Students explore access to justice in poverty law course

March 21, 2017
Inaugural class 'puts poverty into perspective'

On the last day of the Richmond Law’s inaugural poverty law course, Professor Tara Casey brought her students to the observation deck overlooking the city of Richmond. From that spot, they could see commercial centers and industrial buildings, homes and hospitals. And, explained Casey, “Within your vision sight you see some of the most expensive properties in our region, and you see our most depressed communities in our city.” That vantage point was an intentional and important one to culminate their study of poverty – and the role that law and policy play in confounding and alleviating poverty. “For a region that’s as diverse and complex as ours, its poverty is equally diverse and complex,” said Casey.

For several years now, Casey had explored the idea of teaching a course in poverty law, and knew that a crucial component of the learning experience would be site visits. “Being out in the community, though, didn’t lend itself to a traditional semester schedule,” said Casey. So her students launched into a week-long, intensive study of poverty in the Richmond area over the spring 2017 semester break by getting out of the classroom and into the community.

Each day found the team of students boarding a bus to visit a different area of Richmond. One day they toured the I-95 corridor that divided the Jackson Ward community; they also visited health clinics, a mobile home community, and local schools on different ends of the city of Richmond. Following each trip, the students returned to UR Downtown, where they participated in a group discussion with a local expert on the day’s topic.

The unique style of experiential learning was critical in the students’ experience. “It made the classroom component of it that much more real and concrete,” said Brian Landrum, L’17. For example, after seeing how the construction of the I-95 corridor bisected the Jackson Ward neighborhood, followed by a visit to Lumpkin’s Slave Jail and a history tour of the annexation of Manchester, John Moeser of the University’s Center for Civic Engagement talked to students about how land use and planning were often used as tools by people in power to subjugate others. “It was an interesting fusion of planning and law and policy and the very real effects that those polices had in terms of the perpetuation and the entrenchment of poverty conditions,” said Landrum.

Rachael Deane, L’10, is an attorney in the JustChildren program at the Legal Aid Justice Center, and she led the group on the day that focused on education. “We discussed the stark inequalities among and within school divisions in Virginia, and we talked about the inadequacy of education in areas of concentrated poverty,” said Deane. “When that opportunity gap becomes real for the students, it’s impossible to ignore.” Benjamin Dessart, L’17, put that realization this way: “It is easy to look at statistics surrounding poverty and imagine them as just numbers on a page,” he said. “This class put poverty into perspective.”

Students learned not just about the specifics about poverty in the community, but about the role and responsibility of lawyers when it comes to poverty law. “Attorneys are uniquely suited to help out when someone’s housing, health care, education, or employment is on the line,” said Deane. “It’s also important for lawyers to think about how our justice system perpetuates poverty and to lead efforts to address poverty on a systemic level.”

The end product of the course will be a report with a recommendation for alleviating poverty in Richmond. In his report, for example, Mike Armstead, L’18, plans to propose a public-private partnership between the city and VCU Health Systems to create mobile health clinics. “There’s so little out there [in terms of medical care] for folks who are indigent or maybe have the ability to pay a little bit but can’t afford your standard charges,” said Armstead. Dessart, himself a product of Henrico County’s public schools, plans to look at the County’s expulsion and suspension regulations and their impact on students’ education.

One thing that both Armstead and Dessart pointed to as a key take-away from the class is the ability of poverty to interfere with citizens’ access to justice. “Poverty frustrates people’s ability to exercise their rights,” said Armstead. And, Dessart explained, “It’s not only important for lawyers to learn about the intersection of poverty and the law, but get involved in protecting the community, as well.”