The Community Lawyer
Mariah Thompson helps make systemic change
Published in 2022 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine on July 5, 2022
Though attorney Mariah Thompson’s legal background is in international human rights law, she ultimately felt drawn to effecting change in her own backyard in San Joaquin Valley.
“I decided I had a duty to address inequitable conditions where I lived,” Thompson says.
So, at her firm, she started working in housing law but ultimately wanted to do something that would encourage systemic change. As a staff attorney at nonprofit law firm California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), she gets to do just that. CRLA has been providing free legal representation to low-income communities in rural areas of California for more than 50 years.
“A lot of the work centers on traditional legal aid: housing, consumer, medical,” she says. “We also have a heavy focus on farm workers’ rights. Our roots are in the farm workers’ rights movement.”
Thompson works as a member of the nonprofit’s Community Equity Initiative (CEI).
“The Community Equity Initiative formed over a decade ago as a program to address what our attorneys were seeing again and again in rural communities, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, which is that these communities lacked basic infrastructure,” Thompson says. “They didn’t have sidewalks, they didn’t have streetlights, they had contaminated water, they had failing septic tanks, they had no transit of any kind serving the communities, no stores or grocery stores or healthy options for food other than maybe a liquor store.”
CEI was formed to address those issues, Thompson says. “We are really unique among CRLA’s programs and among legal services in general in that my program practices what’s known as community lawyering.”
Rather than representing individual clients, Thompson works with community groups and residents who have come together around an issue. Thompson and CEI then provide not only legal representation but training on leadership development, decision-making processes, public speaking and more.
“After working with us for some time, they’re able to start going to meetings and calling decision-makers,” Thompson says. “The focus is to build capacity in the communities for people to be able to advocate for themselves. They’re the experts on what their community needs.”
Thompson’s relationship with the communities she serves is a long-term one.
“We don’t take on a case and move on; I will typically work in my client communities for many years on a variety of different issues,” she says. “First, they’ll start working with me on a drinking-water issue, then on getting a stop sign, then pollution; the cases evolve over time to address different needs.”
Because of this longevity and her closeness to these communities, Thompson says she’s emotionally invested in the work.
“When we get a win, it is so joyful, and we celebrate. We’ll put out a press release or have the media do a story to celebrate not us, but the residents,” she says. “It’s the residents who lead the way in these cases. We’re just there to act as a resource.”
Wins, however, are rare.
“We probably lose more than we win just because the stakes are stacked against us,” Thompson says. “If you look at who is experiencing the burdens of environmental pollution, it’s low-income communities of color. It’s not debatable; it’s a fact. It’s out there with data for all the world to see. Facilities and industries that cause pollution are intentionally sited in low-income communities of color, typically because those communities do not have as much political power as affluent white homeowner communities to push back.”
In this way, environmental justice inherently encompasses racial justice. Where traditional environmental law focuses strictly on the environment, like protecting endangered species or old-growth forests, environmental justice advocates like Thompson protect people, who she says are living shorter, sicker lives.
They often have other barriers to advocacy too, like language.
“[We help allow] people who do not speak English as their primary language to have equal participation in the systems of governance that impact them,” Thompson says. “They don’t have language access to things like general-planning documents, land-use processes, decision-making as to where we put transit or where we put money for fixing water problems. We saw these residents being really kind of forgotten.”
Every time Thompson watches a community come together to choose their own futures, she’s drawn in all over again.
“When we don’t succeed, we despair, and we start thinking about another way to come together to take on the issue again with renewed energy,” Thompson says. “My clients hold a very special place in my heart. They never stop impressing me, inspiring me, bringing me back again and again to the work.”