Professor profile-- U-M law professor helps wage war against poverty

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Alicia Alvarez is passionate about economic justice.

A clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan since 2006, she has spent her entire legal career working on issues affecting low-income communities in the United States and abroad.

She directs the Urban Communities Clinic, representing nonprofit, community-based organizations and small businesses. This fall, she and her students will create a worker-owned cooperative in Detroit.

Alvarez sees in community development lawyering the possibility to support groups working on an anti-poverty strategy by advocating for jobs that pay enough for self-support, and providing much-needed social services.

"I see myself as an anti-poverty lawyer and see community development lawyering as one possible means in the many battles that must be waged against poverty," she says.

In 2008 she joined the Board--and later served as secretary--of the Washtenaw County Work Center, a nonprofit organization for immigrant and native-born people in the low-wage private service sector. Before joining the board, her law students made know-your-rights presentations at WCWC members meetings during the year she taught in the Michigan Clinical Law Program.

"Community development clinics need to do more than teach students to be good transactional lawyers--rather they must also acknowledge and focus their efforts on the elimination and reduction of poverty," she says.

After earning her bachelor's degree from Loyola University of Chicago and her law degree from Boston College Law School, Alvarez worked for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, handling several class action cases and a caseload consisting primarily of housing, employment and consumer issues as well as disability benefits.

She taught the Community Development Clinic at DePaul University College of Law, and taught in the Asylum Clinic and civil litigation clinic. She was a visiting professor at the Boston College Law School and the University of El Salvador, where she was a 2001 Fulbright Scholar.

She was one of two U-M clinical professors who worked with the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) to videoconference with counterparts from law schools at Kenyatta University in Nairobi and the University of Kabul in Afghanistan, helping them create and maintain transactional clinics that would help ensure legal protections reach even the poorest residents.

She has consulted with similar clinics throughout Latin America, and has visited her native country of Cuba as well as Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, and El Salvador.

A March trip to El Salvador was her first in four years.

"I first went in 1998 because in representing several Salvadorans in asylum cases I had read a lot about the country," she says. "I wanted to see how the mental picture I had compared to reality."

A beautiful country with the ocean and mountains, El Salvador has faced a lot of adversity: volcanoes, poverty, wars, storms like the hurricane she and her students experienced in 2005; and earthquakes like the two major temblors that struck during her visit in 2001.

"The people are resilient and have a sense of hope that I find inspiring," she says.

Alvarez, who served on the planning committee for the 2010 Association of American Law Schools' Clinical Conference, enjoys teaching and interacting with her students

"I enjoy working collaboratively, being a part of the process of someone figuring things out, whether it's problems faced by a community or more concrete lawyering issues," she says.

During a 2005 visit with students to the site of the massacre in El Mozote, where Salvadoran armed forces killed civilians in 1981 in an anti-guerrilla campaign, her group was accompanied by the sole survivor Rufina Amaya, who lost a husband and children in the slaughter.

"She told us she believed God had allowed her to survive so she could be a witness to what happened," Alvarez says. "One of my students said, 'Now we are her witnesses.' I had not thought about things that way. At that moment, I was learning from the students.

"That moment of someone figuring things out for themselves, whether it's intellectually or in another way, is an important moment in someone's development as a lawyer, a participant in our democracy, a person."

Published: Mon, Aug 9, 2010