Introduction: Community-Based Efforts to Achieve Economic Justice


The 1995 Colloquium of the New York University Review of Law and Social Change was motivated by the belief that community-based development efforts are a means of providing low-income residents of disinvested communities with a greater degree of social and economic control over their own lives. The students planning the Colloquium sought to create a forum in which participants could learn from academics and practitioners about the goals of community-based economic development and the possible methods of financing such projects. The members of Social Change hoped to facilitate a critical examination of the potential of community-based development and to consider possible roles to be played by lawyers interested in working in partnership with grassroots organizations.

As law students, our “public interest education” consisted primarily of classroom discussions and legal clinics focusing on litigation efforts to protect and enforce civil rights and civil liberties. Litigation alone, however, has not proven to be effective in addressing the economic issues facing dis-advantaged communities in New York City and other urban areas. While there is no question that continued public interest litigation is a vital part of fighting discrimination and ongoing oppression, issues such as limited ac-cess to capital and credit, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, un-availability of quality goods and services, and substandard job training opportunities are not problems to be solved in a courtroom. Confronting these economic issues requires creative and strategic thinking by lawyers who understand corporate, tax, and real estate law-fields too rarely included in a traditional curriculum for public interest lawyers.

The two-day Colloquium was held in the wake of the 1994 elections. Federal and State programs targeted to assist inner city communities and their residents, especially those of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), had been dramatically cut or were at imminent risk. In the time since the Colloquium, we have been witnessed a further unraveling of our nation’s safety net. Although the problems facing disadvantaged communities continue to increase, the public discourse about issues facing low-income persons remains mired in a rhetoric of individual responsibility and the presumed inability of government to provide effective solutions. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the welfare reform bill signed by President Clinton, is premised on the politically popular notion of moving recipients of welfare to work, but overlooks the realities that such jobs do not exist and that current job training programs are totally inadequate. This politically expedient “reform” does nothing to confront the root causes of poverty.

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