What’s in your hands to make a difference in the world? I explore this question in the classroom with my law students. We have discovered that in our hands we have the power to lead social change. This type of transformative power is needed now more than ever to address the social challenges of our time. Social justice issues in the twenty-first century are pervasive and far reaching, as evidenced by the ever-widening income gap and expanding access-to-justice gap. But there is hope. As lawyers, we can use our legal training as a force for promoting the common good.
Lawyers have always served as gatekeepers of justice by wielding their legal skills as a tool to exercise servant leadership and further social justice advocacy. As a professor, my work has focused on training the next generation of lawyers to assume this gatekeeper role by becoming social engineers who create new inroads to justice and freedom.
One such example is our work in addressing the high costs of prison phone calls. Prisons negotiate contracts with private companies for phone services and in return prisons earn commissions on each call. This results in prison phone calls being charged at an exorbitant rate; in some states a 15-minute collect call can cost more than $17. A phone call is a “lifeline” for families as offenders are on average imprisoned 100 miles from home. It is also a vital source of communication for the 2.7 million children who have an incarcerated parent. However, the cost associated with prison phone calls serves as an active barrier to communication. Our students conducted research on how families are impacted by the high costs of prison phone calls and offered recommendations for change. Through our advocacy in partnership with families, community agencies, and lawyers across the nation, there has been a change in federal policies. The Federal Communications Commission has placed a cap on the high cost of interstate calls.
We also fought to create equal access to jobs for the one in four Americans who have a criminal record. Oftentimes, when one simply checks a box on a job application indicating that one has a criminal record or has been arrested, the window of opportunity for securing employment is abruptly closed shut. Something had to be done to create new pathways to employment for all. My students and I recognized being gainfully employed is the foundation for building strong families and communities. A job is key to unlocking the power of self-determination, unveiling human capital, and supporting full participation in the economy. Our efforts helped to raise public awareness about the challenges community members face when re-entering society and the need to promote policy reform by “banning the box.”
My experience advocating for social justice and teaching leadership has led to the development of a leadership framework, “Planting People, Growing Justice.” I conducted research on the role of lawyers in social change movements. I interviewed four civil right attorneys: Bonnie Allen, who trains public interest lawyers; Edgar Cahn, who created the blueprint for the Legal Services Corp. and founded TimeBanks USA; Nekima Levy-Pounds, creator of the Community Justice Project; and john a. powell, founder of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. My research question explored the leadership characteristics of transformational lawyers and the tools they use to build and sustain social change. The findings of my research laid the foundation for the theory of “Planting People, Growing Justice” and development of a new, innovative leadership curriculum.
Planting people is an organic process that yields a great harvest over time. It starts from the ground up as a seed is planted until it takes root. This seed represents resistance against marginalization and oppression in order to further the cause of social justice. The seed also signifies a partnership between lawyers and community stakeholders. Together, they are able to build a shared vision of a just society and engage in community building. Growing justice is the materialization of planting people. Collectively, community members around the world are applying these principles to bring their vision of justice to fruition.
My leadership curriculum focuses on how to build your own leadership platform; how to create communities based on a shared vision of justice; and how to plant seeds to empower future leaders. The core text is The Lawyer as Leader: How to Plant People and Grow Justice (ABA, 2014), which provides those who are passionate about social justice with a blueprint for leading social change. The book offers inspiration, ideas, and tools to build and lead coalitions to fight for social and economic justice.
The notion of giving back is beckoning lawyers to assume a leadership role in advancing social change through pro bono, public service, and community service. My students and I have answered the call. Will you, too, join us in the struggle for justice?