A Community Lawyering

(Gratitude to Rodrigo Sanchez for assistance in compiling data on 53206.)

The Shriver Center in Chicago provides training on a particular model of community-based lawyering.  They define “community lawyering” as “using legal advocacy to help achieve solutions to community-identified issues in ways that develop local leadership and institutions that can continue to exert power to effect systemic change.” The concept grew out of the older ideas of community organizing generally pioneered by Saul Alinsky’s work in 1930s and 40s Chicago, where, broadly speaking, the goal is to promote the empowerment of citizens, i.e. members of the community, to address problems and effect change. These ideas were applied to the practice of law at least as far back as 1970 in the form of a Yale Law Journal article where Stephen Wexler outlined a number of ways in which effective lawyering in an impoverished community is different from the traditional practice of law.

Whereas the traditional lawyering model sets up an adversarial dynamic between parties, community lawyering may engage alternative systems of relational power or power sharing aimed at ultimate reconciliation or compromise, founded on a recognition of common interests between parties.  (See Ross Dolloff & Marc Potvin, Community Lawyering—Why Now?, 37 Clearinghouse Review 136 (July–Aug. 2003)).  Whereas traditional lawyering may entail simply spotting issues that can be resolved through litigation or formal legal recourse, community lawyering can approach citizen-identified problems as opportunities to engage stakeholders in a broader conversation in the hope of building authentic, trusting relationships.  Whereas the traditional lawyer model is that of a litigator, negotiator of claims, and counselor to the client, the community lawyer’s focus may be to “develop inside the client population a sustainable knowledge base that allows the population to build foundations for opportunity from within,” to identify and defeat the causes of poverty.  Whereas in the traditional lawyering model the attorney is the “voice” of the client before the court, in a community lawyering model, the strategy and policies are accountable to the voice of the population being served.  The lawyer assists a community in identifying a structural barrier (access to economic resources, housing, sustainability, stability, employment opportunities, political voice, etc.) and then helps build capacity within the community to take action (through organizing, relationship building, advocacy, policy development, traditional case work, etc.).

The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee applied for and received a grant funded by the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation to introduce its related but unique approach of embedding lawyers into communities called “neighborhood lawyering,” focused on two targeted communities in Milwaukee.  The funding is from a settlement between the federal government and Bank of America stemming from the selling of toxic mortgage securities during the housing bubble.  The Legal Aid Society grant application noted that “the areas most affected by the foreclosure crisis were concentrated along lines of race and poverty in the very neighborhoods we are proposing to serve,” and that “the foreclosure crisis in Milwaukee resulted not from speculative investment, but from unregulated predatory lending that targeted vulnerable populations in existing housing stock.”  The goal is that Legal Aid lawyers become trusted, familiar faces in the neighborhood, available on a host of civil legal issues that aid in community revitalization.

Attorney Pedro Hernandez interviewing a client
Attorney Pedro Hernandez at work as a Neighborhood Lawyer in Milwaukee. Source: Maayan Silver, WUWM

In the summer of 2019, Legal Aid assigned me to the neighborhood lawyering project in 53206, with my colleague Pedro Hernandez as the neighborhood lawyer in 53204.  In addition to Legal Aid’s traditional civil legal work (landlord/ tenant disputes, eviction defense, foreclosures, consumer law, bankruptcy, unemployment insurance, and social security matters), the neighborhood lawyering project focuses on partnering with residents via community, social service and religious organizations to identify and evaluate  community legal issues.  Legal Aid convened a Pro Bono Business Panel  to assist in the development of successful small business operations in the two neighborhoods. Additionally, the project involves opportunities for staff legal seminar presentations to better address legal challenges and connect with residents and existing neighborhood coalitions.

So why 53206?  Let’s look at the numbers:

