social change

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Today (after a long pause between ‘Feature Fridays!’) I’d like to highlight an exciting new community-based lawyering organization in Nigeria, Justice and Empowerment Initiatives.  I’m truly excited about their approach, which truly aims to be far more community-based and involves not just litigation but community paralegalism, advocacy, and mobilization/movement-building.

JEI’s three prongs of work are: training community-based paralegals, engaging in movement building, and finally – strategic advocacy. JEI trains, monitors, and supports networks of individuals providing community-based paralegal services in rural and urban poor communities in Nigeria. A particularly exciting aspect of their model is their community-owned initiatives in Nigera. JEI helps to set up a membership association called the Community Legal Support Initiative (CLSI).  Before joining CLSI, communities set up  ‘community legal support committees’, which join the membership of CLSI and take an active role in overseeing and implementing activities to support paralegal services. CLSI subcommittees work closely with JEI to train, supervise, and mentor paralegals who show capacity and commitment to justice.

Second, through the paralegal network and more broadly, JEI supports movement-building and inter-community solidarity within and between poor and marginalized communities. Finally, when necessary, JEI undertakes strategic advocacy or litigation to backstop the work of paralegals and the activities of the broader community-based movement.  JEI provides direct litigation and advocacy support to individuals and communities in need. Priorities for strategic litigation and advocacy are identified by communities. JEI undertakes litigation before Nigerian courts, regional/international human rights bodies (e.g. ECOWAS Court or the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights), and advocacy before the National Human Rights Commission or the World Bank Inspection Panel. JEI works to make this sustainable through the Community Legal Services Initiative, where member communities establish community-managed funds for litigation and advocacy.

Check out this video highlighting JEI’s work in the Otto Ilogbo community in Lagos, Nigeria, which has been sacked by fire and violence that has chased hundreds of innocent residents from their homes.


A great post on OpenDemocracy recently by Chris Jochnick discussed human rights tools of litigation, and how the law can be harnessed to address some of the root causes of poverty. I especially liked the following questions he asks at the end, which I think are absolutely spot on:

  1. Can resources be mobilized at scale to support human rights work that directly confronts poverty, inequities and vested interests? The longstanding bias of human rights funders against ESR continues to limit this work.

  2. Can lawyers and litigation be incorporated into grassroots struggles without co-opting them? The legal training, the proximity to power, the allure of lawsuits, the mythologies of legal expertise all conspire against good faith efforts of lawyers to serve rather than lead campaigns.

  3. Can transnational human rights advocates find a way to work closely and collaboratively enough with those living in poverty, while retaining a strategic focus on broader structural issues? The rise of stronger human rights groups in the global south, connected to social movements and networked to international platforms (with a helpful infusion from the Ford Foundation) represents a promising, if fragile, step in this direction.

These questions often pique my interest when working in the human rights field. I often question: how can we mobilize individual struggles and direct legal services into broader change, and at the same time how can human rights advocates engaging in high-level litigation or “impact” cases while still maintaining a close connection to communities?  Especially, as he writes above, the “legal training, the proximity to power…” often make it appealing for lawyers to take leading roles in campaigns rather than a backseat. At the same time, often working to provide legal services or working with clients on an individual, one-on-one basis can be particularly difficult, not to mention can be challenging to make any systemic reform.

A great post summing up some of the debates in human rights/transnational lawyering and advocacy work, and absolutely worth checking out.


This piece in Politico by Sarah Kendzior is spot on, decrying the state of media representation of powerful women in politics:

Read these women’s magazines today—particularly those articles focusing on the “power women” of the Obama era, and there is a full shelf of them by now, from Mastromonaco to Michelle Obama, Samantha Power to Susan Rice—and you will find a familiar pattern. There are still only two main tracks for the female politico: intimidating and powerful or submissive and charming. When combined, these qualities translate into “having it all,” although “all” must be tempered with notes of humility, lest the women vault back into the “intimidating” category. As pundits debate the virtues of female confidence, it is the confidante who is still made to appear the ideal female type: the yes-woman, capable yet culpable, assertive in her lack of assertions.



