“The pen is mightier than the sword.” Ida B. Wells wielded her pen for the advancement of racial equality and racial justice. She skillfully waged war through her publications and work as editor of Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. She continued to strategically advance social change while serving as a journalist with Chicago’s Daily Inter Ocean and the Chicago Conservator, one of the oldest African-American newspaper publications in the United States. On July 16, 2015, as we celebrated her 153rd birthday, we were reminded of the power of writing as advocacy. Writing is indispensable tool for leaders, since it is a tactical tool that can be employed to build and sustain social change. It can be used as a tool to educate diverse audiences, organize social change initiatives, and advocate for social reform.
On my leadership journey, I studied the leadership legacy of Ida B. Wells, who admonished leaders to take action when she stated: “The way to right wrongs is to shed a light upon them.” I also interviewed modern-day civil rights pioneers who are transforming our communities as they battle to make equal justice under the law a lived reality. In my leadership book, “The Lawyer as Leader: How to Plant People and Grow Justice,” I profiled four lawyers who are employing advocacy writing as a tool to advance social change, including: Bonnie Allen, who trains public-interest lawyers; Edgar Cahn, who created the blueprint for the Legal Services Corp. and founded Timebanks USA; Nekima Levy-Pounds, creator of the Community Justice Project; and john a. powell, founder of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota.
Bonnie Allen, for example, exercises writing as a form of advocacy in a wide variety of ways and reaches others through her written publications. Her publications include law review articles, reflective writing/devotionals, and policy papers. Her recent law review article explored the formation and development of the first legal services clinic after Hurricane Katrina. This clinic is the first of its kind — a community recovery lawyering clinic founded by the University of Maryland School of Law in partnership with Mississippi Center for Justice. Community recovery lawyering refers to “a long-term, comprehensive, community-driven process by which community organizations and enterprises seek to reduce poverty and recover from disinvestment.” Over 1,500 law students and youth volunteers were drawn to the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans to minister to the needs of the people. This was the largest representation of student involvement in social change efforts in Mississippi since Freedom Summer in 1964. These students were the “fuel of the ground game” since they participated in more than 22 community legal clinics and assisted over 1,000 clients. Thus, this article serves as a guide for clinical professors when developing a community lawyering clinic that focuses on building a collaborative strategy for social change.
Allen also exercised writing as advocacy when she wrote a policy paper that was commissioned by the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission. Allen organized the public hearings and drafted the subsequent report. Allen begins the report with writing, “To be poor in America is to face myriad challenges in everyday life.” The report is organized like a legal argument because it explores the barriers experienced by the poor when seeking to obtain legal services (issue), contrasts their experiences with current practices (rule), provides firsthand accounts of everyday people (analysis), and offers practical solutions for change (conclusion).
The law review article and report demonstrate how writing can serve as a multifaceted tool and reach a diverse audience. It can be used to educate, mobilize, organize, and inform, more generally. These written publications may reach law professors, law students, community advocates, attorneys and policy stakeholders.
The goal of wielding of the pen as a tool for waging war against injustice is to raise public awareness related to social justice issues and challenge everyday people to take action in eradicating the root causes of injustices. Ida B. Wells’ work as a journalist and social activist demonstrates the power of writing as advocacy. Wells leveraged writing as a tool in order to break down barriers and create a more just world.
As we reflect on the leadership legacy of Ida B. Wells, how will you use writing as advocacy as a tool to advance liberty and justice for all?