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Designing an Emancipatory Clinic


Missy Risser-Lovings (@missy_risser) is the Co-Director of the Community and Economic Development Clinic at CUNY School of Law.

This post is part of a symposium that highlights how law school clinics can disrupt the infrastructure of racial capitalism. Read the rest of the posts here.


The law enshrines the power structure of our racial capitalist system. Nevertheless, law school clinics can serve as important sites of critical pedagogy, helping students, partner organizations, and clients build towards an abolition democracy. Beyond merely dismantling slavery and the prison industrial complex, abolition democracy—as W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Davis have argued—involves creating an anti-capitalist democracy, based in racial and social justice, where, instead of the hierarchy of material deprivation produced by racial capitalism, all communities achieve self-determination and have adequate housing, educational and work opportunities, healthcare, food, schools, and childcare. In this post, I explain how syllabus design and client matter selection can help law school clinics resist the grotesque inequality of racial capitalism and build toward emancipatory futures.

Syllabus Design

I co-direct the Community & Economic Development (CED) Clinic at CUNY School of Law, which uses a law and organizing framework to provide legal support for community-led groups fighting for racial, economic, & social justice. We are comprised of two primary practice areas – economic democracy, which focuses on workplace democracy and the redistribution of wealth and power by working with cooperatives, community land trusts, and other organizing groups and not-for-profits; and housing justice & tenant power, which focuses on stabilizing neighborhoods by working with tenant organizations on affirmative group litigation and policy. We dedicate several classes at the beginning of the semester to establish the context for our work. In the seminar component of our clinic, we discuss racial neoliberalism, abolition and abolition democracy, and other institutional underpinnings of widening race and class inequality in New York City and beyond, including the gross neglect and abandonment of broad swaths of marginalized, especially BIPOC, communities. We examine the extent to which CED clinics can play a role in building counter institutions and larger social justice projects aimed at combatting racialized inequality, while also exploring the problematic history and nature of 501(c)(3) tax exemption. We analyze our role and approach to this work, co-teaching classes on law and organizing with partner organizing groups. These concepts and frameworks ground our conversations and reflections about our clinical work throughout the semester.

At times, we’ve received pushback from students who want to focus more on traditional lawyering skills. However, we find it essential that students develop a critical understanding of the context of the clinic’s work. We seek to train not just technicians, but movement lawyers who partner with grassroots organizing groups, centering and enhancing their organizing. To be proper partners, lawyers must understand the broad extractive forces that shape the lives of precarious communities under racial capitalism. Furthermore, an intersectional approach is essential, especially given how often the practice of law is siloed. For example, students often don’t appreciate the relationships between the surplus of labor and the rise of the prison industrial complex, between the social determinants of health and thriving communities, or between investment in communities and the prison industrial complex.

When we do focus on traditional lawyering “skills,” the foundational discussions and consequent skills developed enhance our students’ abilities to co-create meaningful institutions and policies with our partners and clients. Students are able to give more nuanced counsel that addresses the long-term vision of our clients, since students understand the conditions our partners are fighting from and towards. And students better understand how to successfully partner with groups in a way that decenters the law and upends the traditional hierarchical relationship between attorneys and clients, which helps build trust with clients and thus more fruitful partnerships.

Client Work

The themes raised in our syllabus are reflected in the client matters we take on and how we work with clients: we try to resist racial capitalism, frame our work as abolition democracy, and advance meaningful systems change. In our Economic Democracy practice, our clients are all organizing groups focused on racial and economic justice. Yet in deciding where to focus our efforts, we face difficult questions, including how do we best center the voices and experiences of directly impacted people and how do we resist the imperatives of the nonprofit industrial complex while leveraging resources wisely?

We believe that system-level change must occur through broad-based community participation. People who are marginalized and most directly impacted by racial capitalism should lead our work. We do not work with nonprofits that are led by people from outside of the communities they are designed to serve. We try to work with groups that are both member-led and who have paid workers comprised of directly impacted people. Generally, we support both single cooperatives and larger-scale projects that are tied to organizing to achieve systems-level change. We believe that supporting BIPOC-led cooperatives meaningfully resists racial capitalism by creating alternative institutions that are controlled by marginalized people where they own the means of production, yet we also want to maximize the impact of our work by tying our cooperative representation to broader campaigns.