Sometimes, an image sears itself into your brain — it becomes a snippet of a memory that comes back, flashes back, and horrifies you when you least expect it.  These images come back to haunt you when you are lying down after a long day, about to sleep.  When you take a brief respite from work and take a quick walk outside.  When you are eating dinner.  At the most mundane times, sometimes these images strike — and you feel like you’re back there again.  Sometimes, there are moments you cannot forget, even if you wish you could.

For me, there are several images and snapshots of time that come back to me periodically.

For me, these memories come with flashes of guilt, of sadness, of helplessness.

On this sunny morning in Cambridge, on the day after America’s independence has been celebrated with fireworks and dazzling lights and red-white-and-blue clothing everywhere, I was taken back to a moment in Sierra Leone where a woman ran past our legal services office. She was crying and screaming, and stumbling on her way to the police station.

The minute I remember is when she turned around and I saw the other side of her face: blood was streaming down and there it was — a large, open wound on her head. Her face, covered with blood.  Blood, entering her eyes and her mouth and dripping down her chin onto the ground.

I had never seen so much blood. Sure, I had met women with injuries before — I had interviewed numerous women, girls, and men who spoke of the domestic violence they had suffered — but most often, the violence was somewhat distant from me. There was a barrier in between, and the barrier was that of time and words.  There was a comfortable distance between me and the violence.  The violence was in homes and it was hidden.  When I spoke to and interviewed survivors, I gained their confidence, their voices, their words, and their stories.  And yet, their stories were always in the past tense, even if the past was as recent as “this morning,” or “last night,” or “last week,” or “last month, he strangled me in front of our children.”  These words, these tenses, kept me at a comfortable distance from the violence.  This invisible wall — this barrier — helped me continue those interviews, listen to those words, work with survivors of violence, and honor the confidence they placed in me.  This wall allowed me to keep going, to not be overwhelmed by the violence, to somehow keep moving in the face of inexplicable tragedies.  Over time, I had erected this wall to keep out some of the worst emotions, and to maintain the calmness needed to do this work day after day.

But this was here.  The violence was happening.  It was now. 

There was no past tense in her words, in her blood, in her tears — this was the present moment.  And so it was unavoidable.

The walls had been broken down. 

Then, she turned again.  I saw her tears, instead of blood.  The next moments were also unforgettable: we attempted to help her as she relayed her story to the police.  She had been beaten heavily by her husband, who took a large stick and hit her head after an argument.  She tried to resist and push back, but he was relentless.  She yelled and screamed, but her neighbors did not come to her aid.  So she ran here, to the police, for help.  The moments after this were still more imprinted in my mind.  The police calmly took down her statement, informed her they would search for her husband.

We stayed with her while the police investigated the case, trying to locate her husband.  In the meantime, they told us that if she wanted to pursue prosecution, she needed a medical examination by a police-approved doctor.  We accompanied her while she spoke to her family members, but ultimately decided she didn’t have the money to even travel to the doctor for an examination, let alone pay the bribe that doctors often demand for such an examination.

The story mostly ended there.  Despite consistent pressure on the police, they too lacked the resources to track down the husband, who by that time had supposedly fled to a nearby town.

There was nothing more to be done — to my horror.

This is one story of many, but one story that has seared itself in my brain.  It is a moment in which all the walls were broken down — and I was confronted with violence in the present, before my eyes.  It was something I could not escape.

It was a story too, of heartbreak and regret. Fear that I — we — could do so little for someone who had been through so much.  Fear that there are too many barriers preventing her from having a better life: ineffective and resource-poor police; poverty; lack of healthcare; corruption; lack of financial independence; social stigma.

But a story of hope too — hope that if we identify and attack some of these barriers, change may be possible.  And hope too — because her image is with me, and will always return to remind me of the incredible work that is to be done.

