Purvi Shah

Purvi Shah Using Law to Create Social Change

As Told To Julie Deardorff

My parents were the first in their families to come to the US. As a first-generation American, I witnessed the injustice of America up close—in my home, school, and city. I grew up keenly aware of how opportunity is not meted out equally and how “making it” depends on your zip code, your skin color, where you were born and how well you speak English.

At Northwestern, the world opened up and I began to put words and theories to what I had seen as a young person. I had the great fortune of being a student of [sociologist] Aldon Morris and was deeply moved by the struggle for Black freedom and the civil rights movement. From the stories of Ella Baker, the Freedom Riders, and Fannie Lou Hamer, I learned that ordinary people doing extraordinary things is what has often changed the course of history.

My father planted the seed for law school when he jokingly told me, “You argue quite a bit, so maybe consider going into law.” I did go on to study law, but my most powerful lessons came from being a community organizer working alongside low-wage workers, families of people in prison, and young people living on the margins. Organizing taught me that the people closest to problems often have the best ideas for solving them.

Starting out as a young attorney in Miami, I left my desk to go to taxi stands, restaurant kitchens, tenant meetings, and housing projects to have candid conversations with clients. I learned how to weave litigation, education, media, policy, and protest into coordinated campaigns and accomplished far more than I could’ve ever achieved alone in the courtroom.

We termed this approach “movement lawyering.” Rather than simply winning cases, movement lawyers deploy law strategically to change culture, systems, and power. We see ourselves as long-term partners to grassroots leaders and broader movements for change.

Only 3 percent of America’s 1.3 million lawyers work on issues of justice and poverty, despite overwhelming need. Most of the other 97 percent represent the interests of the powerful versus the powerless. The legal profession is in a crisis of leadership, culture, and values.

I teach other lawyers how to use our skills to create social change. Over the last decade, I’ve run summer academies for law students, taught at law schools, and held workshops across the world. These programs are creating a new army of lawyers to work collaboratively with social movements.

Movement Law Lab intentionally invests in lawyers who come from marginalized communities. They see their role as supporting movements for justice, and they are a part of the communities they work in. We see these lawyers as the true legal visionaries for the 21st century.

If you can’t imagine it and you can’t believe it, you will not be able to fight for it. You have to keep imagining that it is possible for our world to look different. You have to nurture that in this work.

My desire is to be in the fight for human dignity for the rest of my life. To have longevity in this work, you’ve got to build intimate spaces of love and resilience and you have to be concerned with the humans in your life—not just with humanity. You have a meal with your loved ones and show up for your elders.