Deadly Disaster or Daily Disaster?

Social Justice Initiatives Visitor Catherine Albisa '89 Explains How Natural Disasters Can Highlight the Continuing Plight of Underserved Communities

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New York, February 26, 2013—Natural disasters can reveal the shortcomings of human rights in the United States and around the world, said Catherine Albisa ’89, executive director and co-founder of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, in a recent presentation sponsored by Columbia Law School’s Social Justice Initiatives.

Albisa, who is SJI’s Visitor from Social Justice Practice for the spring, used Hurricanes Katrina, Irene, and Sandy as examples of the way widespread devastation can highlight economic and social disparities among communities. Natural disasters “tell you a story that’s already there,” she said. Minority and lower-income communities were left behind during the storms and subsequent recovery efforts—the way they always have been, she added.
In the aftermath of Sandy, she said, New York City was “actually considering holding a marathon while not providing access to water” for certain populations.
“If this is a world class city, what kind of world are we living in?” she asked.
Albisa, a constitutional and human rights lawyer, co-founded National Economic and Social Rights Initiative in 2004. The organization works to build a broad movement for economic and social rights, including health, housing, education, and work with dignity. Albisa’s Feb. 21 presentation was titled, “Deadly Disaster or Daily Disaster? What the Powerful Trio of Katrina, Irene and Sandy Exposed About Human Rights and Equality in the United States.”
She told an audience of students, faculty members, and guests that such rights must be part of the human rights framework in order for underserved communities to empower themselves. She said the law is just one tool in that effort, but not enough on its own.
“Many people have the view that human rights are these words in laws that sometimes we enforce through governments,” she said. “If that’s what they are, they’re not worth your time.”
The word equality always has been in the U.S. Constitution, she said, but in reality that ideal is something we continue to strive for today. Brown v. Board of Education might never have happened without the efforts of civil rights leaders to mobilize support for desegregated schools.
“We didn’t get equality because it was in the Constitution,” she said. “We got it because we had a powerful civil rights movement, creating a path the courts would follow.”
Albisa, who was introduced by SJI Dean Ellen P. Chapnick, said building economic and social rights into people’s assumptions would take time. She described the three-step process her organization follows: just say it, just do it, and do it together. Social justice leaders need to claim the rights, talk about them in work that’s already underway, and encourage others to do the same.
“You have to build the plane as you fly it,” she said. “Start weaving it into whatever work you’re doing.”
In addition to her presentation, Albisa spent a full day on the Law School’s campus to meet individually with interested students to discuss their aspirations, help them develop a plan to become human rights and public interest lawyers, and talk about the work NESRI does.
Chapnick said Albisa’s groundbreaking work in economic and social rights makes her a perfect visitor because the program honors graduates who have used their legal education to make a significant difference and are excellent role models for current students.
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