By: Merve Ciplak J.D. ’21
As an international student that had never been to the South, my understanding of North Carolina was limited to what I had heard about Charlotte, the universities, and the food. But from my experience in Pembroke, I learned about the extent of rural poverty and hardship in a community that I really did not have much understanding or awareness of, and a side of America that is probably unknown to many students coming from abroad like myself. My experience was incredibly invaluable as a result of this stark exposure.
Over spring break, I got to work with the Legal Aid of North Carolina in their Pembroke office. We were placed within the office’s disaster relief efforts and set out with the intention of supporting the Hurricane Florence relief efforts, but quickly found ourselves involved in a number of housing and gentrification issues and community organizing efforts.
The Pembroke office oversees cases in some of the poorest and most rural counties in North Carolina: Hoke, Scotland, and Robeson. According to the information our supervisor gave us, over 30% of the residents of Robeson County live in mobile home parks. The counties are also incredibly racially and ethnically diverse and Pembroke is home to the Lumbee, a state-recognized tribe. On the surface, it seemed like North Carolina needed legal help with FEMA appeals in recovering from Hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018). We quickly realized, however, that the hurricanes had brought more pervasive issues to the surface. We ended up working on a mobile home park gentrification issue. The research we conducted uncovered that more than 20 of the parks in Robeson County have been bought up by a single company since 2017, and residents are being forced out of their homes with rapidly increasing rents despite homes that remain in very bad shape after the hurricanes. A site visit we conducted at one of the parks really brought the whole thing and the conditions people are forced to live in to life for me.
The most surprising thing, however, was probably the level of community engagement and organizing that we saw is taking place around gentrification. We attended a regularly-hosted community organizing event where tenants affected by this mobile home park company, community organizers and lawyers come up with solutions. I’ve been exposed to a number of community organizing events in the Harvard community, but I realized how different these events are when the organizers are members of the impacted community themselves. The mix of frustration, urgency, motivation, and hope in the air was one I had never felt before, with the forty or so attendants sharing their frustrations to come together and lift each other up. The event also laid out the true extents and limits of legal intervention into issues like this; at some point, efforts need to go beyond what the law can provide and are cross-institutional and truly societal.
Working in a local office with people that had incredible ties to and passion for their community was a really great opportunity, especially given that our main supervisor was Lumbee himself. The people we worked with exposed us to so much Southern hospitality and a willingness to share the realities of the community they were a part of, and really made sure we understood the nuances of the environment we were working in. This exposure to the community from the inside is probably the part of my experience that I wouldn’t have been able to acquire any other way, and the most valuable part overall.