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Legal Education for the Climate Crisis: An Interview with Abby Reyes


Angela P. Harris is Professor Emerita at the UC Davis School of Law.

Abby Reyes is the Director of Community Resilience Projects at the University of California, Irvine, where she also teaches a law school seminar titled "Law and Social Movements: Race, Place, and Climate Change."

Caroline Parker (@CarolineLParker) is a former co-president of the LPE student group and editor for the blog.

Introductory Notes from Angela Harris:

The police killings that brought people into the streets this summer took place amidst dramatically racialized patterns of illness, death, and economic precarity, touched off by the COVID-19 pandemic. The explosion of sorrow, rage, and joy this Juneteenth prompted soul-searching among many US law professors hoping to bring a passion for racial justice into their teaching. What might Law and Political Economy bring to this moment of reckoning?

The teaching, organizing, and advocacy work of Abby Reyes offers one answer.  Reyes directs Community Resilience Projects at the University of California, Irvine, and for the past two years has taught a seminar entitled “Law and Social Movements: Race, Place, and Climate Change” at UCI Law School. For Reyes, the urgency of climate change, like the pandemic, reveals the cracks in the structure of the global political economy. Following the vision of the climate justice movement, however, Reyes’ teaching and advocacy zeroes in not just on “fighting the bad,” but also “building the new.” Both her pedagogical methods and her substantive vision of a just transition offer insights for the LPE movement. Reyes brings a wealth of climate justice experience to the classroom. From her roots in popular education-based rural environmental legal assistance to her organizing at an R1 university, Reyes is often a knowledge broker between communities and the academy. Her work aims to increase resourced democratic space for community-driven climate resilience efforts. Caroline Parker and I spoke recently with Reyes over Zoom to discuss legal education for the climate crisis.

Harris: Abby, can you start by telling us what your job is?

Reyes: I’m the Director of Community Resilience Projects (CRP), which is part of the Office of Sustainability at the UCI. For many years our campus has been seen as a sustainability leader. But while we are really good at transforming the physical infrastructure of this place, we are not so great at building the human infrastructure, as our former teammate Adonia Lugo puts it. CRP exists to help ensure that the physical transformation happens with an eye towards moving social equity and deep democracy to the center. Our work consists of environmental and health equity community projects rooted here in Santa Ana, as well as climate resilience training for university faculty and students across California. You can read more about why this is the work here

Harris: And, full disclosure, we met while you were getting your J.D. at Berkeley! How did you come to into this work through the law?

Reyes:  I spent my early career supporting Indigenous communities dealing with the adverse effects of mining, oil, and gas in different parts of the world. I just finished my tenure as a board member and co-chair of EarthRights International, a lead legal organization doing this work in Southeast Asia and the upper Amazon. I never imagined that I would work in higher education. But ten years ago, I came to the University because my spouse is a faculty member. I knew I didn’t want to continue my international work remotely from southern California, so I decided to anchor myself to this place; to build community and community power here instead of having a virtual life.

Harris: And what brought you to law school in the first place?

Reyes:  I started out working with rural fishing and farming communities in the southern Philippines as a Henry Luce Scholar in the mid-1990s. My mentors there were human rights lawyers from Manila who moved to remote islands after the toppling of Marcos to help implement new constitutional and sustainable development frameworks.

These lawyers began to see the legal overlap between environmental and human rights work.  Indigenous ancestral domain claims, for example, involve both sets of legal issues. Around the same time, similar analysis was coming out of other parts of Southeast Asia, where EarthRights International was leading litigation on behalf of the indigenous Karen people, and in Nigeria, where the Ogoni people were organizing in opposition to Shell Oil. This is the context in which I cut my teeth.

Towards the end of my time in the Philippines, Shell Oil and Occidental Petroleum announced plans to build a pipeline through an ancestral fishing area nearby. I started researching strategies for dignified community response and learned about indigenous folks fighting against the same companies in other parts of the world. That’s how I first met my then-partner, Terence Unity Freitas, who was working with the indigenous U’wa community in Colombia. The U’wa community leaders were some of the first people I ever heard calling for humanity to simply keep it in the ground. For them, it wasn’t about a ‘sustainable development’ framework; it was about re-establishing the equilibrium between the earth and the sky.

Around the time I was applying to law school, Terence was kidnapped and murdered while exiting the U’wa land then-coveted by Occidental Petroleum.  He was murdered together with indigenous rights advocates Ingrid Washinawatok of the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin and Lahe’ena’e Gay of Hawaii. To this day, the intellectual authorship of the 1999 murders remains unestablished. I continue to work on this injustice as a recognized victim in Case 001 of Colombia’s post-civil war truth and recognition process and in support of the U’wa community’s legal action before the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights to protect what they call kajka ika, the land at the heart of the world. These experiences set the context for the questions that drive me today.

