Sometimes optimism can seem like a radical act. Or, worse, naïve.
With the enormous challenges facing us, and an awareness of how power structures are stacked against us, it can be hard to imagine a different reality. The glass feels less than half full.
Our work focuses on making one particular tool for change, strategic litigation, available to communities on their own terms. Its whole premise is that this is only part of a wider strategy: one that can include campaigning, raising public awareness, lobbying, and so on. It is a powerful tool, but it won’t fix everything for everyone all at once. It won’t in and of itself change the fact that marginalised communities are underrepresented in the legal system. Or that the legislature is mostly white, male, and privileged. Or single-handedly turn the tide on the continuous dismantling of access to justice and the legal aid system around Europe.
If we cannot be everything to everyone, should we do anything at all?
I recently wrote that some of the biggest changes we’ve seen in history were all unimaginable at some point. We need to remember that systems of domination and violence are all made by humans, meaning that humans can also undo them.
“It’s an ordinary ability that people have, to join their actions with people across huge time scales… that means that we can be part of victories that we may not be here to see. And the scale of the thing that we’re trying to accomplish, maybe we can do it tomorrow. … but if we can’t do it tomorrow, if we can’t do it in the next 100 years, that doesn’t mean that it’s not practically relevant to us. We can be part of whatever happens 100 years from now, or 200 years from now, or 300 years from now, or 100 days from now. And that’s enough. For generations, for centuries, for millennia, that’s had to be enough for a lot of generations of people who were constantly undertaking projects that other generations started and that other generations would have to take up or maybe even complete. And I think one of the things to resist about the kind of individualism that proliferates through our current political system is the need to respond only to the kinds of things that we ourselves, as individual human beings, can experience and live out. There are other things to value, and this kind of social change might be one of those.”
Working to achieve systemic change takes time. Looking at community-driven litigation on issues of racial, social, and economic justice, this means we should expect losses (and setbacks) in court in the short term. Many times. And: that doesn’t mean there won’t be successes.
How do we define success? It can be so much more than a win inside the courtroom.
It can be change we can create along the way: changing the narrative on an issue, generating public debate, getting the press to write truthful and compelling stories about an injustice, getting policymakers to frame a problem differently, spurring on legislators to take action, forging communities, movements, and unexpected allies around a concrete action.
Success also lies in communities taking power and control. With an inaccesible and racist legal system (and we should not give up on changing that) many communities cannot even consider using it in their campaigns. Being able to take action in the first place, and on communities’ own terms, constitutes success as well.
Of course, I hope at least part of the work we’re building with community partners will lead to powerful court decisions in the shorter term. The challenges we are facing are urgent and demand robust intervention. But we have to keep the long term in mind and continue carefully sowing the seeds for change. Momentum for every struggle will inevitably wax and wane — we need to build sustained campaigns to be ready to make a push when there’s an opening. And while litigation is not a silver bullet, it can help bring about wide-ranging positive change if we are ready and able to put it to use in the right way at the right time.
Returning to that half empty glass: filling it even a drop at a time contributes to change, even if we may not be around to see it filled to the brim.