Skoll World Forum—Three Takeaways for the Legal Empowerment Movement

Last week Namati and the Global Legal Empowerment Network received a “Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.”

Here’s a beautiful short film the Skoll Foundation made about the work of grassroots legal advocates, and here are the remarks I gave when accepting on behalf of our community. I told the story of 70 families in Eastern Sierra Leone who used law to reclaim 1400 acres of farmland that a chief had illegally sold to a Chinese rubber company.

The Global Legal Empowerment Network is made up of over 600 groups from 150 countries, doing vital work every day in pursuit of justice. I was trying to channel all of your energy and dedication that day in Oxford.

Here are three of the insights I took away from the experience. All of them have relevance for our movement to transform the relationship between people and law.


1) The power of storytelling

Several talented filmmakers attended the forum. Lynette Wallworth read from a W.H. Auden poem about a painting by Breughel, in which the child Icarus (from Greek mythology) plummets into the sea while coastal life continues as usual.


Auden writes,

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Lynette said she makes art to keep ships from sailing calmly on past the massive suffering in our world. We had the chance to view an extraordinary virtual reality piece she’s created, about an indigenous Australian elder, Nyarri Morgan, who saw a nuclear test ravage his homeland in the 1950s and is now opposing Uranium mining there. Lynette and Nyarri are showing the piece to policy makers at Davos and elsewhere.

We saw a clip of a film by Kief Davidson and Cori Stern, showing a young man in Peru who recovers from multi-drug resistant tuberculosis—which till then had been a death sentence – with the help of the groundbreaking group Partners in Health.

We heard the unbelievably fierce Sonita Alizadeh tell her own story. In the last three years she has escaped from child marriage in Afghanistan, worked as an undocumented cleaner in Tehran, earned a scholarship to a high school in Utah, United States, and performed hip hop music around the world.

© 2016, Stephanie Sidoti Photography

The search for legal empowerment is full of profound human stories. Sharing those stories with the wider public – in writing, on radio, in film, and in person- allows us to have impact beyond a given case. Story telling can raise consciousness of the struggles we’re involved in, attract new allies to our movement, increase empathy, and foster a cultural intolerance for injustice.

I’d love to hear from network members- how do you share stories from your work?


2) Vulnerability and the spiritual dimension of the pursuit of justice

Perhaps the greatest story teller present was Bryan Stevenson, who has fought mass incarceration and unfairness in the American criminal justice system for 20 years with his group the Equal Justice Initiative.

Bryan is a hero to me- it was an honor to spend some time with him. Here are the remarks he gave at the ceremony, a link to his book, Just Mercy, and his TED talk, which has been viewed nearly three million times.

In the book and in his public talks, Bryan goes deeper than statistics and law, even deeper than right and wrong. He speaks openly about how injustice can break the human spirit- including his own- and how the pursuit of justice can heal us, make us whole, bring us together.

© TED2012

In Just Mercy he describes a white prison guard who displayed a racist bumper sticker on his truck- "If I’d known it was going to be like this, I’d have picked my own damn cotton”- and subjected Bryan to a humiliating strip search. When seeing the testimony of one of Bryan’s clients, Avery Jenkins, a mentally disabled African American man who had been abused as a child and was now on death row, the guard remembered his own experience of abuse, and his hatred dissolved. The guard showed kindness to the prisoner and expressed gratitude to Bryan.

Like two of my other heroes, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bryan speaks about not just the struggle outside, but the struggle within. In doing so he opens our hearts to the possibility of deep transformation.


3) Creatively sourcing revenue for good

Many of the groups who have won the Skoll Award have found creative ways to finance their work.

Living Goods deploys community health workers who earn a living by selling smoke-free cooking stoves and essential medicines.

Digital Divide Data gives employment and college scholarships to youth in Laos, Cambodia, and Kenya by hiring them to take on digital work for the private sector—archiving back issues of the Harvard newspaper, for example. 90% of Digital Divide Data’s $11 million budget is from earned revenue, and virtually all of their scholars have found permanent employment after completing the program.

Kiva has provided $840 million dollars in interest-free loans to poor people around the world by tapping into the generosity and solidarity of over a million people. Anyone can find entrepreneurs on the Kiva platform—a fruit seller in Ecuador who wants to invest in a new cart to display her wares, for example-- and make a loan of as little as $10.

One of the great questions facing our movement is: how do we pay for the work of legal empowerment? Foreign aid and philanthropy are important, but it’s risky to rely on those sources alone, and those sources will not by themselves allow us to meet the scale of the problems we are taking on.

Financing from domestic governments is also crucial, but it’s challenging to secure and carries its own risks. Governments are often wary of supporting truly independent legal empowerment efforts that hold them accountable.

I hope we can draw on the wisdom of social entrepreneurs to experiment with new sources of revenue – social enterprise, client contributions, crowd-sourcing, partnerships with the private sector- that can fuel the vital work of grassroots legal advocates.


Do these insights resonate with you? What do you think our movement for legal empowerment can learn from the social entrepreneurship community?

If you’d like to learn more, many of the sessions from the Skoll World Forum can be viewed here. The book Getting Beyond Better by Roger Martin and Skoll Foundation president Sally Osberg offers a framework for understanding social entrepreneurship, drawing on the experience of the 90+ groups in the Skoll portfolio.


With love and respect,