed at how quickly and effectively our communities and CLS have adapted to make certain that we continue to work in support of community movements to protect people who are incarcerated and immigrant populations,” he continued.

CLS has taken several steps to sustain a community lawyering approach during COVID-19, including:

  • Rejecting “Social” Distancing for Physical Distancing. The goal is to increase the distance individuals have between each other, but not to decrease individuals’ ability to be social with one other. It is critically important to maintain social connections as much as possible. “While we may not have been using this language at CLS to describe how we adapted during COVID-19, we realized that this is the approach we took early to keep connections with the community and our work,” says Nick.
  • Bridging the Technology Gap to Maintain Connections. CLS worked quickly to ensure that both staff and community partners had access to technology and video capabilities from their own homes. “Within a week of being sent home due to the pandemic, we were engaged in regular Zoom meetings with family members of people in prisons, organizers and legal advocates,” says Nick. “We spent time collectively learning about what was going on in the prisons as we heard stories from those impacted. Our IT staff, in coordination with litigation support staff, established a Google phone line to ensure we could continue communications with people in prison to learn about the conditions they face. With this incredible support, we were able to file Colvin v. Inslee, a lawsuit to protect people in prison from exposure to COVID-19, within two weeks of the start of the pandemic in Washington State.”

At the same time, CLS advocates were asked to stand with agricultural workers who faced exposure to dangerous conditions and sought enforceable protections from COVID-19. To meet these workers’ needs, CLS quickly created criteria and guidelines designed to protect staff and community members when engaging in face-to-face advocacy at strikes and community meetings. The guidelines supported CLS advocates in observing employers’ actions, connecting and standing with workers, and taking action to enforce workers’ rights through a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board and two lawsuits seeking worker protections from state agencies.

  • Streamlining Responsibilities and Communication. In the wake of the pandemic, CLS began receiving more than 150 contacts a day from family members concerned about the safety of incarcerated loved ones. CLS understood that clear lines of communication were needed to support a coordinated community-led strategy. Shortly before filing Colvin v. Islee, CLS held a Zoom press conference that included CLS staff and Covid19mutualAID, a new community coalition and organizing group focused on issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Several weeks later, CLS’s partners asked if they could take the lead on updates to this campaign using CLS’s technology. “We were able to provide technical support, an advocate perspective, and other assistance with these events,” says Nick. “In addition to webinars, we created a COVID-19 landing page on our website and created a new weekly mailing to address the inquiries coming from this growing list of stakeholders.”

CLS’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a testament to the importance of a community lawyering approach. Because Nick and his colleagues had worked to establish genuine relationships with community members before the crisis, they were able to respond quickly and effectively to their needs, while sustaining those relationships through the creative use of communications and technology tools. Garner the power of community lawyering to achieve real change in your community. Learn more and register for the Shriver Center’s next Community Lawyering training.

About the Author

Janerick Holmes
Janerick Holmes
Janerick Holmes
Director of the Racial Justice Institute


Nick Allen
Nick Allen
Nick Allen
Policy and Advocacy Director

Group Health Foundation

To receive the latest news and information from the Shriver Center