Kenya-based human rights lawyer Atieno Odhiambo has devoted her life to fighting for the little guy. As an immigrant and woman of color, her own experiences with injustice shaped her career and inspired her to take on cases for underrepresented communities in the US. Now, she’s taking that fight to the global arena as the director of the Legal Empowerment Fund (LEF).
The LEF, hosted by the Fund for Global Human Rights, launched in September at Global Citizen Live with a 10-year multi-million dollar mission to close the global justice gap and bring equal legal protection to the 5 billion people living without access to justice.
Two-thirds of the world’s population are excluded from justice systems and 235 million people live in cases of extreme injustice — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fighting for their rights.
The LEF seeks to empower communities seeking justice through long-term grants, resources, and access to a network of global justice advocates. The fund will offer support to grassroots organizations defending the rights of those who have had land stolen, people working under unfair labor conditions, immigrants and stateless refugees, and any marginalized group living outside the protection of the law.
Odhiambo has achieved justice for underserved communities for over two decades, bringing people legal empowerment before she could even put a name to the term. Now, at the helm of the LEF, her work creating lasting change continues — but the battle is just getting started.
We spoke to Odhiambo about what legal empowerment means to her and how everyone, everywhere, can join the movement to close the global justice gap.
Global Citizen: Can you tell us what the global justice gap is, and what it means in reality for people around the world?
Atieno Odhiambo: The global justice gap is the difference between justice that people want and need and the justice that they receive. When we talk about the global justice gap, we are referring to the unmet justice needs of people, where people can't access justice for everyday problems, are excluded from opportunities that the law provides, and live in extreme conditions of injustice.
To illustrate this gap, we use an assessment done by the World Justice Project in 2019 that states that 5.1 billion people, which is about two-thirds of the world's population, lack access to justice. It comes in three dimensions, one of which is that at least 253 million people live in extreme conditions of injustice. So we have 14 million people living in modern slavery, about 12 million are stateless, [and] then you also have 1.5 billion people who have justice problems they cannot resolve. For example, these are people who are victims of unreported violence or crime or have civil administrative disputes, such as over land or denial of public service. And then you have 4.5 billion people who are excluded from opportunities that the law provides, situations where people are employed in the informal sector, and then the same number lack proof of housing or land tenure.
These numbers are not about a lack of access to courts, but it is really people living in conditions of extreme injustice, in situations where their justice problems cannot be resolved, and in circumstances where they're excluded from opportunities that the law provides. So that's what the global justice gap means in reality.
And what is it about the Legal Empowerment Fund’s work that drew you to it?
Activist in Kenya's coastal counties. | Image: The Legal Empowerment Fund
First of all, I was drawn to the LEF because they were looking at systemic change in justice solutions from the bottom up. When I worked with marginalized clients in disenfranchised communities, it really was from a top-down approach. So we went to communities, found out there were problems, and then we said, “This is how we are going to resolve the problems.” What the Legal Empowerment Fund does is work with communities on the issues that come up, not issues that we determine are ripe and are important to solve. The communities approach the fund and say: “These are the issues that we are facing and these are the solutions that we believe would resolve this issue,” and the LEF provides the resources for that. So it really is about a systemic approach from the bottom up.
Another thing that drew me to the LEF was its aim to marshal funds and resources necessary to empower community groups, because we believe that the best people who can advocate on their own behalf are the local residents themselves.
And I have to admit I was new to the term “legal empowerment'' when I first came on the job because I've been part of the legal empowerment movement but had never put words to it. So I think legal empowerment is really about people, defining what legal empowerment is to them. I’ve been involved in work where we went into communities, worked with them, did advocacy and community mobilization, and then helped them to shape the law and bring about policy and legislative change. So I would say that I was drawn to the Legal Empowerment Fund because they were doing exactly what I had been doing previously.
I was also drawn to the fact that the LEF is about innovation, experimentation, and that it's aimed at groups that would otherwise not receive funding. One of the things we are trying to focus on is to make sure that grassroots and local community justice groups receive funding. A lot of funders are hesitant to fund smaller organizations. It's easier to give a $4 million dollar grant than it is to give a $5,000 grant or a $2,000 grant to a small grassroots organization in some far-flung area. There are questions of “How do you keep up with them?” and “How do they do their reporting, especially in situations where they don't even have the capacity to do that reporting?” as well as all the requirements that traditional donors require. The LEF will be able to provide resources and funding to organizations that are not registered, that do not have bank accounts, but are engaged in legal empowerment work.