  • Zip Code 53206 has a population of 23,827, of which over 95% identify as black.  (James Causey. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “53206 is Wisconsin’s most incarcerated ZIP code.  Here are 4 more facts about the Milwaukee neighborhood.” 12/7/18.)
  • Median annual earnings for 53206 workers in 2017 were $18,541, “less than half the median of workers living in the suburbs; among male workers in 53206, annual earnings were less than one-third the median of their suburban counterparts.”  (See Levine, Marc V., “Milwaukee 53206: The Anatomy of Concentrated Disadvantage in an Inner City Neighborhood, 2000-2017” (2019). p. 5).  Adjusted for inflation, “median earnings for the neighborhood’s male workers declined by over 33% since the turn of the century.” (Id.)
  • The poverty rate in 53206 in 2017 was 42.2%, six times greater than the poverty rate in the Milwaukee suburbs.  (Will Cushman.  WisContext. “53206 Has Stealth Depression.” 3/29/2019.)
  • Two-thirds of all children in 53206 live in poverty, 96.2% of all children are eligible for either free or reduced cost lunch at school.  (See Causey supra and zipdatamaps.com.)
  • “Fully one-quarter of all housing units in the zip code were vacant in 2013-17, more than double the vacant housing rate in the city of Milwaukee, and more than five times the percentage in the suburbs.”  (See Levine supra. p.42).
  • In 2017, the infant mortality rate in 53206 was 29.1%, the highest in the Milwaukee area. Wisconsin has the highest infant mortality rate in the country.  For comparison, 29.1% is higher than Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.  (Latoya Dennis, Milwaukee’s Mortality Rate For Black Babies Is High.  Why And What’s Being Done About It?,  WUWM (May 21, 2019).)
  • “After 10 years of effort, researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee failed to locate any other ZIP code in the nation with a matching per-capita share of residents who are or were incarcerated.”  (See John Schmid. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The Unlikeliest Neighborhood” March 29, 2017).  Considering the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, even though tract analysis suggests there are more incarcerated tracts in the U.S., this data point implies that 53206 may be the most incarcerated postal code in the world.
  • According to a 2015 televised appearance by then Police Chief Ed Flynn, the 2015 homicide rate for 53206 was 25.0 per 100,000.  (D.L. Davis. Politifact.com. “Is Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code really tops in incarceration rates?” 9/10/2019).  By comparison, in that same year, Chicago was receiving national attention for what many described as “an intractable problem of street violence” and noting an “alarming spike in homicides” that brought the city’s homicide rate to almost 20.0 per 100,000, which is substantially less than the 53206 rate.  (Ford Fessenden and Haeyoun Park, The New York Times. “Chicago’s Murder Problem” 5/27/16.)

A recent article by 24/7 Wall St. found Milwaukee to be the worst city in the United States for black Americans to live.  The analysis was “based on racial disparities in income, education, health, incarceration, and white-black achievement gaps in other socioeconomic outcomes using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.”

It wasn’t always this bad.  Around 1970 Milwaukee’s north side “was home to one of the most prosperous black communities in the nation.” Work by Mark Levine at the Center for Economic Development indicates that Milwaukee before 1970 had a more robust minority middle class, with employment and income for African Americans near the head of the pack of eventual rust belt urban areas.  (See Marc V. Levine, Race and Male Employment in the Wake of the Great Recession: Black Male Employment Rates in Milwaukee and the Nation’s Largest Metro Areas, Jan. 2012.) “In 1970 Milwaukee could brag of having the lowest jobless rates for black males in comparable cities.”  In the late 1960s Milwaukee may have actually been, socioeconomically, one of the best places in the United States for black Americans to live.

In conversations around race and economic development, Martin Luther King Jr. quotes are thrown around a lot.  This one is particularly relevant to community lawyering:

[W]e’ve got to understand people, first, and then analyze their problems. If we really pay attention to those we want to help; if we listen to them; if we let them tell us about themselves—how they live, what they want out of life—we’ll be on much more solid ground when we start ‘planning’ our ‘action,’ our ‘programs,’ than if we march ahead, to our own music, and treat ‘them’ as if they’re only meant to pay attention to us, anyway.

(Quoted in Lucie White, From a Distance: Responding to the Needs of Others Through Law, 54 Montana Law Review 1, 16 (1993).)

How might a community lawyer begin to serve the many needs of this particular Milwaukee neighborhood? For starters, by really and truly listening to residents about their individual and community legal needs.  I think of the words of a senate candidate providing the keynote address at the 2004 DNC, and hope with him that “out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.” “Wo es war, soli Ich werden.”

Joseph Riepenhoff

Joe Riepenhoff graduated from Marquette University Law School in 2014. While at Marquette, he was a student advisory board member for the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic, an intern for the Waukesha County Circuit Court criminal division judges, and research assistant for Prof. Daniel Blinka. Since graduating he has worked as a staff attorney for the Wisconsin State Public Defender Office, a conflicts analysts at Foley and Lardner, and is now a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee.

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