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Community lawyering in the Miami Valley

Man and woman shaking hands.
Flazingo Photos
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Flickr Creative Commons

Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, also known as ABLE, is a non-profit Dayton law firm that provides free legal assistance to low-income individuals and groups seeking equal justice and economic opportunity Katie Kersh is a senior attorney and project director with ABLE. She recently co-authored an article published in the University of Illinois Chicago Law Review about using community lawyering as a means of addressing inequity issues more effectively than traditional litigation. In an interview with WYSO’s Mike Frazier, she explains the concept of Community Lawyering and how it has been applied in the Miami Valley.

Community lawyering is where the lawyer, the attorney, plays a supporting role, working with client communities on community-identified problems. The community groups are better positioned to identify the root causes of a lot of these legal issues that they're having. And so the lawyer works with the community group to support the advocacy that they've identified, to present legal solutions that the community then selects, and to support the community through campaigns and some other potentially legal means. 

 So does that mean you play sort of an advisory role in actions that community groups can take to accomplish what they want?

Yes, that's exactly what that means. A community lawyering framework involves meeting with a community group, presenting potentially different solutions, having that community group choose a solution, and then the lawyer allows that community group to make their own decision about which solution they would like. One of the examples that we talk about in the article is advocacy that [ABLE attorney] Ellis Jacobs and I have been working on with a community coalition called the Coalition on Public Protection. They're centered on community activism around policing in Dayton. Specifically right now, they're focusing on surveillance technology and oversight of surveillance technology purchases and expansions by the police department. They decided they wanted to promote or advocate for an ordinance that would regulate surveillance technology, that also would address the larger issue of community input, community participation in decisions around surveillance technology.  And Ellis and I educated them and helped support them in making those decisions rather than leading that advocacy ourselves.

What were the results of your work with those groups?

So there was an ordinance passed that will provide oversight to surveillance technology, usage purchases, expansion by the Dayton Police Department. They have to request approval from the elected officials, from the city commissioners and the city commission has to hold a public hearing whereby community members and others can give public comment, either written or in-person testimony.  And then another outcome is that this community coalition, the coalition on public protection, was formed, and they're now looking at other issues, too. So they built sort of an advocacy structure for the community in East and West Dayton to come together and advocate around policing decisions at a grassroots level.  

Are there other examples of community lawyering that you feel has been successful in creating change where it's needed?

So around 2008, there began to be community conversations regarding food access that began largely after the Krogers on Gettysburg was closed and ABLE became involved because various community leaders on the west side of Dayton came to us with it, saying, there's that we have huge food access crisis, are there legal solutions?  So Matt Curry began -  the managing attorney and the coauthor of the article. He began to have conversations with lots of different community leaders.  Basically his role was to present potential options, what's going on around the country, how communities around the country are addressing this food insecurity or food apartheid issue. And he presented many different models. The community ultimately decided that they wanted to create a cooperative grocery store. And Matt, as the attorney, helped them with the legal needs that were involved in making that happen.  

Do you charge for your services in this regard?

No. ABLE services are free and we only serve low income individuals or community groups whose constituencies are low income individuals.

What kind of satisfaction do you and / or Matthew get out of the work you do?

 A lot of the satisfaction from this work comes from supporting our client communities in making good things happen that the community wants. So, for example, the work that Matt Curry did with Gem City Market - how are you going to oppose a community-driven effort to bring food to the community?  So it's work that people can get behind and the value in the work is clear. And when it goes well as with the Gem City Market, you can just see a huge change being made.

A chance meeting with a volunteer in a college computer lab in 1987 brought Mike to WYSO. He started filling in for various music shows, and performed various production, news, and on-air activities during the late 1980s and 90s, spinning vinyl and cutting tape before the digital evolution.