Harris: How did your experience in law school inform your teaching now?

Reyes: I was very cared for by the human rights law clinic community at Berkeley. Professor Laurel Fletcher was the first to acknowledge Terence’s murder in a professional context; she gave me refuge in the clinic. She helped me contextualize the life experiences I was bringing into my legal scholarship. But many parts of law school were incredibly alienating. I remember one particular moment working on a human rights case as a law clerk for Paul Hoffman, the esteemed human and civil rights lawyer who is now my colleague at UC Irvine Law. The case was being litigated in federal court. We were at a deposition. During a break, while washing my hands in the bathroom, I realized that the law clerk defending the oil company was my classmate. The gulf between us seemed unnavigable. And yet, I knew that, in many ways, she was probably just like me.

So many of my classmates felt pulled into corporate law because of a combination of student debt and this pervasive idea that they should get their “skills and experience” there. This sense of constraint is an equity issue that needs to be addressed.

My aspiration is that law students doing this kind of work don’t feel like they have to “take refuge” like I did in the clinic or avoid their corporate law classmates in the bathroom. As a teacher, I hope to create the conditions for law students to remember the other parts of themselves that brought them to law school and to experiment with allowing the whole self into the classroom.

Parker: For the last two years, you have taught a law school seminar class titled “Law and Social Movements: Race, Place, and Climate Change.” Can you tell us how the class came into existence?

When my colleague Sameer Ashar asked me to teach the seminar, the university gave me permission to teach as long as the course aligned with the overall purpose of my staff role directing Community Resilience Projects.  The question then became: what are the legal supports that advance community resilience aims?

I took this question into my role as a partner in the National Association of Climate Resilience Planners. In dialogue with fellow partners Jacqui Patterson of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program and Colette Pichon Battle of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, we formulated questions that we wanted to ask movement lawyers and organizers on this topic. In essence, what would need to change for frontline communities to have the legal support they need to transition from participation in the extractive economy to the co-generation of regenerative, equitable, local  economies?

I designed the seminar to (1) provide law students with the social movement contexts to understand the roots of this question and (2) enable law students to interact with movement lawyers and organizers who are well on their way to answering this question. I also designed the seminar to introduce students to tools for strategic questioning so that, as the semester progresses, they participate in a community visioning and action planning process. The topics of their final projects then arise from the action planning they’ve done during the term. Here are links to the seminar webpage and syllabi from 2019 and 2020.

During the two semesters I’ve offered the seminar, the students have begun to synthesize insights about what is needed next. At the same time, some folks from the seminar’s cohort of guest speakers have taken up this vision and formed the core of an organizing team that is working to plan a national just transition training and symposium. This spring, the team plans to offer a pilot training to equip lawyers from Black, Indigenous, and communities of color who work, or want to work, to accelerate just transition.

Parker: At my school, there is a persistent disconnect between aspiring “environmental” lawyers and students doing racial justice work. How does that division play out in your class?

Reyes: Yes, that divide is present at the university because it is pervasive in the broader world. Our approach to this perceived divide is rooted in our recognition that, on matters of community-driven climate resilience, the locus of knowledge production has shifted off-campus. Key expertise needed to address climate chaos resides in communities that bear the brunt of the crisis.

For any of the projects we do with CRP, a student starts with the work of articulating their own location in relation to the community alongside which we are moving. In some cases, the student is from the community. In other cases, the student may be a person with various privileges who understands that participating in this kind of community work will mean being dislocated from the center. Through this approach, students can develop sure footing. They can stay alert to the potential to cause harm and, in the best-case scenarios, can contribute to community-driven solutions.

To date, I observe that my class is not drawing the “environmental law” students, for the most part. It’s drawing Native students and students who’ve done a lot of work on immigration, housing, and criminal justice reform. It’s also drawing students who are articulating their lived experience—and the experience of their home or client communities—regarding their relationship to the earth, sometimes for the first time.

Harris: How did you make a space where people felt safe bringing more of themselves and that lived experience into the room?

Reyes: On the first day, we do an exercise that is up and about in the room. I ask students to physically place themselves on a spectrum that reflects the extent to which their education is preparing them to serve the public interest. We then ask students to share what they would need to change about their experience for them to be getting what they need. This question usually gets students to start articulating the values that are motivating them to be there.

Based on those values, I ask the class to draft a community agreement of norms. I ask them to consider what they need from others to get out of their comfort zone while also avoiding panic. We physically post that document in the classroom each session so we can point back to those norms. After the first week, I ask students to design the discussion, either with the guest speaker or processing the material.