Lastly, an important aspect of the LEF is that it's very participatory in nature. So the grant-making we'll do is going to shift the decision-making power, including the strategy and the criteria behind those decisions, to the very communities that we aim to serve. So we are not saying that we will come in and provide the resources. What we are doing is asking, meeting with, and engaging with the multiple stakeholders, grassroots groups, and academics and really trying to come up with a process that is transparent and involves the very people and communities we want to serve.
Your family was forced to immigrate to the US from Kenya just as you were about to start law school in Nairobi. How does that relate to why you chose to work on global justice?
Courtesy of Atieno Odhiambo
And it really came to the fore for me that lack of access to justice for low-income marginalized communities is endemic.
I think our move from Kenya was one of the core reasons I pursued law because to me, it was really unfathomable and just unbelievable that people would actually be forced to leave their home country, their families, and everything they knew. And I think I knew that in the abstract, but I never thought it would happen to us. I felt that my father had done nothing wrong other than to point out and say: “Well, the government is not respecting human rights and is abusing and curtailing the rights of Kenyans.” So that for me was really traumatic because, one, I really wanted to stay in Kenya and go to law school, and two, it made me realize that injustice exists everywhere.
So after law school, I went and worked at Columbia Legal Services in Washington State, and while I was there I represented marginalized communities. For example, I worked with Native Americans on the Colville and Spokane Reservation, undocumented immigrants and migrant farmworkers, and also low-income people facing evictions or termination of their social benefits. And then I went on to work for Microsoft, where the immigrant justice work I was doing revealed the powerlessness of marginalized communities worldwide. Then I returned to Kenya and began working with more marginalized communities — those terrorized by politically and ethnically motivated election violence, residents in informal settlements who were routinely brutalized by the police, and minority groups being unfairly targeted by government forces under the guise of fighting terrorism. And it really came to the fore for me that lack of access to justice for low-income marginalized communities is endemic.
So it wasn't just my family’s move to the US that really gave me this global perspective on justice — it was leaving Kenya, going to the United States, and coming back to Kenya. So I feel like I almost came full circle when it comes to fighting injustice.
Did you encounter any specific experiences or challenges in the US that shaped the way you thought about injustice?
I worked with a large number of people fleeing their countries seeking refuge from persecution and witnessed so many low-income people struggle to navigate the justice system which was stacked against them. I worked on two Native American reservations in eastern Washington and took two tribal bar exams to get licensed to practice on both. When I was working on the reservations, I saw poverty in systems and structures that were in place to marginalize Native Americans. The way I thought about injustice was shaped by my journey through legal aid, but also the bias that I faced as an immigrant and woman of color in the US.
Can you give me an example of what legal empowerment looks like, and how the LEF will offer support, for someone who lives outside the protection of the law?
Legal empowerment is about putting the law into people’s hands. The LEF is going to ensure that communities around the globe are equipped to understand the law to claim their rights and address systemic issues. When people live outside the protection of the law, their rights are violated and they have little, if any, recourse. But when they do know about the law then they're able to use it to advocate for their rights.
For example, the Nubian community in Kenya were originally brought to Kenya by the British from Sudan, lived there during the colonial period, and were part of the British colonial forces. But once the colonial forces were disbanded, the Nubians were not allowed to return to Sudan and the British government settled them in Kenya and gave them land. But they were never considered residents of Kenya; they were always considered "aliens."
So after independence, the current Kenyan government did not recognize them as citizens and didn’t recognize the land they had been settled on. They were always considered squatters on this land, so they've never been able to get identity documents and are essentially second-class citizens because without an ID, they can't vote, travel, attend university, get married, get employment, or purchase land or property.
So the Nubian community had been agitating for their rights and legal organizations actually heard about the movement and went ahead and challenged the ill-treatment of Nubians in court and challenged their marginalized status. Not only did they go to court, they did what we do. What legal empowerment is really about is engaging the community in advocacy and mobilization to make sure that people are aware of their rights. And the court did hold that the manner in which the Nubians were treated was discriminatory.
When people and communities band together, when they are educated about the law, they can then use that very same law to advocate for their rights.
Can you tell me more about the bottom-up effect you talked about?
I can explain it through a particular case that involved juveniles who were detained in Spokane County, where I was working as a legal aid lawyer. The juveniles did not have access to lawyers or caseworkers and were facing deportation from the US with no representation whatsoever. So I worked with the community as well as with other lawyers around the nation, and we filed a case in eastern Washington State challenging the lack of lawyers for young children who are facing deportation from the US.
The way I thought about injustice was shaped by my journey through legal aid but also the bias that I faced as an immigrant and woman of color in the US.
