By Christina Walsh
The property owners, entrepreneurs, and families IJ’s activism team works with share a fundamental struggle: The government is stopping them from doing the simple things every American has the right to do. IJ has worked with hundreds of communities across the country, educating, organizing, and mobilizing victims of government abuse to defend their rights outside the courtroom. We recently celebrated two victories that showcase the importance—and the power—of this unique aspect of IJ’s public interest strategy.
Ending Eminent Domain Abuse in New Jersey
Fighting eminent domain abuse was IJ’s first foray into activism, and we remain the experts on the front lines stopping land grabs wherever they arise—which is often in New Jersey, home to our most recent victory.
Property owners in the small town of Leonia contacted IJ after they received notices that the town was conducting a “condemnation redevelopment study” of their neighborhood. But when we toured what officials hoped to declare a “blighted” area, we found a well-kept, thriving community of homes and small businesses. Officials were discussing redevelopment around a forthcoming train station—apparently through force, if necessary.
We met with 30 property owners and organized “Leonia United” to stop this bogus blight study. We publicly launched the campaign with a press release, a statement to the town, a mailer sent to every household, and a Facebook page. Meanwhile, IJ Activism Coordinator Andrew Meleta and a team of volunteers canvassed the entire town with flyers, door hangers, and yard signs. More than 80 people attended the standing-room-only community town hall we hosted, including council and planning board members and the mayor himself. Faced with emboldened and organized property owners, the council voted at its next meeting to remove the authorization of eminent domain from the study. This victory brings IJ’s total number of properties saved from condemnation to more than 20,000.
Empowering Entrepreneurs in West Virginia
Ten years ago, we expanded our activism efforts beyond eminent domain to all the areas where IJ operates. Our defense of food freedom in particular has presented huge opportunities to break down big barriers for would-be entrepreneurs.
For instance, until this spring, it was illegal for home bakers in West Virginia to sell their cakes and cookies anywhere but farmers’ markets and community events—denying them desperately needed access to the first rung of the economic ladder. So IJ Activism Associate Melanie Benit teamed up with IJ Attorney Erica Smith to bring food freedom to the country roads of West Virginia. They secured 30 co-sponsors for legislation to allow the sale of non-hazardous homemade foods from home, online, and in retail shops, and Melanie developed a network of over 250 home bakers and supporters statewide who advocated for change. Thanks to this outpouring of support, testimony from IJ, and media coverage, West Virginia is now a model of economic liberty in this important and growing area of entrepreneurship.
At IJ we know that people can be effective advocates both inside and outside the courtroom. We are proud to inspire and equip them to fight.
Christina Walsh is IJ’s director of activism and coalitions.