Alumna Purvi Shah: Using Law to Create Social Change

Alumna Purvi Shah: Using Law to Create Social Change

Purvi Shah Purvi Shah: "My desire is to be in the fight for human dignity for the rest of my life." School of Education and Social Policy alumna Purvi Shah (BS02), who majored in social policy and political science at Northwestern, founded the Movement Law Lab to seed a new generation of lawyers who can tackle some of America's toughest justice challenges. Below, she describes her work, the need for movement lawyering, and what gives her hope. 

My parents were the first in their families to come to America. 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, the color of your skin, where you were born, how well you speak English.

In college, 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 one of Aldon Morris's students and was deeply moved by the history of Black Freedom struggle and Civil Rights movement. As I heard the stories of Ella Baker, the Freedom Riders, and Fannie Lou Hammer--I learned that ordinary people doing extraordinary things is what has often changed the course of history.

My father jokingly planted the seed for law school when he said, ‘you argue quite a bit, maybe you should 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.

When I first started 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 have 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. This approach has helped me better diagnose issues, see how they are connected, and identify strategic opportunities for solutions.

Despite overwhelming need, the vast majority of the legal profession sits on the sidelines of social change. Only 3% of America’s 1.3 million lawyers work on issues of justice and poverty. The majority of the legal profession represents the interests of the powerful versus the powerless. Our profession is in a crisis of leadership, culture and values.

As a result, I’ve spent the last decade teaching other lawyers how to use our skills to create social change. 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

In 2014, when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, the crises of racialized police violence and police brutality gained renewed attention in the public eye. I went to Ferguson just a week after Mike Brown was killed and realized that making #BlackLivesMatter required mobilizing lawyers across the country to work alongside community activists. I organized a gathering called Law For Black Lives. I thought a few hundred lawyers might attend. Nearly 1000 joined, we trended on Twitter, and ended up deploying over 3500 volunteer lawyers and law students to support the Movement for Black Lives with a range of legal work.

My current organization Movement Law Lab is supporting a new generation of lawyers and legal organizations to work alongside progressive movements for change. MLL intentionally invests in lawyers that come from marginalized communities, who see their role as supporting movements for justice, and who are a part of the communities they work in. We see these lawyers as the true legal visionaries for the 21st century.

Last year, our team launched the first global network of movement lawyers bringing together lawyers from 30 countries who represent social movements across the world fighting for climate justice, indigenous rights, democracy, and workers rights. The fight for social justice does not  stop at our borders. Movements must work together across the world to build a world that is better for people and the planet.

What gives me hope is the courage of everyday people. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a day with Bob Moses, the civil rights legend.  Eager to learn the lessons left out of the history books, I asked him ‘how did you come up with Freedom Summer when the stakes were so high and death was what stood on the other side?’ Mr. Moses looked at me and he said, “what right did I have to be afraid if Fannie Lou Hammer was willing to fight?’ That's always stayed with me. Every single day marginalized folks challenge the hardest things in their lives, that takes tremendous courage. The job of the movement lawyer is to simply walk alongside them.

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, I think you've got to build intimate spaces of love and resilience, and you have to be concerned with the humans in your life and not just humanity.  You have a meal with your loved ones, and you show up for your elders. It’s not just all about these abstract concepts that we can practice, love and resilience and connection in all of the places of our life. My family has been an enormous support system for me. That renews me. We get replenished, and we can take breaks and we come back and we fight another day. So I am deeply hopeful about the future of our world because of young people who are willing to fight and to challenge the status quo.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 1/11/21