This article was originally published by Harvard Law Today on June 26, 2018.
By Elaine McCardel
There is no shortage of serious legal issues facing poor people in Greater St. Louis, especially people of color, says Blake Strode ’15, who was born and raised in the area. Just three years out of HLS, Strode is back home fighting the criminalization of poverty as executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm in St. Louis that has filed landmark cases that have already improved the lives of tens of thousands of low-income people.
Strode, who majored in international economics and Spanish at the University of Arkansas and toured the world for three years as a tennis professional before law school, always planned to go into public interest law. At HLS, he represented prisoners in disciplinary and parole hearings through the Prison Legal Assistance Project, helped fight evictions and foreclosures in Boston through Project No One Leaves, and was a student in the Housing Law Clinic at the Legal Services Center.
Not long after the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Strode read a white paper on the over-policing of people of color in north St. Louis County that ArchCity Defenders had just published. The paper, which presaged a later Department of Justice report, “was the first time I’d seen that level of analysis of that problem in St. Louis,” he says. He reached out to the organization’s executive director and co-founder, Thomas Harvey, and soon found himself back in his hometown with a Skadden Fellowship to do housing-related work.
ArchCity had recently filed several cases challenging the constitutionality of modern-day debtors’ prisons—the jailing of poor people because they are unable to pay court fines and fees—and Strode changed his focus to helping build the organization’s civil rights litigation unit through impact litigation targeting this practice as well as police misconduct and inhumane jail conditions. In his short time there, he and his colleagues have filed more than 30 civil rights lawsuits in federal court, partnering on some with Civil Rights Corps in Washington, D.C., founded by Alec Karakatsanis ’08. Strode played a significant role in obtaining a landmark judgment against the city of Jennings for imprisoning people unable to pay municipal fines: $4.75 million for a class of about 2,000 people. Settled in 2016, the case resulted in sweeping policy changes that serve as a model for legal reforms in other courts.
In January 2018, at the age of 30, Strode was named ArchCity’s new executive director when Harvey decided to leave.
“My goal is the same as our organizational goal: to combat the criminalization of poverty and state violence against poor people and people of color,” he says.
“Our clients are poor and overwhelmingly people of color, which in St. Louis means overwhelmingly black. We are seeking systemic change with and for them, which is only possible through a concerted effort of both legal and nonlegal advocacy. We’re calling for nothing less than that.”
The ways our clients engage in fighting back inspire us.
ArchCity, which relies heavily on private donations, was primarily a volunteer organization until a few years ago; it now has a full-time staff of 20, half of whom are lawyers, Strode says. Yet there is so much need in the community that growth is a top priority, he adds. That means building capacity in order to represent more clients and expanding to other parts of the state. ArchCity is a holistic provider, so growth also means expanding advocacy in housing, access to education, and consumer matters.
And while ArchCity’s victories are heartening, “even those, we have to work very hard to hold on to, and those gains aren’t enough,” Strode says. The work can be especially difficult in a politically conservative area like Missouri, “where millions of people face the greatest systemic challenges on a day-to-day basis because those challenges are institutional and deep-seated.” However, he adds, “The ways our clients engage in fighting back are really inspiring and inspire us to remain committed.”