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Mobilization Lawyering: Community Economic Development in the Figueroa Corridor


The emergence of Community Economic Development (CED) as a distinct field of cause lawyering highlights the complexities of community mobilization in the post-regulatory state. Defined by a set of social policies and grassroots practices that promote neighborhood revitalization, CED is associated with a transactional model of cause lawyering focused on negotiating deals between community-based nonprofit organizations, public funders, and private investors. Whereas cause lawyers have traditionally sought to mobilize claims of legal rights to advance systemic reform, CED lawyers attempt to mobilize community participation to change local economic circumstances through the creation of innovative institutional structures.

However, CED does not neatly remove barriers to mobilization; rather it presents a different set of opportunities and constraints. For instance, CED is not connected with broad-based social movements. Instead, it is parochial, seeking to preserve community boundaries and increase community control of resources. Moreover, while CED establishes legal mechanisms for ongoing community participation in local governance, it does so through the design of partnerships with government and business elites that create disincentives for political confrontation seeking reforms in state practice or increased resources from private sector institutions. For this reason, the modus operandi of CED practice is not one of protest and disruption. Nor is CED designed to challenge the existing rules of the game; rather, it seeks to build partnerships and distribute resources within the framework of the law as constituted. As a technique of institutional design that extends contractual relationships between the community, the market, and the state, CED therefore fosters a version of mobilization that tends to de-emphasize adversarial organizing in favor of collaboration with business and governmental partners.

At the grassroots level, however, there are important recent examples of community mobilization within CED that depart from the collaborative model. In particular, the emergence of an “accountable development” movement in Los Angeles—where community-labor coalitions have pressured publicly subsidized developers into a series of agreements to provide benefits to low-income communities—has focused attention on more confrontational forms of collective action, flowing out of the traditions of community organizing and social movement activism. This essay uses the advent of accountable development to re-examine the relationship between cause lawyering and community mobilization. It begins by describing the emergence of CED as a nonadversarial cause lawyering model, situating it within the context of the reaction against the social movements and legal rights strategies of the 1960s and 1970s. Drawing upon insights from social movement theory, it then analyzes the constraints that collaborative CED can impose on collective action by low-income communities. A case study of accountable development in Los Angeles follows, revealing an alternative approach to CED that mobilizes adversarial organizing to extract developer concessions and governmental reforms. It concludes with an analysis of cause lawyering in the accountable development context, suggesting continuities with conventional CED practice, while highlighting the ways in which the more confrontational approach of accountable development reshapes the lawyering role.

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