Build Power: Community Paralegals in Puerto Rico

by Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico
Build Power: Community Paralegals in Puerto Rico
Build Power: Community Paralegals in Puerto Rico
Build Power: Community Paralegals in Puerto Rico
Build Power: Community Paralegals in Puerto Rico
Build Power: Community Paralegals in Puerto Rico
Build Power: Community Paralegals in Puerto Rico

So we are thrilled to share the good news: we are extending the Community Paralegal Program for another semester. Thanks to your support, this will be the third session of this space, where community leaders and lawyers convene to co-design and advance advocacy and legal strategies. The issues still revolve around housing and climate justice, with an emphasis on the right to stay and mitigate of communities burdened by racial discrimination and the impact of the climate crisis. Some of the participants have been with us for two years now, and we expect to grow our base of currently 18 leaders. Because of the socio-economic context, as well as love and trust relationships built over the years, we are glad to stay at Loíza during this new session. 

Your support is still needed. 

The Community Paralegal Program was inspired by international models of legal empowerment work directed to ensure self-determination, racial equity, and climate justice. We recruited community leaders from Loiza and enrolled them in a curriculum leading to the development of essential knowledge and capacities necessary to identify community legal issues and to navigate primary steps towards defense. The curriculum and tools used were codesigned with the community leaders.  The goal is to sustain this program during the time necessary to ensure capacity development and the possibility of community leaders using their training to advocate and defend their collective rights. That is well beyond this next semester.

The recent passage of hurricane Fiona and several flood events make the neglected impact of hurricane María even more present. The needs of transformation and legal empowerment of Loíza - and Puerto Rico in general- is urgent. 

Please stay tuned for a short clip about Community Paralegals that should be out very very soon.

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As I write this brief report on our Community Paralegals Legal Empowerment Project, I pause and reflect on the meaning of the word "trust." We are fastly approaching the 18th month's benchmark of this program, an initiative nurtured by the support and experience of community leaders and lawyers. The continuous relationship - meeting in the same place throughout these months, always on Saturday mornings, always sharing coffee or food - has solidified bonds based on togetherness. As participants return to workshops on climate & housing justice, share their stories, and obtain knowledge of basic legal concepts and processes, narratives of precarity start weaving with building power capacities. Together, we created a safe place. Together, we created a place to develop trust. Amidst human rights violations, the constant threat of displacements, and constant government-sponsored neglect of the communities' demands, the power and enthusiasm we feel among community paralegals is a gift.

The second cohort groups more than 20 people, doubling the first one. While most participants were new members of the Community Paralegals Program, four leaders who actively participated in the first round returned to engage as outreach liaisons and experimented with navigators of the know, use, and shape of the law curriculum. At this moment, we just finished the first part: discussing democracy, rights, legal systems, and rule-making. Now, we are engaging with the topics the community identified as priorities. Within the two main issues - climate and housing justice- it's time to talk about mitigation, floods, and community access. Security of tenure has also become a focus. Conversations are becoming increasingly complex because that is the nature of unmet legal needs and social injustice. This space has been able to hold people safe.

Thanks to your support, this second round will not last only a few weeks, as we preciously expected/feared. We are happy to say that we made a budget to ensure this will last till the end of the peak hurricane season (September). During the following weeks, community paralegals will learn about storytelling, interviews for complaint procedures, and more. They will also host a radio program and a panel. The keynote of our in-person IV Towards a Just Recovery Summit will be a beloved community leader and participant.

As this project sustains itself, we know trust has multiple roads. We are happy to have found a nurturing home among paralegals at El Ancón, Loíza. We are grateful for their trust, and we trust the power of their experiences, struggles, and wins. As well, and because you have made this possible, we are grateful for your trust.

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This month marks the first anniversary of our Community Paralegals program, and we are ready to celebrate with you. As we wrap up this cycle, we want to share key learning gathered along the way with you.

