By Lark Turner, J.D. ’18
I signed up to canvass with Project No One Leaves a couple of weeks into my first semester at Harvard Law School. I didn’t know much about the organization, and I was nervous about jumping in a car with 2Ls and 3Ls I had never met, to drive into neighborhoods I had never been. But I’m so glad I did. My Saturday mornings spent canvassing taught me some of the biggest lessons of law school.
Though Harvard students are lucky to have many venues to work on housing justice, Project No One Leaves is one of the only organizations on campus that teaches students what it feels like to participate in the community part of lawyering. Working with the veteran organizers at City Life Vida Urbana, an anti-displacement nonprofit and Boston community anchor that fights foreclosures and evictions, we identify specific properties or whole neighborhoods where evictions or foreclosures are occurring or imminent. Then we set off to try and help City Life stop them.
Every Saturday at 10 am, fueled by bagels and coffee and armed with clipboards, we hop into cars and set off to East Boston, Chelsea, Dorchester, or other Boston neighborhoods to knock on doors and talk to residents about their rights as homeowners and tenants. As a former reporter, I was used to bothering people on their doorstep at odd hours. But I had never done so to promote a cause I deeply believed in, nor to connect a person to resources they might urgently need — all while convincing them to rely, even a little bit, on a gaggle of students in matching red T-shirts standing incongruously on their stoop. Even without the added obstacle course of Boston traffic, this was much harder than my old job.
I learned new lessons: How to greet the curious pull of a curtain with a friendly shout of introduction, and how to know when to walk away; how to interrupt folks as they make breakfast for their kids to tell them, maybe for the first time, that their landlord was foreclosed upon and no longer owns their home; and how to listen for the infuriating and ubiquitous music of canvasses — the beep of smoke detectors in homes where landlords can’t be bothered to change a battery. Hardest of all, I learned how to spot when we are too late. Sometimes that means addresses marked in coal-black, modern fonts; enrobed in fresh paint; and outfitted with a glinting security system. More often it means vacancies — homes boarded up or halfway gutted, their families long gone. Even then, I learned to leave a red bag full of legal information hanging on the doorknob — a sign to the developer, and to the neighborhood, that we stopped by.
Though our efforts are modest, our team is mighty. The students I met at my very first canvass have graduated, but we’re still friends. Every canvass introduces me to more fellow students ready to spend their Saturday morning helping keep roofs over families’ heads. Like many things I’ve experienced here, the opportunity to work with these peers and with City Life is a gift I can’t repay, and it’s difficult to leave my time in Project No One Leaves behind. But I’m heartened to know that next year’s team of canvassers have it covered — and the lessons I’ve learned and friends I’ve made canvassing aren’t going anywhere.