Daily Business Review
March 13, 2015
Three Miami public interest lawyers received a grant from a Harvard Law School fund to open the Community Justice Project, focused on working with South Florida community organizations on racial, poverty and human rights issues.
The Community Justice Project, already in the works, will officially open its doors July 1 at space leased in downtown Miami from Florida Legal Services. Its being launched by Alana Greer, Meena Jagannath and Charles Elsesser, all currently lawyers at Florida Legal Services.
The group is only one of five organizations built through this grant program and the first in Florida. They received an $80,000 seed grant to launch, which is renewable next year.
The trio were already doing community-approached public interest law but wanted to open their own firm in order to branch out into wider areas, including helping citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, get recognition from the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
"The work we did in Ferguson, we did on our own time," Elsesser said. "And we increasingly realized that if we wanted to do this work we had to do it outside Florida Legal Services. That was the kick in the butt to get us moving."
Greer, a 2011 graduate of Harvard Law School, was the one who was able to apply for the grant from the Harvard Public Service Venture Fund. The group is also a semifinalist for a $90,000 grant from an organization called Echoing Green.
At 68, Elsesser, who has worked with Florida Legal Services since 1996, is the veteran litigator of the group. Greer is 30 and a racial justice attorney while Jagannath, a 2010 graduate of the University of Washington, is 33 and identifies herself as a human rights attorney.
"This was a collective effort in every sense of the word," Greer said. "The genesis was in our collaboration."
The three aren't terribly concerned about fundraising and are laser-focused on their mission. While local legal aid groups tend to concentrate on helping individuals, the Community Justice Project will assist community groups in achieving social change. The three won't just file lawsuits but also attend city council meetings, lead delegations to the U.N., write reports and provide general advice to community organizers.
"Our model is working with organizations that are directly connected to communities," Greer said. "We found there was a real clear momentum for social change around the country that called for some dedicated legal resources. We're hoping Miami can be a model for other cities."
Among the issues the group has been involved in are representing an association of South Florida taxi and Uber drivers on policy issues and litigation. The group was also co-counsel with Legal Services of Greater Miami on landlord tenant issues, including helping residents of a blighted Miami mobile home park who are being evicted after they withheld their rent due to deplorable conditions.
The Community Justice Project has also worked closely with the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based group working to defend young people of color against police action, discrimination and prison issues. It wrote a report on the fatal police Tasing of 18-year-old Miami artist and skateboarder Israel Hernandez.
Jagannath traveled with a delegation to Switzerland to present the Hernandez report to the U.N. Committee on Torture. As a result, the committee has asked the United States to formally respond to the issue.
"CJP is amazing, and I really appreciate being able to think of them as part of our team," said Steven Pargett, a spokesman for the Dream Defenders. "They help us with so much ... and really understand social justice and criminalization issues. They truly understand the work we are doing, and I feel like I can always reach out to them."
The lawyers are seeking donations of both funds and pro bono time from local attorneys. They were already inundated with requests for help from the public even before the firm opened.
Marcia Cypen, executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami, welcomes the addition of the new "private legal aid" law firm. She has already co-counseled with the group on several issues.
"They're definitely doing important work," Cypen said. "They're spinning off from Florida Legal Services to continue doing the work they were already doing. I think it's important that we have a full menu of legal services in South Florida."