SJP Embarks on Joint Venture to Support Law Students, Legal Organizations, and Communities Most Impacted by COVID-19 Crisis

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The Systemic Justice Project, the People’s Parity Project, and Justice Catalyst expect to bring over 100 law student fellows into the first-of-its-kind COVID–19 Legal Rapid Response + Systems Summer Institute.

On June 1, the People’s Parity Project, the Systemic Justice Project, and Justice Catalyst will launch the COVID–19 Rapid Response + Systems Summer Institute, a first-of-its kind fellowship to bring hundreds of law students together with more than 50 legal organizations to assist the communities most devastated by the public-health crisis. Over 100 law students will join the Institute as full-time People’s Justice Fellows, who will work to provide support to legal organizations from around the country and participate in Institute programming aimed at helping to build the next generation of social justice-oriented lawyers.

Public interest legal organizations researching urgent policy reforms and providing direct services to indigent, marginalized, and otherwise vulnerable clients and communities face unprecedented need during the  COVID–19 crisis. Decades of decisions by policymakers and judges have created rigged systems in which low-income workers, people of color, and other marginalized groups are the most at-risk in times of crisis; the systemic theft from these communities means that they now lack the resources—legal and otherwise—to protect themselves in the face of a global health and economic crisis. At the same time, many law students across the country have lost their summer internships as many legal employers have been forced to cancel or scale back their summer plans to provide full-time employment, supervision, and mentorship to aspiring lawyers.

The Systems Summer Institute is bridging that gap by putting those law students to work on COVID-response projects that serve the public good. The Institute—through its more than 100 full-time Fellows—will support organizations advocating for unemployment insurance applicants, developing policy recommendations for safe and fair elections under social distancing conditions, studying the racialized impacts of the pandemic, and more. Through this work, the Institute will play a crucial role in the national response to the current exigencies and in shaping longer-term responses to deeper systemic injustices highlighted by the crisis.

The three organizations partnering to build the Institute have each made a unique mark on the legal landscape in recent years. The People’s Parity Project, a non-profit founded in 2018, has successfully organized law students and new lawyers in the effort to demystify and dismantle coercive legal tools in order to create a legal system that works for all; in 2019, the organization was named one of Law360’s “legal lions,” and has since been identified as one of the key players in the burgeoning law student labor movement. The Systemic Justice Project, a Harvard Law School-based policy innovation collaboration, serves to identify injustice, design solutions, promote awareness, and advocate reforms to policymakers, opinion leaders, and the public, all with the aim of identifying and addressing common and systemic sources of injustice. The Systemic Justice Project carries out its mission through cutting edge teachingconferences, and collaborations with justice-oriented lawyers, academics, advocates, and activists. Justice Catalyst activates path-breaking approaches to social justice lawyering that have real-world impact and improve the lives of those denied access to justice. Justice Catalyst takes on social justice issues that fall between the cracks of traditional advocacy models, and applies a cross-disciplinary approach to the law. Justice Catalyst also administers a fellowship program to support new attorneys in innovative public interest work at non-profit organizations. Together, the three organizations aim to create lasting change within the legal profession, ultimately resulting in a legal system that works for workers, consumers, and all of the millions of people  who have too often been left out and left behind.

“COVID–19 may have been unavoidable, but the systemic policy and legal failures we are seeing throughout the U.S. were not,” said People’s Parity Project National Organizing Director, Molly Coleman. “It is unacceptable for low-income workers, people of color, and otherwise marginalized groups to be left behind in a crisis, and we will not allow these disparities to persist as we build what comes next in this country. Through the Institute, we aim to provide both short-term and long-term capacity for building more just systems, and we think it is a powerful message that hundreds of law students from across the country are excited to join in this effort.”

Jon Hanson, the Alan A. Stone Professor of Law and the Faculty Director of the Systemic Justice Project, noted the importance of the legal profession’s involvement in the current moment. “Our existing legal structures are built to ensure that the brunt of any crisis falls hardest on certain disadvantaged and marginalized groups. The Institute is bringing together a remarkable cohort of committed law students who will not only work hard to meet urgent law-related needs posed by the crisis, but also think creatively and critically about the role that lawyers can play in helping to remake unjust systems going forward.” In that way,” Hanson added, “the Institute hopes to promote a future in which the legal profession and the law primarily advance justice and not the interests of the powerful.”

“The Institute is a response to multiple critical needs,” explained Jacob Lipton, Systemic Justice Project Co-Director and Fellowships Director at Justice Catalyst. “Justice-oriented law students and legal organizations are both hurting right now. Most importantly, the communities served by those legal organizations are hurting. Through the People’s Justice Fellowship, we aim to serve as a coordinating body, uniting students eager to do systemic work with organizations in need of exactly that energy and added capacity in order to serve the most vulnerable communities in this crisis.”

Interested in supporting our work? We are committed to making sure all of our fellows are compensated for their work, and we’re providing additional support for students who have financial needs to be able to do this work. Donate to support our Summer Institute Hardship Fund, which provides direct financial assistance to summer fellows experiencing financial hardship.

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