However, larger-scale incubated cooperative projects are often the brainchildren of more established institutions that are not themselves community-led. When we work on these projects, we try to ensure that the future cooperative members will be directly impacted people who can meaningfully participate as early as possible. It is important that worker-owners be paid for their work on the front-end, even during incubation. Oftentimes, it takes years before a coop is launched and prospective coop members often do not have the capacity to put in long unpaid hours for a potential venture while also meeting their current material needs. It is far too common to have the “community” members of an initiative be unpaid, while nonprofit staff are paid to “launch” the coop. Given this, we also try to prioritize working with incubators that have community representation among their paid staff.

For example, we have worked with partner organizations to advocate for New York’s healthcare supply chain to implement procurement policies that support local unionized cooperatives, particularly those comprising people who were formerly incarcerated. Through this work, we discovered that most local hospitals have a contract with Corcraft – the “industry program” of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which uses a convict labor system that is an institutional descendent of slavery and compensates people who are incarcerated at rates as low as $.16/hour. Corcraft has monopoly-like power over New York municipalities and certain public institutions, since local governments are legally required to purchase commodities from Corcraft if they meet minimum standards.

In response, we’ve started a campaign to bring awareness to and organize against Corcraft. Instead, we argue for a system that focuses on creating pipelines to unionized worker cooperatives that will serve anchor institutions, to help build individual and community wealth for people currently incarcerated and upon their release. We engage in this work for a number of reasons. It is intersectional and explicitly ties our cooperative work to anti-capitalist, workers’ rights, and abolition work by developing alternative institutions designed to build power amongst people impacted by the criminal punishment system, as we organize towards the abolition of the prison industrial complex. Additionally, it has the potential for larger impact since it engages anchor institutions and has key policy components. Finally, it is led by people who have been living and organizing in Central Brooklyn for decades.

When contemplating the campaign composition, we have had to explore how we are defining and prioritizing people who are “directly impacted.” Campaign members currently include BIPOC in leadership roles at large institutions (many of whom have advanced degrees), people who were formerly incarcerated, especially those that have direct experience with Corcraft (who may overlap with the other categories), and BIPOC organizing groups that are member-led, with members who may not have advanced degrees and who may be low-income, and who have experience with the criminal legal system. The goal is for this diverse group to ground the work in the expertise developed from the lived experiences of members, while combining the expertise, power, funding, and training of those members affiliated with larger institutions, all intentionally represented through a thoughtful governance system.

Beyond merely guiding our choice of clients, our commitment to abolition democracy also helps determine how we work with those clients. As transactional attorneys, we generally help unincorporated associations, nonprofits, and cooperatives with set-up and operational issues, such as entity-type counseling, incorporation, governance, contracts, employment, tax and tax exemption, and policy advocacy. In our counseling, we try to be client-centered and come up with creative solutions to client issues, rather than exclusively suggesting options that minimize “risk.” Challenging racial capitalist systems that were designed to oppress is risky, but so is being subjected to such systems. Consequently, instead of just counseling “no” on something we might perceive as high risk, we present our assessment of the legal risk level of different options to our clients and let them make the decision.

We also try to resist certain aspects of the nonprofit industrial complex, especially those that depoliticize movement work and redirect organizational goals to meet funding requirements. Even though incorporated nonprofits with 501(c)(3) status allows organizations greater access to grant funds, we regularly work with unincorporated associations and 501(c)(4)s, as we understand that participating in the 501(c)(3) system reinforces the structures many of those groups are organized to dismantle. We also work with clients to come up with alternative funding sources, for example through more progressive foundations and loan funds and sourcing through community.  

The CED clinic’s client and project selection process is intimately tied to the theoretical frameworks from our syllabus: we center marginalized people who are resisting racial capitalism and building towards an abolition democracy. A more traditional transactional clinic faced with the above client example may have viewed their role as merely technical assistance providers, and just helped the partner organization to legally form the unionized worker cooperative and draft the coop’s governance document. The coop would not have centered the voices of members, would likely not have succeeded as a business, and its formation would not have helped meet our partners’ goal of combating racialized inequality, particularly for those impacted by the criminal legal system, as the Corcraft campaign has the potential to achieve. A more traditional clinic may also have not been mindful about the coalition composition, and just counseled the existing group on potential governance structures. However, without the leadership of directly impacted people, the campaign would likely overlook key factors (for example, that many people who are currently incarcerated prefer Corcraft jobs over others), and would likely fail to achieve great impact, since it would not effectively build power amongst directly impacted people. Structuring the clinic to reflect our values is nuanced and can be complicated at times; we dedicate time for students to reflect on the connection between the theoretical concepts and our clinic work throughout the semester, and adjust our approach accordingly.