Justice Initiative begins third year of teaching justice-centered change

civil_rights_center news

Justice Initiative begins third year of teaching justice-centered change

Students and advocates invited to participate in project with roots at Harvard and Howard University Law Schools

Justin Hansford, director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University and Jon Hanson, director of Harvard Law School’s Systemic Justice Project, have again partnered to bring back the Justice Initiative for the 2022-2023 academic year.(They will host an information session on September 17, 2022.)

Hansford and Hanson, joined by Oversight Counsel U.S. House of Representatives and Senior Advisor to House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Enumale M. Agada, created the Justice Initiative three years ago at the height of the COVID crisis. 

After two very successful years, Hansford explains, “this initiative has been a match made in heaven. We have cultivated a community of roughly 150 justice-oriented students, lawyers, law-school faculty, grassroots organizers, and activists devoted to critically examining and creatively remaking disparate systems and institutions.”

A student member similarly describes the Justice Initiative as “a space for brilliantly diverse and critical legal minds to not only confront the most pressing injustices we see today but to strategize with one another and work towards meaningful solutions.” Zoe Li, 3L at Georgetown University Law Center, shares that “joining the Justice Initiative as a law student was a pivotal point in my legal education. Here is a community of students and professionals that endeavors to do the work to understand how we got here, how lawyers can actually serve our clients, and how we can assist in building different and more equitable systems that truly center justice for all.”

Built around the “head, hands, heart” model of learning, engagement, and community building, the core events of the Justice Initiative are 3-hour Saturday sessions held throughout the academic year. Sessions include speakers, panel discussions, breakout sessions, and interactive presentations, all to engage participants in discussion about the root causes of systemic injustice. “Saturday sessions are,” Hansford explains, “a site of both political education — a place for members to process, reflect on, share, and learn about the roots of oppression, the history of collective struggle — and of organizing — a place to build power and momentum towards creating that change.” As Carie Martin, 2L at Southwestern Law School puts it, “You don’t get this in law school.”

Past speakers and panelists include artists, activists, thought leaders, legal academics, policy advocates, and law professors, including Whitney Benns, Khiara Bridges, Ruby-Beth Buitekant, Bennett Capers, Esme Caramello, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, Alec Karakatsanis, Rena Karefa-Johnson, Saru Matambanadzo, K-Sue Park, Derecka Purnell, Bill Quigley, Purvi Shah, Bianca Tylek, and Dr. Cornel West.  (A more complete list of speakers and panelists can be found on the Systemic Justice Project website.)

“The Justice Initiative is returning this year,” Hanson explains, “not only because of what it has meant to its members the last two years but because of the growing thirst among law students for communities and institutions that take serious things seriously. Given the untethered right-wing attacks on democracy and truth, the unmasked politicization of the Supreme Court, the emboldened backlash against racial reckoning, the worsening environmental and climate injustices, and the corporate capture of our most powerful institutions, those committed to justice are eager to learn and work together to resist those trends and advance a more just future.” 

Regarding the deeper mission of the Justice Initiative, Agada explains: “Lawyers, and by extension legal education, play a pivotal role in shaping our society and can either be catalysts for change or impediments to it. Our hope is that the Justice Initiative will continue to help encourage this generation of justice-centered law students to use their specialized knowledge and energy, not just as individual actors within the existing system but also as a united force pushing to change that system from law schools to the laws themselves.”

To advance those ends, Hanson explains, the Justice Initiative Saturday sessions “will this year be devoted to teaching and practicing a theory of change based on building power through storytelling, activism, movements, organizing, coalition building, institution building, trauma-informed lawyering, and intergenerational learning.” 

In addition to the Saturday sessions, the Justice Initiative provides reading groups and other opportunities for intellectual engagement, organizing, coalition building, and community-building events among its members. It also includes robust mentoring and career advising components to help ensure that members have the guidance and support they need to become justice-oriented lawyers. Led by Tiffanny Smith and Alexa Shabecoff, over 100 mentors, dozens of panelists offering expertise in different models of lawyering, and public interest advisors from law schools around the U.S., especially those at Harvard and Howard, have contributed to the cause.

Participation is free and remote (with some regional opportunities to connect in person). Although aimed at those engaged in the study or field of law, any student, activist, organizer, administrator, or policymaker committed to contributing to a justice-centered community is welcome to apply. All student members are expected to attend at least eight of the eleven three-hour online Saturday sessions, starting on October 1, 2022, and continuing into April 2023. 

Potential applicants can learn more about how to attend or access this year’s information session (held on September 17, 2022) and how to apply to the Justice Initiative on the Systemic Justice Project website.