A story too, to remind me: why this is all worth it.

IMG_8278Sewa river, in the backdrop of our Salone town

IMG_8362The local court, where disputes are often resolved using customary and local laws


Please watch the above TEDx Talk by Alok Vaid-Menon. Then digest. And share. He provides some much needed reminders to reconsider how we view success in this world, and what it truly will take to contribute to social justice and social change. Some of my favorite quotes:

Should you desire to be successful you will not actually bring human rights for all, eliminate poverty, end nuclear war, or fix Congress. If you go in with this mindset chances are you will be defeated like all the generations before us.

The key to changing the world is to fail to live up to its expectations.

Success has never really been about fixing problems; it’s been about perpetuating them. The pomp and circumstance around success masks over the incredible violence it takes to accomplish.

Success is about self-promotion, not putting change into motion.

What is the point of a thesis written in a language inaccessible by the very people it is about? What is the point of a researcher who knows the name of theorists but not the names of her own neighbors? Who is invited to present a paper on a movement and who must die for it?

Please watch. And thanks to Alok for this honest and humbling talk on what’s important — and that if we want to truly make social change and social justice, we have to bond together and let go of traditional ideas of success.


Village life is slow, languid, and yet can involve backbreaking labor. Most villagers work in farming, selling/trading goods, or mining – Sierra Leone is known for producing gold and diamonds. As I pass by the river, I see families washing clothes, bathing – and sifting sand for gold. I ask a woman if she’s found anything; she shows me her mug and I manage to spot several bright specks of gold. I wonder how long she spent in the river, risking getting parasites and diseases, to find those specks, and how much they are worth.

With much of the country lacking electricity, the village is plunged into darkness every evening at about 7:30 pm. In my town, people retire to their homes or spend time in the “junction.” The junction, a crossroads at the point of the road to Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city, is the place to be. At all hours, the junction is filled with people and small shops selling fried doughnuts, bread, packets of clean water to drink, sweet and cold yogurt in different flavours, groundnut sauce, kola nuts, and gari (a couscous-like dish). Okada [motorcycle] drivers constantly pass by, and some wait around at the junction to recruit potential passengers to Bo for 4,000 Leones (5,000 Leones for the ‘white’ people). In the night, the junction is lively. All the roadside shops light up candles, giving the town a ethereal, almost beautiful, glow.  People mill around, chatting, buying supplies for the next day’s meal. Okada drivers have mostly finished their work for the day, so they head to the Bike Riders’ Association to relax (really, this is another roadside shack). Films play and you can watch for 500 Leones, and dance music is blasting from one stall or the other. Down the street, one of the local chiefs powers up his generator, blasts 90s American music, and drinks palm wine with his friends.

Life is slow, but this is not necessarily a positive thing. In this town, close enough to the more hectic and exciting pace of Bo city, youth are frustrated and tantalized by the opportunities. “We sit around all day, we sleep as much as we want, because we don’t have a job like you,” they tell me. “We don’t have anything to do all day, we don’t have enough work. We want to study further – maybe nursing – but we need money first.”

*  *  *

Again and again, I encounter something I wish we had more of in the U.S.: community. In the U.S., I often find myself resorting to Twitter and social media because it is a way to connect and to feel connected; to feel part of a larger community where so often there is none. Here, there is still an immediacy to the connections, and they are all refreshingly physical. On my way to fetch water in the morning, I speak to neighbors and children who yell my name or call me poomoui [white person]. I greet them in Krio or Mende; How de morning? Or Be-ay-ee – asking how they slept. In turn, they laugh at the ‘white’ woman attempting to pump water and struggling in carrying the bucket back to her house, while even the little children here are experts on carrying huge buckets of water on their heads for long distances without dropping much. Walking to the junction should take 5 minutes but often takes more than 20, because of all the small greetings and conversations I must have along the way.

