Two years ago I was living in a grass thatched, mud hut. My communication with the outside world was done from atop a two-story termite mound. I bathed from a bucket under the shade of trees. And my diet consisted of boiled leaves, caterpillars, and hard porridge. Now, I’m beginning a Law Office study program in one of the most technologically advanced and innovative areas of the world. I’m Ricardo Samir Nuñez and I’m a Legal Apprentice at the Sustainable Economies Law Center.
This blog is meant to give insight and clarity on what it means to be a Legal Apprentice. One way we’re hoping to do that is to give you a little background on who’s already taking this path. I hope we can make this journey enjoyable for those wanting to follow along and accessible to those who want to become part of this adventure.
For two and a half years I lived in a rural village located near Kasama, Zambia. I was a “Rural Education Development Specialist” with the Peace Corps. I lived on a farm in the African countryside where subsistence farmers eke out an agrarian existence; a way of life that hasn’t changed considerably since before colonialism. The nearest electrical line was 25 kilometers away as was the nearest doctor.
A Zambian family, the Mulenga’s, took me in and I became a son, a brother. I even took their name as my own. My host father, Stephen Chilambwe Mulenga, has a saying: “I’ll share anything except my wife.” And he stayed true to his word. They shared whatever they had and more. They taught me not only about Zambian culture, language, and tradition, but also about how a culture built on sharing and mutual aid counteracts what we in the West believe to be a situation of extreme scarcity. In the rural areas, there is an ever-encroaching capitalist system that defines them as living in material and monetary scarcity. In fact, this modern monetary system exacerbates their perception of self-impoverishment.
I worked with women in my and nearby communities to found two Women’s (worker) Cooperatives and taught workshops on permaculture and sustainable agricultural practices to Farmer (consumer) Cooperatives. This was my first real exposure to Cooperatives as a way to create and localize wealth. While there were many structural challenges with these organizations, they showed me how wealth could be spread more equitably, with more transparency, and retained within the local communities.
When I returned to the States, I worked at a non-profit in South Los Angeles County re-housing the homeless and preventing pending evictions. The program was government funded and, as such, the bureaucracy was frustrating and led to inefficiencies of service. Yet, the program itself was an innovative approach at tackling one of America’s greatest contemporary domestic tragedies: homelessness.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Working with those on the verge of homelessness and those who had been without housing for weeks, months, and years, sometimes felt like a Sisyphean endeavor. But, those “lumpen” homeless and low income individuals became my neighbors, my friends. The reality of those down and out in America became as real, urgent, and in need of change as those in “developing” countries. Searching for some type of solution to stop this hemorrhaging of families being pushed out of the “middle class,” I sought new solutions in new paradigms.
Where was I to go except higher education? To legitimate myself and gain a foothold in the non-profit industrial complex? I began looking into European graduate programs because American graduate programs were prohibitively expensive. After years of watching the labor and union movements decimated, I wanted to build a new paradigm that moved past the antiquated worker (wealth creator) vs. owner (wealth expropriator) relationship. My introduction into this new paradigm was participating in the LA based worker cooperative incubator, the Los Angeles Worker Ownership Resources & Cooperative Services (LAWORCS) organization.
At the time, law school did not seem like an avenue to build this new future. I had family and friends who had attended Law School and the debt they incurred I found repulsive. Also, I was ignorant of what attorneys could and could not accomplish. I thought, “Even attorneys focused on social and environmental justice don’t change the system, they only mitigate its disastrous effects.”
That’s when I met Janelle Orsi, my future supervising attorney and co-founder of The Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC). SELC, in collaboration with others in the Bay, around the country, and even across the planet, were creating this new paradigm. That’s when I saw the emerging network of organizations that are moving toward this new future, and I wanted to be part of it.
My education has come full circle. The Zambian village that I loved so has begun its own encroachment into the minds of America’s most progressive attorneys and change makers. Agreements, contracts, and organizations that lower access to resources and re-localize the wealth of communities stands in stark contrast to a system that constantly attempts to aggregate individual wealth. In a word, “Sharing” is being taken seriously as a way past America’s recurring economic and social malaise. Hopefully, as a Legal Apprentice and future Sharing Economy Attorney, I can help create those agreements, collaboratively build those organizations, and break down the barriers so communities can thrive on the wealth they already have but don’t know how to utilize. Until then, it’s still an experiment, a project for us all.
We must not be afraid to take chances to find our better selves. I hope that you join us on this journey.
Photo Credit: Anchal Bibra and Partner