On the Road with IJ

September 24, 2012

By Christina Walsh

The Institute for Justice’s activism team has worked in hundreds of communities across the country to educate, organize, and mobilize victims of abuses of government power to defend their rights outside the courtroom. We work both in conjunction with, and independent of, IJ’s litigation and have become an integral part of the Institute’s long-term success.

We have institutionalized a strategy that we first brought to bear in our defense of property rights both before and in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London. Once IJ took on the issue of eminent domain abuse, we received an ever-increasing number of requests for assistance from property owners. We soon recognized that these fights could be won outside the courtroom. So we created the Castle Coalition, IJ’s first widespread foray into activism. Since Kelo, IJ has trained nearly 2,000 activists in more than 120 communities and helped save more than 16,600 properties. Three years ago, we formally expanded our activism efforts into our other pillars of litigation: school choice, free speech and economic liberty.

IJ’s activism team empowers and trains individuals to fight for themselves with confidence and to take personal responsibility for their communities, their jobs and their families. Every initiative we take on is designed to bring about fundamental change at the local level by inspiring new advocates who will put government officials on notice when they use their powers to unduly restrict liberty.

Sometimes our efforts take the form of workshops that inform entrepreneurs about their constitutional right to earn a living, or property owners about the threat a blight designation poses to their neighborhood. We help them form a group or coalition, appoint a leader, develop an online and community presence, and teach them basic public relations skills, like how to write a press release or testify before city council. Other times, we’ll coordinate demonstrations like protests in front of state capitols or provide expert testimony to local lawmakers. Some activism situations may be more intensive than others and necessitate large-scale campaigns, but we aim to make local residents largely self-sufficient by giving them the tools, training and support they need to be bold and uncompromising in defending their rights.

Training is the cornerstone of IJ’s grassroots mobilization efforts, specifically at the local level. IJ has pioneered community organizing around the civil rights traditionally rejected by the Left, which has, until recently, claimed ownership over these mobilization strategies. We go into low-income neighborhoods with a unfamiliar message about liberty and an equally foreign optimism and enthusiasm, and both consistently resonate. We challenge the assumption that the powers-that-be have only the needs of their constituents at heart and instead show residents how government oftentimes seeks to maximize its power and grow its coffers.

Take for example our recent activism work in defense of the right of food truck and cart operators to earn an honest living. IJ’s activism team is playing an integral role in IJ’s National Street Vending Initiative and works with street food entrepreneurs across the country to push back against protectionist and arbitrary laws that try to keep them away from popular commercial areas or out of business altogether. We keep a close watch on vending law developments around the country. Since 2011 alone we have been active in 23 cities, from Chicago, New Orleans and Las Vegas, to Lexington, Ky., New Bedford, Mass., and Grand Rapids, Mich.

Our involvement varies, from writing op-eds and letters to the editor, to traveling to meet with and organize vendors, to speaking at city council meetings. For instance, when Buffalo, N.Y., began contemplating its first food truck regulations and a few politically connected restaurant owners began to mobilize, IJ tracked down the city’s gourmet food trucks and arranged to meet. We went to Buffalo, strategized, filmed and put together a well-received, compelling video (located at www.ij.org/BuffaloFoodTrucks); created a website; testified and spoke to council members one on one; and provided extensive research on how other cities appropriately and inappropriately regulate food trucks. Ultimately we were victorious: The city passed the law that the food trucks favored.

On the other end of the street food spectrum are loncheras, traditional Mexican taco trucks. In Charlotte, city regulations make it impossible for food trucks to operate. Before the current regulations passed, there were 50 food trucks, including loncheras; now there are seven. We organized a forum with Action NC, a progressive activist group passionate about this cause. IJ spoke about how the 14th Amendment protects the right to earn an honest living, a non-traditional message for this audience but one that motivated the entrepreneurs. The panel included a lonchera owner who exclaimed through a translator that if the brick-and-mortar restaurants were afraid that the food trucks would take away business, the restaurant owners should make better food. Through these discussions, these entrepreneurs and others discovered their inner capitalist. Everyone left the forum re-energized, and organizers scheduled meetings with the new city council to address the issue. We are still in touch with activists in the city and will remain a resource for them throughout their fight.

Most organizations have an outreach department, but no other philosophically similar public interest law firm translates that into activism. At IJ we believe that people can be effective advocates both inside and outside of the courtroom—it is our job to inspire them to fight. We have a unique approach to mobilizing communities and activists, recognizing that different factors motivate different people, but with honesty and humility, all are within our reach to engage, inspiring a way of thinking that promotes increased liberty and the rule of law. We will be on the road to many places in the coming years and we look forward to coming to your community when the need arises.

Christina Walsh is IJ’s director of activism and coalitions.

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