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Five Lessons Learned During My First Year as a Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellow

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By Jean-Luc Adrien, 2018 Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellow at the Community Justice Project

Photo of Jean-Luc Adrien
Photo of Jean-Luc Adrien

The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps (DRLC) was the perfect opportunity for me to return home to South Florida and serve my community as a Fellow. The mission of my host organization, the Community Justice Project (CJP), is to support grassroots organizations working toward racial justice and human rights through innovative legal work. After a year of working closely with community organizations and other groups of organized folks, five reflections stand out to me.

 Lesson 1: Community is Paramount

Working in Little Haiti, I am reminded daily of the Haitian national motto, “l’union fait la force,” meaning, “unity makes strength”. Community lawyering inherently relies on the collective strength and power of people coming together. However, in preparation for and in the aftermath of a disaster, community members may have wildly divergent interests and priorities for resources that are scarce. At CJP, we situate ourselves alongside the most directly affected and work to ensure that there is room at the table for their leadership. Throughout the past year, I’ve learned that consensus can only be reached through honest, good-faith collaboration. Further, it has been obvious to me that organizing is the cornerstone of meaningful social change.

Lesson 2: Setback is a Set-Up for a Comeback

My faith initially drew me to community lawyering. I believe that everything happens for a reason—something that may feel like an utter defeat at one point, like a lack of due process or an adverse decision for a client, may later turn out to be just one of many roadblocks along the road of resolution. One particular adverse decision, instead of being demoralizing, galvanized residents our organization worked with; doubling down on their out-of-court strategies, our clients stretched my view of how a lawyer can be effective. As the saying goes, “the darkest hour is just before the dawn,” as long as one does not give up.

Lesson 3: Home Matters

There have been a few times that detractors have tried to minimize ideas and solutions made by those most directly affected by disasters and climate gentrification. However, I have learned to remember that this is home and that when disaster strikes, our lives, homes, and work are thrown into turmoil. I am deeply invested in the long-term well-being of South Florida because this is home. This is my fight.

Lesson 4: Not Letting Fear Hold Me Back

I have often felt discomfort overtake me as I learned new subject matter areas in disaster law and climate gentrification, or advocated in new settings. Rather than let the initial fear dictate my actions, I have practiced mindfulness. Through my meditation practice, I attempt to distance myself from thoughts and feelings of fear. Although that fear never fully dissipates, I try every day to be mindful in shedding its role in controlling me. An inspiring example of mindfulness in action has been one of my client’s staunch desire to fight an eviction, despite the economic and emotional stress that it placed on her and her family.

 Lesson 5: Love and Accountability Should Be Guiding Principles

As lawyers, we work in an inherently adversarial system. However, I have had to constantly remind myself that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Every single human being should be loved, whether they be opposing counsel, an unscrupulous landlord, or a decision-maker who is comfortable with an oppressive status quo. However, love is not mutually exclusive with accountability. In the past year, I’ve learned the importance of lovingly yet forcefully speaking truth to power, no matter the odds.

As I embark on my second year of the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellowship, I hope to consistently and intentionally learn from the past year. I look forward to continuing to build relationships with folks in South Florida. Lastly, I commit to thinking creatively on how to both engage in long-term recovery while still focusing on disaster mitigation.

To learn more about Jean-Luc Adrien and his project, visit his Fellow profile.

The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps has received philanthropic support from the American Red Cross, Bigglesworth Family Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Florida Bar Foundation, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, Sharon and Ivan Fong Family Foundation, and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

I have learned to remember that this is home and that when disaster strikes, our lives, homes, and work are thrown into turmoil. I am deeply invested in the long-term well-being of South Florida because this is home. This is my fight.

Jean-Luc Adrien /
Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow