• Join
  •     |    
  • Login
  •     |    
Log in

6th Annual Legal Empowerment Leadership Course
(1st virtual edition)

April 30-May 17, 2021


Around the world, more than five billion people are living outside the protection of the law and lack meaningful access to justice. They are unfairly driven from their land, denied essential services, excluded from society, and intimidated by violence.

Legal empowerment seeks to turn this tide. It is about enabling people to understand, use, and shape the law. From at least the 1950s, when community paralegals in South Africa began helping people to navigate and resist apartheid, legal empowerment has grown into a global movement. Today, grassroots legal advocates in the Philippines are helping farmers to take part in nationwide agrarian reforms. In Argentina, shantytown residents are pursuing legal remedies to bring clean water and other essential services to their communities.

The movement for legal empowerment is thriving on every continent in the world. But too often, we work alone, without benefit of the advice or feedback of others doing groundbreaking work. Let’s do something about that.

From April 30 to May 17, 2021, we will bring together 70 inspiring grassroots justice advocates for the sixth Legal Empowerment Leadership Course (LELC).  The aim of the course is to cultivate a global cadre of leaders who are committed to legal empowerment, and who share a common understanding of the field, including history, methodology, and evidence.  The course is a unique opportunity to take stock of our collective knowledge and build upon it to strengthen a global movement for justice.

From 2015 to 2019, this course was held annually at Budapest’s Central European University, in partnership with the university’s School of Public Policy (SPP).  This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the course will be held online for the first time. 

A faculty of respected practitioners and academics will lead course participants in an in-depth exploration of key themes, including the conceptual framework of legal empowerment, community organizing and social movements, community-driven data collection and analysis for advocacy, and protection of grassroots justice defenders. 

The course includes practical skills sessions on topics like community legal education pedagogy, innovative financing, providing legal services remotely, and using power mapping and case data for advocacy. Participants will also have an opportunity to distill research questions to advance the evidence base behind legal empowerment.

Here is Haya Zahid of the Legal Aid Society in Pakistan describing the impact of the course in her own words. 

The course emphasizes peer learning. The participants themselves are the best part of the course. Everyone will come with challenges or live questions they are grappling with and, with the help of the group, will leave with action plans to advance their work. 

Read this interview with Tom Weerachat where he described how he benefited from the peer learning approach of the course.

The course is a collaboration among Namati, the Open Society Justice Initiative, and the Robert and Helen Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at New York University School of Law. 

Note that this year’s course will only be available to select, targeted groups of members involved in existing projects while we pilot our very first online course. We look forward to expanding our online course offerings in the future following this pilot course.

Course structure

The course is structured to nurture and deepen participants’ knowledge of legal empowerment, offering a space of reflection to strengthen their methodology and impact. Participants identify a concrete challenge, growth opportunity or research question before the course, and then develop an action plan during the course with the help of co-participants and faculty.  The course is organized as follows:

    1. Preparatory work. Participants review selected readings in advance of the course. They also prepare and submit one of the following: a) a problem statement, describing a challenge area or inquiry facing them in their work, or b) a proposal for research or action that they wish to workshop throughout the course and beyond.
    2. Participation in online sessions. The course requires participation in online sessions over twelve days, from April 30th through May 17th.  Most sessions will be for two hours, from 12:00-2:00 pm GMT (8:00-10:00 am New York; 9:00-11:00 am Buenos Aires; 2:00-4:00 pm Kyiv; 3:00-5:00 pm Nairobi; 5:30-7:30 pm New Delhi; 8:00-10:00 pm Manila). Participants may meet in small working groups outside this regular time slot.  
    3. Participatory curriculum. The course relies on extensive participation from participants and combines four types of sessions: cross-cutting sessions, thematic sessions, skills-building modules and small working group discussions.

Cross-cutting sessions
Cross-cutting sessions address foundational challenges and questions faced by the legal empowerment community. 

