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Most law students in their second year of school worry about getting good grades and finding that all-important summer job. Not Andrew Friedman and Oona Chatterjee. These New York University School of Law graduates spent their second and third years of law school commuting from NYU to St. Barbaras Church in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., to counsel Latino immigrants on their welfare woes. Bushwick is a community made up of mostly Latino families, many of whom are living in poverty and working at the countless garment factories lining the graffiti-filled streets. The law students said they picked this impoverished area to work in because it had a lack of legal service providers and because they were welcomed and helped by the monsignor of St. Barbaras Church, a known community organizer in the neighborhood. At first Friedman and Chatterjee spent one evening a week at St. Barbaras. But as word got out about their visits, 30 to 40 people lined up each time to see them. People asked the law students a barrage of questions, from how to hold on to their food stamps to requesting that they translate letters from the welfare office. The duo soon realized that one night a week was not enough to address the residents’ concerns, and they increased their visits. In 1997, their third year in law school, they were spending 40 hours a week in Bushwick. “We just set out to get our feet wet and wound up full body in the pool,” said Friedman, the only one of the two who has ties to Brooklyn; he was born but not raised in New York and his grandmothers still live in Bensonhurst. Both admit that when they started out, they knew very little about nonprofit work. “I think we were plowing ahead partly because we didn’t know how much work was involved,” said Chatterjee. “All of a sudden it was bigger than us. … We had no option to leave anymore,” she added. Between occasionally ducking into classes and spending the majority of their time with Bushwick’s disadvantaged residents, Friedman, 29, and Chatterjee, 28, fell in love with the neighborhood. They became so committed to it that they both live in Bushwick. THRIVING NON-PROFIT Now, two years after they earned their J.D.s, their organization, Make the Road by Walking, is thriving. With 25 employees, half a million dollars in grants and 185 Bushwick residents calling themselves members of the organization, Make the Road By Walking is about to triple its office space, moving into an adjacent house on Grove Street. And as it flourishes, it is making inroads in areas of welfare rights, environmental justice, workplace rights, and youth leadership — the four areas the organization currently focuses on. The group conducts an after-school computer program for children, holds classes for their members about their welfare and labor rights, organizes undocumented factory workers to demand the minimum wage and over-time pay from their employers, and fights to combat serious health and safety hazards caused by vacant lots in the neighborhood. And every week, the group gets a shipment for their members of fresh fruits and vegetables from upstate farms. Although it now employs three lawyers and five law students, Make the Road by Walking is more committed to empowering the community by organizing its residents than by filing law suits on their behalf. According to Friedman, the problems in the neighborhood arise from the residents’ lack of power and a common purpose. “The best way to create this power is to get people to get together, think together, and work in the neighborhood together,” he said. Yet they occasionally sue when the law is on their side, explained Friedman, as they did in Ramirez v. Giuliani. In that case, Make the Road by Walking joined with New York Legal Assistance Group and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund to file suit in 1999 against New York City on behalf of non-English-speaking food stamp applicants. The suit alleges that the city is violating federal law by not providing translation services at welfare centers, thereby discriminating against people who cannot speak English. But when the law is not on their side, the group does not have to lie down dead, he said. “You can use the law if it serves your end or you can change it if it doesn’t,” he explained. Neither Friedman nor Chatterjee ever started out wanting to establish yet another legal services provider. “Legal services lawyers do good work, but they address the same problem again and again and again. They never address why people are having this same problem again and again and again,” said Chatterjee. An important difference between their organization and other non-profits is that most decisions must be made by a consensus of members or employees, and the board of directors is not made up of funders but is elected by the members. “We didn’t want a hierarchal workplace. The more control you have, the more you care about your work,” said Friedman. In order to participate in the organization and receive its services, residents must become members. To become a member, a person just has to live in Bushwick or its surroundings and pay $24 per year or volunteer their time. According to Friedman and Chatterjee, they designed this structure to have accountability not to the funders but to the actual people they serve. Plus, this structure allows the members to control the direction of this collective. “We have a commitment to being community run and community driven,” said Chatterjee. “Our vision of participatory democracy starts here.” Arriving at a consensus is clearly not always an easy task. But the group is committed to this structure, even as the organization triples in size. “It’s better this way. You hash out different viewpoints, and people speak up and don’t withdraw from decision making,” said Friedman. “What we’re trying to do is give power to people who don’t have it,” he added. But to run such a large organization takes a lot of money. Their estimated budget for this year is roughly $600,000, of which they got close to $500,000 in grants and fellowships. For 2001, the duo needs to raise half a million dollars, they said. And it helps that the law students and the lawyers at Make the Road by Walking hold an impressive array of pro bono fellowships from the National Association for Public Interest Law, the Open Society Institute, Kirkland & Ellis, Echoing Green, and Skadden, Arps Slate, Meagher & Flom.

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