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When Jean Cahn, a Black woman lawyer from Baltimore, set out to create a nationwide legal services program in 1964, she wanted to erect institutions to support low-income people and communities of color in wielding their own power against the systems that create and perpetuate poverty. She and her husband, Edgar Cahn, had a vision that legal services organizations would become “corporate lawyers” for individuals and community groups. 

For decades, the Legal Aid Justice Center has strived to carry out Jean Cahn’s original vision, one that pairs tenacious advocacy for individuals with bold advocacy for systemic reform. In our most recent strategic plan, we asked our clients and community partners, “What does it look like to embrace the radical roots of legal services in the 21st century?” Here is some of what we learned: 

It starts with a simple truth. If our goal is to upend the status quo and build power for people at the bottom of the existing power structure, then we cannot take a top-down approach. A top-down approach will just replicate the power structures we are trying to dismantle.  

We also will not see real, lasting change. Real, lasting change doesn’t come with technical fixes. It comes with cultural change. Culture is what drives law and policy, and cultural change cannot be prescribed by grant deliverables or politicians, or even…I hate to break it to you…legal aid lawyers acting alone.  

Community-driven advocacy also requires a systemic approach. As the Racial Equity Institute has observed, “If you see 100 fish belly up in the water of a lake, you don’t ask yourself, “What’s wrong with the fish?” You ask, “What’s wrong with the lake?” 

So, when we see hundreds of thousands of people being evicted, incarcerated, deported, losing health insurance, suspended from school, and more, LAJC’s advocates don’t ask, “What’s wrong with those people?”  

At the Legal Aid Justice Center, we ask, “What’s wrong with the legal, policy, and other power structures that produces those outcomes?” Or, in other words, “What’s wrong with the lake?”

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