Building and (un)learning in community with litigators

Whilst communities and movements are at the forefront of the daily fight for racial, social, and economic justice, they are often forced to take a back seat when it comes to litigating for change in the courts. Over the past years, we have seen a rise in litigators across Europe undertaking cases concerning racial, social, and economic justice. Nonetheless, communities, groups, and movements most impacted by these forms of systemic injustices are often under-represented in such efforts. 

Building a Community of Practice, is much like connecting the dots in a constellation, with the existing field of litigators bringing a wealth of experience to the fold, and a willingness to unlearn, reshape and shine a light on a new way of looking at strategic litigation. Photo: Austin Johnson.

At Systemic Justice we want to ignite a paradigm shift in the way strategic litigation serves marginalised communities and their campaigns for justice. There is a pressing need for communities to be able to use litigation as a tool for change in their fight for racial, social, and economic justice, and a growing desire within the legal field to adopt community-focused approaches to litigation. We are working to harness this energy, bringing together litigators, legal practitioners, and litigating organisations as part of a Community of Practice to collaboratively build new working models for community-driven litigation.  

A “community of practice” is an age-old concept that involves a group of active participants with a common interest coming together to share ideas, experiences, and best practices, and to support each other towards individual and shared goals. It is a means of pooling valuable learning and creating new knowledge, while strengthening a sense of shared values and purpose in their work.  

This Community of Practice will aim to build, learn, and rethink equitable working models to strengthen community-driven litigation on racial, social, and economic justice in Europe. It will do so by offering legal practitioners working on such cases (including the team at Systemic Justice) an opportunity to learn from each other, provide mutual support, engage in dialogue, build knowledge, and stimulate learning.  By connecting litigators and providing a shared context for our work, the Community of Practice will be a participatory and open partnership: an incubator for (un)learning  and a platform for collaboratively building a shared repertoire of community-centred working methods to be shared more widely amongst litigators across Europe. 

Building the Community  

To kick off the process of establishing the Community, we connected with a range of organisations across Europe that currently engage in litigation as a tactic in their racial, social, and economic justice work. Over thirty organisations took part in this process, representing litigation work across a range of issues including environment and climate, LGBTQI+ rights, digital rights, migration, Roma rights, socio-economic rights, equality and non-discrimination, freedom of religion, and social protection.  We strove to achieve a broad representation of jurisdictions, and were able to connect with litigators from Armenia, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the UK. 

These early conversations looked at the shared goals and preferred areas of focus for the Community. They included discussions around how the Community could be cultivated, the means of engaging and communicating with each other, and ideas on the kind of knowledge we should build and share together.  

The conversations and engagement so far has surfaced several shared goals for our work together. Many of these centre around creating a sustainable, supportive, and safe space for litigators to share knowledge, learn from each other, problem solve, collaborate, and take action. Particularly, there is a strong desire to build best practices and methodologies for engaging with communities and local groups, and to develop a Europe-wide “movement lawyering” approach to litigation on racial, social, and economic justice. This includes building skills in employing intersectional perspectives and approaches to litigation work. 

The Community will also be a space to reflect on the power imbalances that currently exist between lawyers/litigating organisations and the groups they seek to represent, and develop tools to address these imbalances. One Community member highlighted the importance of litigators “not imposing how to deal with systemic injustices, but instead thinking about how to work with communities in breaking the normalisation of human rights violations.”  

The potential to connect and learn across jurisdictions and build solidarity across the region is also an exciting prospect of the Community’s work. Sharing experiences on strategic litigation, for instance successful legal arguments and hard lessons learnt, is just one way in which cross-jurisdictional collaboration could thrive.  

The central intention for the Community of Practice is to make the tools and knowledge honed and cultivated accessible to a wider audience. All publications and resources aimed at sharing this knowledge will be made openly accessible so they can be used as widely as possible by litigators, community organisers, and other groups fighting for racial, social, and economic justice through the courts.  

What we are doing next 

We are excited to be taking the next steps in establishing the Community at our first in-person Community of Practice Retreat this month. We will be joined by 17 other organisations at a stunning location in rural France that has been kindly made available to us by the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for Human Progress.*  

During the retreat we will co-design guidelines for Community engagement including its underlying principles and values, and establish an actionable plan of activities for the next year.  

As we take these crucial first steps in laying the foundation of the Community of Practice, we are limiting participation to those who have engaged in the process so far. Nonetheless, it is a shared objective of the community to see it grow naturally and organically, whilst maintaining safety and trust amongst members. Therefore, if you are a litigator working on racial, social, and economic justice issues in Europe, and would be interested in participating in the Community when the opportunity arises, please feel free to connect with us via email.  

Otherwise, watch this space for updates from our October retreat and to see what’s next! 

* The Community of Practice project is also supported by The Freedom Fund 

Stay updated

Sign up for our newsletter and we’ll keep you up-to-date on our work!