1. Communities want and are entitled to knowing their rights: During the first 2/3 of this experience, participants participated in legal workshops where they learned about the system of law, rights, regulations, and legal procedures. The experience of obtaining accessible legal information and materials was nurtured by the stories of community participants who served as history guardians and storytellers, who illustrated communities' relationship with actual legal barriers or issues. We became more aware and accountable by actively listening to them, pivoting our strategies in other localities to adjust to the reality voiced by these community stakeholders.

2. Communities want and are entitled to defend their rights: After the education phase, paralegals started developing the capacity to decide a legal issue to tackle and advance their common goals. Issues such as flooding and title clearance are at the top. Now, participants present access to information requests as a groundwork for the legal and advocacy actions to come. This phase is ongoing.


3. Advocacy, in the hands of communities, always wins- We want to highlight how Community Paralegals – together with Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico- hosted an official site visit of the United States Civil Rights Commission. Paralegals set up a space, invited other community stakeholders, and prepared testimonies that shared their experience in the aftermath of Hurricane María, as well as demands voiced in human rights terms. Issues of housing, climate justice, and the right to just recovery were amplified. We were able to see and hear how the trust and capacity-building processes carried out during the program had a tangible impact on the petitions of access to remedies.

On March 18, 2022, we will meet at El Ancón to celebrate and close this loop. We plan to continue working with these paralegals and invite others to join. We know the impact of law in the hands of communities regarding housing, climate, and land justice is irrefutable. If you know groups in Loíza that would love to learn more about the program contact us at recuperacionjusta@ayudalegalpr.org. Meanwhile, remember to donate and continue promoting this project. Every contribution is significant.

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After eight months of meetings and workshops, the community paralegals are finally ready to decide on the future of the strategy. We are currently working on decision-making processes to advance climate and land justice for their communities. The recurring topics are dignified housing, anti-displacement efforts, and security of tenure.

We want to share with you some elements of that discussion. We created a safe space - and a board game!- to discuss three factors that measure legal empowerment readiness: need, desirability, and commonality. We have the responsibility to nurture a community-led process that relies on their capacities and trust-building processes. If we fail to do so, we would be practicing colonial legal work, disinvesting the community of their will to transform their reality. These conversarions help keep ourselves accountable to one another. 

Today we celebrate the experiences we are sharing with the people at El Ancón. We are grateful for this space and program. We know we need continuous support. We want to ensure this program sustains itself for another year, and we need your donations to make it possible. Please share this report, share this project, and donate.

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Creating a community paralegal program in the intersectionality of displacements and the climate crisis is a challenge. At the same time, it's the potentiality of social transformation at a glance. For six months now, we have accompanied a group of 12 community leaders from Loíza in the process of education, "concientización", and advocacy training. Based on a map of the groups' needs and wants, tenure, climate change, and the lack of corporate (developers) accountability are at the root of their concerns. During this first phase, we have shared materials, workshops, and discussions as building blocks to understand how legal systems work and their role in perpetuating inequality. 

Meaningful conversations about who owns the land and who wants it, as well as discussions about reparations grounded on racist injustice, have been fundamental for our mutual learning. Dispossession and disinvestment are intrinsically linked to unequal development. Legal empowerment in the hands of the community may help transform this relationship. People who participate in this program want to regain their lands. 

During the following weeks, the community stakeholders will engage in workshops to nurture their research skills, complaint writing, and self-representation before administrative and judicial forums. The goal is to identify a legal issue that they want to prioritize and self-define the best legal course with our accompaniment. 

Once again, we thank our partners at El Ancón in Loíza. To learn more about this place's history, group, and advocacy asks, please visit this website. https://www.elancondeloiza.com

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Organization Information

Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico

Location: San Juan - Puerto Rico
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @ayudalegalpr
Project Leader:
Ariadna Godreau
San Juan, Puerto Rico
$8,136 raised of $25,000 goal
 
53 donations
$16,864 to go
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