Power from the Margins: Grassroots Mobilization and Urban Expansions of Civil Legal Rights

Michener, Jamila
Urban affairs review (Thousand Oaks, Calif.)

Many scholars paint a somber picture of the political status of racially and economically marginalized groups in the United States. In particular, seminal studies on cities—places where race and class strikingly intersect—emphasize economic and political elites as primary drivers of urban politics, underscoring the disempowerment of those at the margins. This article offers a different, theoretically instructive perspective. Through a qualitative analysis of two major expansions of the legal right to counsel in civil courts, I describe political processes that afforded race–class subjugated communities pivotal influence over urban policy. I demonstrate how groups that many theories of political science do not expect to have substantive political influence, nonetheless profoundly shaped the course of urban policy development in the civil legal domain. I find an especially crucial role for membership-driven local organizations focused on building equitable community power.