It took a number of years to come to fruition, but 10 years later — with community involvement, legislative advocacy, media advocacy, community mobilization — it was held that these young individuals did require representation. As a result, a lot of funding has been put toward providing representation for young children facing deportation.
So you find that you can bring about systemic change from one case, which mushroomed and became a national issue, from just a small county in Washington State. And it was also different organizations in different parts of the US coming together and saying we have to change this legislatively for these juveniles. So legislation was changed so that they have to be released within 72 hours or placed in a shelter, but they cannot be detained for longer than 72 hours. That, to me, is the bottom-up approach — where a community and advocates come and work together. We could have started off at the top level, challenging it in the legislation, but we started off from the bottom, and you see the groundswell of support that comes from that.
Following the recent COP26 climate conference, how will the LEF work with those most impacted by climate change?
If we want to make a difference in communities that are most impacted by the effects of climate change — and the studies have shown that that is marginalized communities, especially in the Global South — we have to listen to those communities and we have to let them lead. This is a core premise of the Legal Empowerment Fund.
We will support visionary activists who are developing community-based solutions to environmental issues and building the foundations of a sustainable future. The LEF will provide them with core support funding and plan to encourage engagement that is both cross-movement and intersectional because without environmental justice we can't achieve economic health, education, or racial justice.
For me it’s also really important to break down and demystify the climate language that comes out of events like COP26. Before COP26, I asked a friend who works for an international climate and resource organization to explain to me what was at stake at the conference, because you hear about COP26, but you don't really know what it's about or what they are negotiating. That’s because the language has never been broken down so that we can easily access it. So my friend pointed me to some published documents and summaries of the agenda items at COP26. I read through them several times and then I went back to her and said: “I need a PhD to even begin to understand what these documents are purporting to say.”
So my question was: How do we expect to make a difference in climate change when the very language of negotiation is inaccessible to Indigenous people and local communities who are the very stewards of the natural resources we seek to protect and key to climate change. One of the things I want to make sure is that in the LEF, vis-a-vis climate change and environmental justice, is that we build the field, demystify the language, and make it intersectional and cross-sectional.
Do you think that there's a case for global environmental justice, or is it more focused on that bottom-up approach?
I think there is a case but, to be honest, I feel very strongly that the bottom-up approach is really the way we are going to get to environmental justice. At COP26, we heard statements like, “The biggest polluters are not taking responsibility.” It's those of us in the Global South, in lots of countries that are not producing that high of an amount of emissions, who are being asked to take more responsibility. But countries in the Global North are not paying up for the emissions that they're putting out. So we have to find solutions on our own because we can't keep relying on the Global North and other big polluters to do this for us. So a bottom-up approach, for me, is really key to achieving the kind of global justice that we want.
Two-thirds of the global population live outside the protection of the law, making delivering global justice a mammoth task. What gives you hope?
I think the thing that gives me hope is when I encounter and work alongside grassroots justice organizations and the brave individuals who are fighting for justice, who wake up every day and stand up for their communities. They put their lives on the line. Their dedication and their hope with no, or very little, resources really inspires me.
Additionally, the next generation of activists gives me a lot of hope. Kenya's Nobel Laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai, once stated: “To the young people, I say to you, you are a gift to your communities and indeed to the world. You are our hope and our future.” And that resonates with me today because I feel like young people now are more engaged in activism than ever before. Their energy gives me a lot of hope for a better future.
Young activists who were at COP26 like Elizabeth Wathuti, who I know personally, from Kenya; Brianna Fruean from Samoa; Greta Thunberg from Sweden; Vanessa Nakate from Uganda; Laura Aguilar from Colombia — all these young people showed up and made their voices heard. And to me, that's a really good example of my hope for the future. As an individual who lives in Kenya, where 80% of the population are youth, under the age of 35, our future is the youth. I'm really inspired by them and how bold they are. So for me, the next generation is giving me hope. Sometimes I say my generation has failed miserably. It's time to pass the baton on to the next generation.
How can Global Citizens, with or without legal training, help close the global injustice gap?
I always say this quote by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer, social justice activist, and current executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He said: “Get proximate, change the narrative. Remain hopeful. Be uncomfortable. This is how we change the world.” And that to me encapsulates how anybody around the world with or without any legal training can help close this justice gap.
The more people involved, the better. Addressing the big problems of our time really requires all of us to be involved in whatever ways we can. I tell people that change starts at the grassroots, the community level. I think a lot of people feel inundated when they think, “How do I create change? How do I get involved in climate change? I'm just one little tiny person.” But I think they can start by getting involved with small and local groups within their own communities. I always say that social media has made the world shrink, and in this day and age, the small contributions we make end up mushrooming — and that collective effort is what will change things.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.