    • Introduction to legal empowerment. This introductory session explores what we mean by legal empowerment. It addresses basic concepts, history, and philosophy. The session offers a vocabulary and a set of questions that are referenced throughout the course.
    • Legal empowerment, organizing and social movements. This session explores how legal empowerment groups combine strategic litigation and legal services with community organizing, and how paralegals and legal empowerment practitioners constitute an essential part of social movements.
    • Community-driven data collection and analysis for advocacy. This session examines how grassroots advocates, lawyers, and activists have designed community-led data collection projects to define and generate data that reflects their realities, and how this data is essential to human rights advocacy.
    • Protection of grassroots justice defenders. This session tackles the issue of growing threats to grassroots justice defenders worldwide and presents some models of community protection initiatives.  

Thematic Sessions 
The course features sessions that focus on the role of legal empowerment in addressing specific justice issues.  

    • Legal Empowerment, Land Rights and Environmental Justice.  This session focuses on legal empowerment programs that work with communities for the defense of land rights and the pursuit of environmental justice advocacy. 
    • Legal Empowerment and Gender Equality. The session explains how women-led organizations comprised of grassroots advocates, lawyers, and activists have adopted legal empowerment strategies to advance women’s rights and gender equality advocacy.  

Skills-building sessions
Modules include community legal education pedagogy, innovative financing, providing legal services remotely, and using power mapping and case data for advocacy.

Small working group discussions 
Participants come together in small groups to apply the lessons from the sessions to their individual challenge or research question. Experts and instructors are available during this time for consultation and support in developing their action plan. 


After the course, each participant submits their final reflections on their problem statement, or a revised version of their proposal. In either case, candidates should detail a course of action for acting on, or exploring further, what has been learned over the last few days. Faculty and experts will provide follow-up support. All participants also become members of the Legal Empowerment Network in advance of the course and remain in contact through our online community discussion forum. There, you can pose questions and support others with their action plans to ensure that our cohort of learners remain engaged in future efforts to strengthen their work.


You can read a summary of the 2019 Leadership Course on our online forum.

Course Directors

Vivek Maru

United States  
Joined November 2011
Interests: Access to Information, Citizenship, Community / Customary Land Rights, Environmental Justice, Generalist Legal Services, Governance, Health, Land & Natural Resources
Vivek founded Namati in 2011 to grow the movement for legal empowerment around the world. Namati and its partners have built cadres of grassroots legal advocates– also known as “community paralegals”– in eight countries. The advocates have worked with over 40,000 people to protect community lands, enforce environmental law, and secure basic rights to healthcare and citizenship.

Namati convenes a community of 650+ legal empowerment organizations from all over the world who are collaborating on common challenges and learning from one another. This community successfully advocated for inclusion of access to justice in the new global development framework, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

From 2003 to 2007, Vivek co-founded and co-directed the Sierra Leonean organization Timap for Justice, which has been recognized by the International Crisis Group, Transparency International, and President Jimmy Carter as a pioneering model for delivering justice services in the context of a weak state and a plural legal system.

From 2007 to 2011, he served as senior counsel in the Justice Reform Group of the World Bank. His work focused on rule of law reform and governance, primarily in West Africa and South Asia.

In 1997-1998 he lived in a hut of dung and sticks in a village in Kutch, his native place, working on watershed management and girls’ education with two grassroots development organizations- Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghatan and Sahjeevan.

Vivek graduated from Harvard College, magna cum laude, and Yale Law School. His publications include Between Law and Society: Paralegals and the Provision of Justice Services in Sierra Leone and Worldwide in the Yale Journal of International Law and Allies Unknown: Legal Empowerment and Social Accountability in the Harvard Journal of Health and Human Rights.

Vivek serves on the international advisory council of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the advisory board of the evaluation firm ID Insight, and the governing boards of the International Senior Lawyers Project and the public entrepreneurship organization Res Publica. He was an affiliate expert with the UN Commission on Legal Empowerment, and is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Vivek received the Pioneer Award from the North American South Asian Bar Association in 2008. He was named an Ashoka Fellow in 2014, a “legal rebel” by the American Bar Association in 2015, and a Skoll Awardee for Social Entrepreneurship in 2016.

