A human rights lawyer uses the law as a tool for empowering Miami’s disadvantaged communities
Miami – Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.”
Lawyers, on the other hand, take an oath to uphold the law. Which is also noble. But it’s not on the same ethical footing. And that’s a shame, according to Miami Activist Meena Jagannath.
“What is legal is not necessarily what is just,” says the iconoclastic human rights attorney who is a member of both the New York and Florida Bars. She’s also a co-founder of Miami’s Community Justice Project, Inc., which represents grassroots organizations in Miami’s low-income communities.
Lawyers, Jagannath points out, hold immense power, access to and understanding of the system and knowledge of how things work. “But what,” she asks, “is our responsibility to those crushed or manipulated by these systems?”
As an example, she points to a group of shopkeepers in Little Haiti who had been paying rent month-to-month for years but were recently evicted from their stores on short notice when the building changed ownership. “They didn’t have a lease, so we just say, ‘oh well, too bad, so sad.’ And people’s lives are ruined,” said Jagannath, who has devoted her legal career to empowering the powerless.
Jagannath has been an activist and something of a radical from an early age. She was born in Queens, New York in 1981 to immigrant parents from India. The family moved to South Brunswick, New Jersey where she became an elementary school activist by creating an environmental group that organized field trips to the town recycling center. In high school, she joined Amnesty International and began writing letters on behalf of victims of human rights abuses.
As a student at Tufts University, she fell in with likeminded people. She took up Ultimate Frisbee, the patron sport of the American counterculture. She joined the Tufts Coalition for Social Justice and Non-Violence. She was a spokesperson for a sit-in protesting that the university’s non-discrimination policy did not include the LGBT community. And she helped launch a new progressive magazine called Radix, designed as a counterpoint to other more conservative student publications.
Junior year, she took off for France to study postcolonialism with teachers and fellow-students who were intellectually curious and passionately concerned about the human consequences of rich and powerful people exerting control over poor and powerless people.
From there, her human rights and grassroots organizing education alternated between formal academic training and hands on experience. She earned degrees at Columbia University’s Master of International Affairs program in New York and at the University of Washington Law School in Seattle with a full scholarship from the Gates Public Service Law Program.
In the field, Jagannath has been through a gauntlet of global injustice and atrocity. She’s worked with rural farmers and micro-loan recipients in India, Mayan victims of massacres in Guatemala, feuding factions in Lebanon, and victims of sexual violence in Haiti.
In 2012, armed with a law degree that emphasized social justice and with broad experience organizing grassroots efforts, Jagannath came back to the United States, to help empower Miami’s poor communities.
These days, Jagannath is representing the Family Action Network Movement (FANM), a 28-year-old Miami-Haitian advocacy group led by Marleine Bastien. FANM, and a coalition of other Little Haiti grassroots organizations, are pushing back against real estate development plans, including the proposed Magic City Innovation District. Community organizers fear that such projects will destroy the character of their neighborhood and displace hundreds of low-income people.
It’s a familiar battle, not just in Miami, but also around the country and around the world.
On one side of the debate there are real estate speculators, developers and venture capitalists. On the other side are residents and shopkeepers of Little Haiti, many of whom are poor and working-class Caribbean immigrants.
In other words, it’s the powerful against the less powerful, and that’s a fight Jagannath simply can’t walk away from.
Jagannath, who’s guiding FANM through the quasi-judicial government hearing process, helped the Little Haiti community convince the Miami commissioners to postpone a decision in order to give the residents and developers more time to talk. The two sides are now preparing for the next Miami City Council hearing on February 28th.
Jagannath’s goals in this matter are three-fold: First, to help her client navigate through what would otherwise be an inaccessible process. Second, to help ensure that the people who are directly impacted have a say in the project’s planning and execution. And third, to help her client set a precedent for development without displacement, whereby a project’s economic rewards will accrue not just to the developers but also to the people who need it in the form of affordable housing, jobs and community benefits.
Gentrification is an intractable issue. Investors and property owners are within their legal rights to maximize their investments. But residents come to the issue with a different perspective. To them, money is often beside the point. As Jagannath said during a recent podcast, “There isn’t a sum of money that can really replace 20 years of a lifetime in a house, where you have a tree that you planted when you first got there.”
“Meena had the perfect background of supporting grassroots organizations and lawyering for social change,” said Charles Elsesser who was one of the advocacy lawyers who recruited Jagannath to the Community Justice Project when it was still part of Florida Legal Services.
In 2015, Jagannath, Elsesser, and another social movement lawyer named Alana Greer, spun off the Community Justice Project from Florida Legal Services. They restructured the organization financially and expanded its scope in light of national issues related to police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, protests against Florida’s “stand your ground” law, and the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements.
Jagannath and Greer recently discussed their human rights infused approach to lawyering via video conference with a group of law students at Northeastern Law School in Boston. The class is called, Defense, Offense & Dreaming: Lawyering for Social Movements, taught by Community Justice Project board member Purvi Shah. It’s one of only a few law school classes that teach how the law can be used as a tool for social change.
“Don’t feel constrained by the opportunities in front of you – build it,” Jagannath encouraged the students. “Do whatever you’re doing well – commit yourself to craft. Our people need a good lawyer.”
She’s right, because social change is hard work. Just ask a Haitian taxi driver whose livelihood has been “disrupted” by Uber and Lyft. Jagannath represents the New Vision Drivers Association of Florida, a predominantly Haitian grassroots organization of for-hire drivers. But so far, to little avail.
“Taxi drivers are worse off,” says Jagannath, shaking her head and adding, “Even Uber and Lyft drivers have a hard time earning a decent living.”
After six years in town, Jagannath’s assessment of Miami isn’t particularly rosy. “Has Miami changed?” I asked her.
“I don’t know that I’d say it’s better,” she said, “Awareness is much higher around our affordable housing crisis, but there’s not enough happening around wages and workers’ rights.”
How do you fix that? “We have to remind ourselves that there are a lot of people marginalized by our system. In order to get the power structure to care about that, the people have to care. And they have to let their politicians know that they care.”
“We should ask ourselves,” she says, “How might we as people in Miami actually put ourselves at the service of those who are most marginalized and who bear the brunt of this unequal system?”
After all, according to Jagannath, we all want the same thing, “To come home to a decent living after we’ve worked a full day.”