Over 5 billion people—two-thirds of the global population—lack meaningful access to justice. As a young lawyer delivering legal aid to marginalized communities in Washington State and Kenya, I saw firsthand how people were excluded from justice systems. And I realized that in addition to legal aid we need legal empowerment to stem the tide of injustice.
The concept of legal empowerment is grounded in two realities: First, grassroots legal actors in marginalized or vulnerable communities are best suited to drive lasting change for those people. Too often, justice systems fail to include affected communities in the problem-solving and decision-making processes. That means that solutions, which may have seemed compelling on paper, often fail because they are not practically applicable. Incorporating the knowledge and expertise of marginalized communities ensures that their values inform each step of the process.
Second, legal solutions rooted in local values are the most effective path toward solving systemic problems like poverty, exclusion, and human rights abuses. By giving billions of underserved people the power to access and use justice systems, we can start to change who these systems serve. To transform institutions and dismantle frameworks that perpetuate inequalities, we must include the affected communities, tap into their expertise, and focus on just, equitable, and actionable solutions.
Taken together, these two truths are a roadmap for turning legal empowerment at the grassroots level into systemic change that centers the knowledge and values of affected communities.
But because community-based organizations are often overlooked and excluded from traditional legal reform efforts, they remain drastically underfunded. The Legal Empowerment Fund (LEF) is a new initiative to give grassroots groups the resources and support they need. That begins with a grant-making process that values community know-how, not just technical expertise; with an application process that is inclusive and accessible; and a donor base that believes systemic change is more important than overnight results.
By structuring our approach around social justice, equity, and inclusivity, we can shift focus—and power—to communities on the front lines of lasting change.