Throughout the day at work, I am surrounded by villagers, some of whom are acquaintances and others, whom I now call my friends. It is quite a strange sensation to help a client resolve his family law problem and discuss his child custody case in the office, and then later to count him as a friend and also my personal okada driver to and from Bo.

After work, I often head back to the junction and sit in one of the many small roadside shacks owned by my closest friend in town. Like most people in Sierra Leone, she does not know her age. Depending on the day, she could be 15 years old or 20. She is a member of the Fula tribe, originally from Guinea, and lives with her mother, her sister, and her sister’s children. Her father died earlier this year, and her entire family has had to cut back drastically; all of her siblings have been forced to drop out of school. Like many other Sierra Leoneans, she is still completing secondary school (as is her supposedly 21-year old sister) at the age of 20, because of many interruptions year-to-year. Next year, she hopes they can all return to school. My heart especially softens and saddens when I meet her youngest niece, who has a serious heart problem and needs surgery that she cannot obtain in Sierra Leone, nor afford abroad. I feel especially drawn to the young girl, who looks like a 4-year old although she is over 7 years old; she hasn’t grown because of her heart problem. I am especially saddened because the girl reminds me of myself – I had a heart surgery as a child, and am lucky enough to be alive today only because my family could afford the expensive procedure in India.

I sit in my Fula friend’s shack every evening as she and her friends tell me stories, teach me Krio, play Sierra Leonean and Nigerian music, and as her tiny nieces dance for me. I also greet passerbys who come to buy food, many of whom sit down and introduce themselves, yell ‘Paddy!’ (‘friend’ in Krio) at me while passing by, or ask me to take them to America with me. Sometimes, I take walks with my newfound friends to the former Liberian refugee camp in town, or to the bustling and high-quality MSF hospital further down the street.

Day by day, the people of Sierra Leone have won me over completely – my heart stolen by their open smiles and warm hearts. Every day, I am bombarded with requests for money, or visas to America, or for food. At the same time, I have encountered such kindness despite the pervasive poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Young men give me free okada rides back to my room from the ‘junction’ or the local court when it is raining. A teenager gives me a pair of her pants when I get completely drenched in the rain. She shares her food with me and insists on transferring Sierra Leonean music to my phone. Sierra Leone is not a country for introverts – every moment from morning to night involves conversation, dancing, and friendship. These daily interactions with Sierra Leoneans, where I learn more about their daily lives and am integrated into the fabric of it, have made my short time here truly unforgettable.


“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
–       Rabindranath Tagore

“At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done.
We will be judged by “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.”
–       Mother Teresa

This was a year spent with nose buried in the books, head firmly stretched into the clouds. It was a year spent in the ivory tower, filled with theory and a vague idea that we were learning “the law.”  It was a year spent backing away from direct engagement in social justice, and focusing instead on myself. On learning. On studying. On surviving – and maybe even succeeding.

Law school demands such deep focus and commitment. The workload is intense and all-consuming: you spend hours in class, then hours out of class reading, learning, absorbing.  There is competition to get top grades, join a journal (maybe compete for law review), to get prestigious internships and clerkships, to make yourself the strongest candidate for jobs – whether in public interest or corporate. Perhaps like all graduate school, the focus is on yourself – on gaining valuable skills and experiences.

This isn’t a particularly revelatory statement. School is, after all, about learning, and growing, gaining skills, and challenging yourself intellectually and personally. You go to school primarily to better yourself. And I love(d) every bit of it – the challenge, the material, the inward focus.

Yet, in that process, I felt like I lost a little bit of why I came to law school.

I lost, and missed, a mindset of service. Now, working and even volunteering is often about acquiring skills or accolades – and sometimes less so about the meaning of the work itself. Work has become less about service, and more about personal and professional achievement. Each internship / project / activity must fit into your professional puzzle, teach you new skills, or help you leapfrog to the next step.