Contributed Resources:

Marlon Manuel

Joined December 2011
Marlon has more than two decades of experience in legal empowerment work, having devoted practically his entire career to social justice and human rights lawyering. He has combined grassroots education activities with active involvement in strategic litigation on human rights and public interest issues, policy reform work on social justice legislation, and justice system reform programs on improving access to justice.

From 2008-2017, Marlon was the Coordinator of the Alternative Law Groups (ALG), a coalition of twenty (20) legal resource NGOs in the Philippines with distinct programs that are primarily concerned with the pursuit of public interest, respect for human rights, and promotion of social justice. Before joining Namati, he has served as member of the Global Legal Empowerment Network’s Guidance Committee.

Marlon is a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University School of Law, where he received his Juris Doctor degree in 1994. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Management (Major in Legal Management) from the College of Arts and Sciences of the same university.

Contributed Resources:

Course Faculty

Sukti Dhital

United States  
Robert L Bernstein Institute for Human...
Joined October 2017
Interests: Access to Information, Health, Housing & Sanitation, Labor & Employment, Women's Rights
Sukti Dhital is the Deputy Director of the Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at NYU School of Law and a human rights lawyer with extensive human rights experience. Previously, Sukti was the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Nazdeek, a legal empowerment organization committed to bringing access to justice closer to marginalized communities in India. At Nazdeek, Sukti worked closely with affected community members and social movements to advance labor, food, health, and housing rights through a community-driven approach, with a focus on indigenous and Dalit women.

Prior to Nazdeek, Sukti was the Director of the Reproductive Rights Unit at the Human Rights Law Network, India where she assisted in securing landmark judgments including Laxmi Mandal v. Deen Dayal Harinagar Hospital & ORS, the first decision by a national court to recognize maternal mortality as a human rights violation. She has also worked at the ACLU and the firm of Bingham McCutchen.

Contributed Resources:

Margaret Satterthwaite

United States  
Robert L Bernstein Institute for Human...
Joined November 2017
Interests: Community / Customary Land Rights, Environmental Justice, Gender-based violence, Governance, Health, Housing & Sanitation, Land & Natural Resources, Women's Rights
Margaret Satterthwaite is a Professor of Clinical Law, Faculty Director of the Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights, and Co-Chair of the Center for Human Rights and the Global Justice at New York University School of Law. Her research interests include economic and social rights, human rights and counterterrorism, methodological innovation in human rights, and vicarious trauma among human rights workers. Before joining the academy, she worked for a number of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and the Commission Nationale de Verité et de Justice in Haiti. As Director of the Global Justice Clinic, she partners with grassroots organizations and movements to prevent, challenge, and redress rights violations in situations of global inequality. Margaret has worked as a consultant to numerous UN agencies and special rapporteurs and has served on the boards of several human rights organizations.

Contributed Resources:


THEMIS Gênero Justiça e Direitos...
Joined June 2015
Interests: Community / Customary Land Rights, Family, Gender-based violence, Labor & Employment, Land & Natural Resources
I am a human rights lawyer in Brazil working with community based paralegal programs, advocacy and strategic litigation on discrimination.

As a co-funder of THEMIS, a feminist organization based in Brazil, I have developed legal education projects focused on combating violence against women, protecting sexual and reproductive rights and expanding rights for domestic workers.

Contributed Resources:

Matthew Burnett

United States  
Open Society Foundations
Joined January 2018
Interests: Access to Information, Citizenship, Generalist Legal Services, Traditional / Customary Justice, Women's Rights

It was cold outside but it was warm in there. This course’s concept is a unique way of learning and a rare opportunity for face-to-face sharing experiences with peers from around the world, each and everyone of them experts and heroes in their own unique way. Thank you all for this unforgettable journey and the inspiration for future work.

Vesna Shapkoski

Association for Legal Education and Transparency (LET Station), Macedonia

It was truly inspiring to be in a room filled with brilliant minds and great hearts. I found that the combination of resources, people, topics and participants meshed perfectly and I cannot emphasize how amazed I was of how the team put everything together. And I appreciate the opportunity to have met and learned from these wonderful people. They will be a constant reminder to keep fighting the good fight.

Fae Marie Bordey

Alternative Law Groups (ALG), Philippines