By Michele Hall ’17
The only way I’ve gotten to know Boston over the past three years is with my feet. I spent much of the fall of my 1L year protesting the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the subsequent state failure to hold their killers accountable. It was through those protests that I learned Boston: by walking through the Boston Commons, holding signs in front of the State House, marching past TD Garden and over the Tobin Bridge. Through civic action, I felt in community with Boston in a way that was impossible poring over my casebooks in Langdell.
In the spring of my 1L year, I was determined to find another way to be in community with Boston. That’s when I found the Project No One Leaves (PNOL), a student-run organization, whose mission is to empower citizens to protect their homes and communities through grassroots organizing, legal education, and civic engagement. Every Saturday, HLS students, public health students, alumni, and community members go door-to-door in Boston neighborhoods experiencing a high rate of foreclosures and evictions, and inform people of their legal rights. Throughout most of my time here at HLS, we’ve focused on bringing the news of people’s housing rights directly to them. Often times people don’t know that only a judge can order an eviction, that they don’t have to accept cash for the keys to their home, or even that their home has been in foreclosure. As PNOL foot soldiers, we sought to dismantle knowledge barriers so that people had the tools to fight for their homes; so that they did not leave. We connected people with the community organization City Life/Vida Urbana, which has expanded from doing anti-foreclosure work in Jamaica Plain to anti-gentrification and mass displacement work in East Boston. In other words, PNOL connects people with organizing movements dedicated to protecting their community.
Through the hours that I’ve spent Saturday mornings over the past three years driving to Roxbury, Dorchester, East Boston, and countless other places, I’ve not only been able to feel Boston’s pulse, but I’ve also found my community at HLS. With our ragtag team of canvassers bundled up in cars brimming with people, we’d talk about everything from how the lack of dental care in low-income communities is a public health crisis to whether Bagelsaurus’ bagels are bagel-y enough (the jury is still out on this one, but no one can debate that they fix a fine sandwich). I met regular canvassers and board members who became my co-counsel in City Life cases that we took at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, close friends, and even my fiancé. We’d share in excitement when we’d talk to people who were starting to pack up all of their belongings to get out of their homes because they got a “cash for keys” letter and didn’t know they had an option to stay; we held each other in silence when we walked down deserted blocks of East Boston as cranes towered over the buildings they were poised to raze and gentrify. PNOL became a home for me, as I worked in community to help keep Boston’s inhabitants in their homes.
This year, I served as co-president of PNOL, though that label means little to me because our board is so egalitarian. In January, in response to the executive orders that prioritized deportation, our board decided to expand the meaning of No One Leaves to include no one leaving this country. We quickly mobilized to adapt our canvasses to include Know Your Rights components, and handed out fliers at the Maverick train stop in 20-degree weather. What I’m most proud of as part of my work with PNOL is that I’m surrounded by a community of people, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, who are dedicated to keeping this community that we have right here in Boston; who are dedicated to making sure that no one leaves.