Perhaps this mindset is simply reflective of what society values. And yet, I felt something missing. And it was that – the feeling of working late into the night, not poring over casebooks in the library, but on a grant to expand access to justice for women, or on solutions to the problems faced by an immigrant survivor of domestic violence. There is a magical feeling that comes with doing, implementing, acting – rather than solely discussing or debating ideas. And there is something incredible about serving simply out of a desire to serve, rather than a desire to further your career.

This summer, then, will be a process of rediscovery: of rediscovering why I hope to work on access to justice, rule of law, and women’s rights. Of focusing once again on others, and on the work I value – rather than just myself. Of serving out of a desire to contribute to the world, not simply to pad a CV. It will be a summer of living simply – without even regular electricity, running water, or Internet. It will be a summer where I re-learn how the rest of the world lives, and how much we have to be grateful for — and hopefully, of the commonalities we all share despite our differences.


blue-sweater-pb-cover-image-2-e1354116594145Using my newly-founded freedom upon completing 1L, I picked up “The Blue Sweater,” a thought-provoking and insightful book by Jacqueline Novogratz (I know, this is years too late!). Novogratz presents a number of key arguments for better philanthropy, and the need to build companies that serve the poor, rather than just provide charity. While my work largely focuses on the non-profit side of things, and I still sustain a belief that strengthening civil society, local leadership and the non-profit sector (along with the government) can make an impact, I do think that investing in social enterprises and businesses that make products and services much more affordable to the poor are very necessary.

There are points in which I’m not entirely sure I agree with Novogratz. While clean water and health care can be provided by private companies at a low, affordable cost for the poor, I still believe we should continue pushing governments to provide such services for free, as a matter of right. At the same time, it’s undeniable that providing such services privately has reached many more in the short-run.

Ultimately, she makes a number of excellent points. Here are some of her insights that particularly struck me:

Traditional charity speaks of donors and grantees, but this passive language creates a power dynamic that might as well call the two groups the givers and the takers. I had seen so many dysfunctional conversations where a grantee would give a would-be or existing donor misleading and evasive answers because they feared losing funding if they told the truth about the difficulties of their work. And I’d seen those same grantees agree to do things the donors thought they should, even if it made no sense for the mission of the organization. It is hard to say no to someone who has the power to finance your dreams — or more to the point, your payroll.

Novogratz also points out something I think is especially frustrating — that donors want low overheads, without looking at what those non-profits’ results ultimately are. Low overheads mean nothing if outcomes are poor or nonexistent. The focus should be on the result, no matter if it takes a higher “overhead” to get there:

I also took issue with the practice of donors typically funding only programs instead of institutions. “I want to be certain that all of the money goes directly to the people who need it most,” prospective donors would tell me. That’s a fine strategy for providing alms or direct charity. At the same time, no one would invest in a company and not expect it to pay for hiring great people, paying the rent, and keeping the lights on.

Novogratz also worked in the U.S. with the Rockefeller Foundation on domestic philanthropy efforts, which I found very interesting. I’ve always felt that there is a profound, and unnecessary, disconnect between domestic and international social justice efforts. The focus within the development “sector” rarely shifts to redressing injustices in the U.S., in our own backyard. More and more, through law school, I’ve cemented a belief that we are all interconnected  — and that injustice at home is inextricably connected to injustice abroad. Novogratz writes that her mentor encouraged her to work with the Rockefeller Foundation. He said:

“..But to be truly effective, especially internationally, you must root yourself more strongly in your home’s own soil. It is time for you to know this country, as well. Only by knowing ourselves can we truly understand others– and knowing from where you come is an important part of knowing who you are.”

“Surely there are enough people interested in this country,” [she] told him….. He shook his head. […] “What happens overseas is profoundly influenced by what happens here, especially now. And the reverse is true, as well.”

Finally, she mentions complexity — an important lesson to impart. Novogratz writes:

Recently I heard a fair-trade promoter say in a speech, “You can change the world by drinking a cup of coffee.” Those simple slogans are great for marketing, but should alert people to something false in easy promises. Poverty is too complex to be answered with a one-size-fits-all approach…