Three months after graduating from Harvard Law School (HLS), Emily Broad Leib was deep in the Mississippi Delta writing a grant for a woodchipper and a truck.
It wasn’t exactly what the School’s first Mississippi Delta Fellow thought she’d be doing. The job was supposed to be helping local universities, research groups, and community groups connect their policy and legal work to the needs of people in the region, one of the poorest in the nation.
But downed tree limbs in Jonestown, in Coahoma County, were blocking roads and attracting snakes and other dangerous pests, and a group of local residents wanted to do something about it. So Broad Leib volunteered to help.
“I had the flexibility to work on a lot of [projects] that weren’t legal, that weren’t policy related, but they developed trust and an understanding of the problems” affecting the local community, says Broad Leib, now an assistant professor at HLS. “I was able to build from that trust to show that I understood the issues, and that I was a good partner.”
She relied on that goodwill to build her 2008 fellowship into the Law School’s Mississippi Delta Project, a student practice organization, two years later. The organization, staffed by HLS student volunteers, supports the work of the Mississippi Delta Fellow as well as their local university partners, and provides Mississippians with free public policy and legal help on a range of community issues from environmental and criminal justice to economic development to health care and food policies.
Each Delta Fellow is based in Mississippi and spends a year or two leading the Project’s legal outreach in the region.
“It’s really important to be on the ground, working hand in hand with the community, taking the resources we develop and helping them get into the right hands,” says Broad Leib. “It’s not me saying this is an issue, or that’s an issue, and I’m going to go tell your governor about it. It’s about creating structures for people to come together and have an input into the laws and rules that govern their lives.”
One of the first projects Broad Leib tackled during her fellowship years involved helping small producers of food get a better grasp of the laws governing the sale of their products. With a team of eight students, she went to farmers markets and surveyed vendors about their questions, eventually producing a legal guide for them. Based in part on that research, they were able to help producers come together to create a food-policy council with more than 60 members to advocate for change.
“We found that there were a lot of laws in Mississippi that were really not good for small producers or direct sales,” explains Broad Leib. “They were written for the biggest supermarkets, but…the regulations didn’t make sense for selling directly to people.”
Over the past several years, the Mississippi Delta Project has focused on criminal justice issues, particularly cleaning up records for low-level offenders. Working with partners on the ground, the legal clinic is building simple expungement tools that individuals can use pro se (without needing an attorney) to expunge minor crimes from their records.
“Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates per capita in the world, and a lot of people have a minor crime, or a crime that is no longer a crime, on their permanent record,” says Broad Leib. “Having that record expunged can have a huge impact on their job potential going forward and [can] help them stay on a legal path.”
Broad Leib is excited about the future of the program — including its potential to expand beyond the state of Mississippi, working on joint projects with other experts across Harvard and the Delta region.
“Just this year we’ve been having conversations with other groups for new partnerships and new engagements, including a group from the Arkansas Delta and the Harvard School of Public Health,” says Broad Leib. “Seeing that new engagement, those new disciplines coming to the table is really exciting.”