When you read my syllabus, you can see the “head” work that I have students do. In the classroom, we do more of the “heart” work. I try to get students’ own lived experience into the room so that we can lift that up and build upon it. I draw heavily from popular education methodology and pedagogical practices identified by the Movement Strategy Center as practices of transformative social movements. We also teach using the elements of Emergent Strategy, from the work of our colleague adrienne maree brown.

Parker:  I imagine this idea of embodiment is uncomfortable for students who come to law school thinking they need to be the person in the room who is calm and cool and has the answers. Do you experience resistance from your students?

Reyes: Yes, there is some resistance. When a student surfaces it, I affirm their dignity and autonomy by asking questions aimed at self-inquiry. My goal is to help students identify what they want to feel instead of resistance, what it would take to get there, and what actions or requests are needed to make the change they’ve identified.

I give my students weekly light touch writing assignments that allow for some of the personal teasing-out when I can’t build it into my lesson plan. Students with skin color privilege and economic privilege do a bunch of this kind of work in the class through the writing assignments, which are a dialog with me.

An objective is for students to become aware of their social location and reconcile with it before they enter their role as a lawyer—not to make all students the same.

Harris: This emphasis on “embodiment” is one of the biggest differences I’ve noticed in recent discussions about movement lawyering. Do you have thoughts about why and how that has come to the center?

Reyes: I think embodiment has come to the center because it works, and it is more fun. Over the past decade here in the U.S., the fruits of embodiment and radical connection are readily apparent in progressive policy wins. People are drawn to these wins and become involved in the organizing. They stay involved because the subjective experience of co-creating inclusive space sparks creativity and joy.

When introducing such approaches in the classroom, I want students to walk away with an appreciation for the intentional attention that social movement actors weave into efforts for social transformation. They pay attention to working together in a way that embodies the values underlying the vision of the world they are trying to create.

We study, for example, movements that have taken on the challenge offered by indigenous leaders to imagine a 100-year vision. Like, don’t tell me your five-year strategic plan; let’s talk about a hundred. What is the work that we need to do now to get there? What work enables strategic navigation now? We bring this invitation to the class so that students can start seeing how such intentional attention manifests in the policy shifts that we see today.

I think about the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s policy campaign built around the multiple meanings of the phrase “We Belong Together.” It’s the families receiving care saying, we need each other. And, it’s the caregivers saying, with respect to immigration policy, we shouldn’t be separated from our own children either. By bringing the cared-for and the caregivers into policy alliance, they have succeeded in passing domestic worker bills of rights in multiple state legislatures. You might wonder how the Alliance ever shifted power in a way that got all those groups to be on the same side. This seminar tries to break some of that down for students.

Parker: Climate justice is not an established subfield in law the way that environmental or labor or housing law are. How do you prepare practitioners for fluency in so many subfields that are usually treated as distinct?

Reyes:  This type of subject matter identification is central to the just transition movement lawyering training I described earlier.  Part of the impetus of that training is to honor and foster the lawyering core of Black, Indigenous, and other lawyers of color who are doing that community and scholarly work. The other goal is to find the language to assert the areas of law we aim to permeate and transform. That’s why we are planning both a pilot training and subsequently a symposium on the law of just transition. Ideally, developing the language will help move this work to the center of legal education in a way that responds to what we are hearing our students calling for.

Already we are seeing folks embrace that at UC Irvine. At the law school, several clinics–the community economic development clinic, the civil and human rights clinics, and the environmental law clinic—are all working on community projects that we’ve incubated through CRP.

Harris:  You talked earlier about asking your students to envision broadly. To close,  would you share some of your visioning about a transformed legal, political and economic world.

Reyes:  My vision is influenced by my participation with the Movement Strategy Center, which experimented with leading with a 100-year vision. A hundred years out, we envision a world in which communities are safe and everyone is cared for; everyone has a safe, stable home; children grow and learn in relation to all life; we all eat well and we cultivate food for all; we nourish our mutual relationship with water; and we make collective decisions for the whole rooted in place. Moving this vision into practice will require a transformation of the way we think about governance that centers the agency and dignity of the most vulnerable.

To that end, I believe law school can be a place where people get “ways of being” training as much as doctrinal training. I envision legal education that prepares people to do the lawyering that honors the continuation of life on Earth, and that prepares lawyers to go ahead and talk about it that way. We can recognize that what Joanna Macy calls the great turning is already happening and we want our students to know how to walk alongside the folks turning the wheel. The beginnings of this shift center basic questions like ‘how do we clean water?’ and ‘how do we grow food?’ As we know, there’s a ton of lawyering behind that to make it equitable.

To do right by those made most vulnerable in today’s systems of extraction, legal education needs to be as much about unlearning as it is about learning. Without that shift in higher education, I don’t think we survive. With that shift, imagine what becomes possible. The Deb Haalands of the world become legion.