Law students lead the way with 'community lawyering'
A small class project by Brigham Young University law students to get better bus service for a low-income apartment complex has now grown into a program involving students and professors from many departments. The Boulders Apartments once faced serious problems of crime and poverty, but with the assistance of better management and social programs run by BYU students, the apartment complex's crime rate has dropped and conditions have improved dramatically, so much in fact that Provo City honored the service program organizers with Good Neighbor awards.
"The award from Provo City recognizes the incredible change that has taken place at Boulders," said David Dominguez, professor of law at BYU and head of the service program. "With all the interrelated hardships of poverty, the challenge is helping people to help themselves. What we're doing at Boulders is helping people to learn and develop their own abilities to face their most serious problems."
The Boulders Apartments in south Provo is a Housing and Urban Development project of 1400 residents – about half of whom receive public assistance from government agencies. Dominguez detailed residents' circumstances in an article the Utah State Bar Journal: some face mental and physical disabilities, some have the challenge of unreliable day-care and low incomes, while many residents are new immigrants who must deal with issues of legal residence and a difficult language barrier. Tackling the community's immense education, health care, employment and poverty problems seemed nearly impossible. Crime was the most glaring problem at the complex with over 1600 calls to the police in 2002 – an average of over four calls to report a crime made each day, Dominguez wrote.
Dominguez met with Boulders management to discuss specific ways to help residents. He and his law students began to assist and train Boulders residents to handle negotiations with the Utah Transit Authority to improve bus service to the apartment complex. In addition, Dominguez drew volunteers from across the BYU campus to broaden and bring expertise to the service programs. Students from the Political Science Department staffed an after-school program to help children with their homework and provide a healthy and productive social environment. The Spanish Department set up English classes for Hispanic immigrants and often translated for Boulders residents. The School of Nursing conducted surveys to asses the lifestyle and health needs of the community. The Communications, Recreation Management, Latin American Studies, Family Life and Food Sciences departments also participated. Now, a year after BYU's service programs started, calls to the police have dropped by 50 percent Dominguez's article reports.
"David Dominguez saw an area that he thought he could really make a difference in and he was willing to take on the project," said Jeff Sechler, manager of the Boulders Apartments. "With the help of the BYU students and the commitment of management, we've made some huge strides. We've made a difference in people's lives. And what's happened here really represents the heart and dedication that BYU has for the community."
The Boulders project is just the latest chapter in community lawyering, a class started by Dominguez to help law students see the expansive role the law can play in helping people find solutions to their most difficult social problems.
"The strategy of community lawyering is to lessen the growing demand for legal services by teaching people what they can do for themselves," Dominguez said. "It's not just that we need more pro bono legal services to help the needy. What communities really need is to capitalize on their own informal problem-solving capabilities as much as possible before turning to attorneys. They can do a lot on their own – they just don't know it."
Many of the student volunteers are appreciative of their service at Boulders as part of their BYU education.
"As a volunteer, I wish I could change the situation these kids find themselves in, but I can't," said Brady Burr, a political science major who works in Boulders' after-school mentoring program. "We try to help the kids and their families in as much as we can, but the real key is teaching them how to solve their own problems. If there's one thing I want to leave with these kids, it's the idea that each of them has real potential to make something of their lives. They have the capacity to realize their potential if they're just willing to work for it."
Dominguez is encouraged by the neighborhood award and is optimistic that the service program at Boulders will encourage more people to take advantage of service opportunities.
"My hope is that more faculty and students will realize that we can get off campus, we can get outside the classroom and involve ourselves in the community and reach out to help people," Dominguez said. "That's what this school is here for, that's why BYU exists – to use education to lift others up. In a very real way, what we've tried to do at the Boulders apartments is simply fulfill BYU's motto of 'Enter to learn, go forth to serve.'"
Writer: Brad Jensen