After going on this trip, visiting Lincoln Heights, spending time with clients, and talking to the attorneys from the UNC Center for Civil Rights...

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I could spend a long time talking about how terrifying it is to sit down across from someone who’s depending on me for legal work that will affect her family for generations, to bumble through explaining vocabulary and laws that I don’t fully understand, to wait for her to push the papers back across the table and say, “You’re completely incompetent. Get me your supervising attorney, now.” But I don’t think that would be the best use of my words, because that’s not the most important thing I got from this trip.

The biggest thing I learned from this trip is that the way I thought the world worked for most of my life is basically wrong. I was taught, and mostly believed, that the United States was the Land of Opportunity; that anyone who worked hard enough could get to the exact same place I did, with a student loan and an acceptance to one of the premier law schools in the country. I heard whispers that those who never made it past high school were lazy, that anyone who lost his home was financially irresponsible, and that whoever let her house become ram-shackled did it because she was a slob. I sometimes told them they were wrong, but I said it without conviction. I think I might have believed them.

But after going on this trip, visiting Lincoln Heights, spending time with clients, and talking to the attorneys from the UNC Center for Civil Rights, I faced a reality: in the Land of Opportunity, you can get trapped at the bottom. The Center for Civil Rights attorneys, who are also involved in litigation over segregation in North Carolina public schools, told about a student who graduated as valedictorian of her high school but, because it was in one of the most underprivileged and low-performing districts in the state, barely made it to college. And with heirs property–which I think my trip-mate Jon has already explained pretty well and which we all wrote wills trying to prevent–families whose only asset might be their real estate can’t use the house as collateral for a loan or even maintain or improve it without the unanimous consent of a large number of family members, many of whom are either impossible to locate or completely unknown. Fallen-down houses are eventually abandoned and attract vermin and crime, which further lowers surrounding property value even if someone manages to pull together scattered property interests and become legally able to rebuild or sell. Vermin, crime, and low property value means that no city wants to incorporate the community, restricting its access to utilities and fire, ambulance, and police services.

The list goes on and the cycle loops around a thousand times over. But the next time I hear that someone didn’t go to college, I’ll wonder if his school offered as many opportunities as mine; when I hear that he lost his home, I’ll wonder if he was conned into a predatory loan; when I see that his house is falling apart, I’ll wonder if he can do anything about it without exposing himself to a dozen intra-family lawsuits. And I’ll speak out with a little more conviction. But my words are still just words. To really change your mind, you’d probably have to see it for yourself.

You can view pictures of the trip at

Posted by Rebecca A. Fiss on Thu. March 8, 2012 11:41 AM
Categories: Spring Break 2012 (Eastern)

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