Center Community Inclusion Fellow Peter Gilbert Receives Prestigious Equal Justice Works Fellowship

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Peter Gilbert graduated from the UNC School of Law in 2009. He clerked for the Honorable Judge William L. Osteen Jr. in the Middle District of North Carolina before returning to UNC as the 2010-2012 Community Inclusion Fellow at the UNC Center for Civil Rights. Peter was recently awarded an Equal Justice Works Fellowship to work with the Center on the Inclusion Project, documenting exclusion across North Carolina and guiding communities through a new statutory process for the annexation of excluded communities.

Peter with NC NAACP President Rev. William Barber on the NC Poverty Tour

I became a lawyer to help individuals as a public defender and had little hope that lawyering could produce significant systemic change. During law school, I interned at both a public defender office and at the UNC Center for Civil Rights. Although I found my criminal work rewarding, I was captivated by the effectiveness of the Center’s approach to challenging entrenched systemic racism, the legacy of de jure segregation that is the greatest obstacle to progress in the U.S. South.

That summer I worked with the Waynor Road neighborhood, a community in Moore County, N.C. adjacent to the wealthy golfing community of Southern Pines but excluded from the municipal boundaries. Despite failing septic systems and poor wells, this black community had no access to the municipal water and sewer lines that ran only a few hundred yards away. While I had no particular interest in the legal work that was necessary, learning North Carolina’s annexation law and performing title searches on the properties in the community, I was compelled by the direct engagement with the community, their need, and our success.

After law school and a clerkship I returned to the Center as the 2010-2012 Community Inclusion Fellow. During these two years I have had a broader range of experience as a civil rights lawyer than I could have hoped. The Center’s community lawyering approach keeps me in daily contact with our client communities and other advocates across North Carolina facing issues of environmental justice, access to quality affordable housing, lack of needed infrastructure and municipal services, and exclusion from the political process, all of which are the legacy of Jim Crow segregation.

Peter speaking at UNC Festival
of Legal Learning, January 2012

Because of the Center’s dual mission of education and advocacy, I have had the opportunity to supervise dozens of law student interns and pro bono volunteers, author articles and participate in conferences on issues of exclusion, and collaborate with professors both at the law school and throughout the university. I have argued on behalf of our clients at every level, from local planning boards to the North Carolina Legislature, and played a substantive role in litigation.

Because the Center considers all law as potentially civil rights law, I am constantly challenged to learn a new area of law and bend it to our clients’ interest. In addition to using traditional civil rights tools such as the Fair Housing Act, I have become adept with annexation law, estates, zoning and planning law, landfill regulation, utilities regulation, property tax law, and public records law, to list a few. Every day at the Center brings a new legal challenge and deepens my understanding of the barriers to justice.

Peter addressing the Halifax County Commissioners on behalf of
Brandy Creek residents seeking refunds on illegally collected taxes.

I no longer doubt the power of determined civil rights lawyers to affect concrete change, but it cannot be done in isolation from community struggles. The victories in the less than two years I have been at the Center are too numerous to list, but, by applying our resources to the issues and priorities determined by our clients, we have helped stop a landfill in one community and a waste transfer station in another, both excluded African American communities already overburdened with environmental hazards. Large portions of three other communities now have water and sewer service. Through our scholarship we helped remove barriers to bringing claims under the N.C. Fair Housing Act, and with our advocacy helped change the annexation laws to assist low income communities. Not least of the Center’s accomplishments in the last two years, I have received the best possible training for what I hope will be a long career of civil rights advocacy.

Learn more about the Center's Community Inclusion work through our Inclusion blog updates and web page.

Posted by Peter Hull Gilbert on Mon. May 14, 2012 12:24 PM
Categories: Community Inclusion, Law Students, Professional Development
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