Michele Statz, Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, Matthew Burnett, Senior Program Officer for the Access to Justice Research Initiative at the American Bar Foundation; and Nikole Nelson, Executive Director of Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC), received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of its CIVIC Innovation Challenge (CIVIC), a national research and action competition driven by community priorities. Their project, “Bridging the Rural Justice Gap: Innovating & Scaling Up Civil Access to Justice in Alaska,” was previously awarded a Stage 1 Planning Grant from CIVIC in 2022 and was one of only 19 teams selected to receive a further Stage 2 Grant of $1 million to fund their project over one year, beginning in October 2023.
Focused on addressing the growing access to justice crisis in the United States, the project will use evidence-based, community-driven strategies to scale and sustain the ALSC’s non-lawyer Community Justice Worker (CJW) program throughout remote Alaska Native communities. The CJW program’s goal is to develop a service delivery model that trains trusted, culturally representative community workers and others already embedded in rural and remote areas across Alaska to provide critical legal advocacy, with the hopes of replicating the model across the U.S.
“When we think about the enormous financial, health, and well-being implications of having an unaddressed civil legal issue, it’s clear that they’re never exclusively ‘legal’ problems,” said Michele Statz, Principal Investigator and ABF Affiliated Scholar. “This absolutely changes the way we have to think about them, especially in rural areas where there are very few, if any, attorneys. I’m thrilled to be a part of an initiative that meaningfully honors and brings together the expertise of local stakeholders, community members, researchers, and diverse professionals.”
The project builds on a broad range of interdisciplinary scholarship investigating rural poverty, access to justice, rural infrastructure, and community engagement to illuminate how rurality influences efforts to mobilize justice. Through this work, it opens a new conversation between literatures on legal empowerment, rural socio-spatiality, and identity that produces actionable insights. Leveraging social science, policy interventions, regional expertise, and local relationships, the project team will:
- develop culturally responsive training, supervision, and credentialing processes for Community Justice Workers;
- develop best practices for workforce development and recruiting and retaining Community Justice Workers;
- evaluate short- and long-term sustainability models for justice work infrastructure; and
- produce a framework for community-engaged research and evaluation.
“The translation of rigorous research into policy and practice is at the heart of the work of the ABF’s Access to Justice Research Initiative,” said Matthew Burnett, co-Principal Investigator and ABF Senior Program Officer. “This project is a shining example of how innovative empirical research can produce and enhance evidence-based policy and programs that have transformative potential to address our country’s growing access to justice crisis.”
The pilot centers on two regional hubs in Alaska: the town of Kodiak, about 30 miles off the coast of Southwest Alaska on Kodiak Island, surrounded by 12 predominately Alaska Native (Alutiq) villages, and Bethel, home to the largest community of the Yup’ik people and surrounded by 56 Yup’ik villages. Neither community is connected to the public road system. During an earlier planning stage, the project team met with 18 institutional stakeholders and conducted 28 individual and group interviews with community members in Alaska. The project is advised by a panel of experts, including ABF Faculty Fellow Rebecca Sandefur, a leading expert on access to civil justice and an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma.
“We are excited to participate in this groundbreaking research project that aims to develop a model that can be replicated in other communities to address the nation’s access to civil justice crisis,” said Nikole Nelson, co-Principal Investigator and member of the ABF/JPB Access to Justice Scholars Program Advisory Council. “We are grateful to the NSF, researchers from UMN and ABF, and our local community partners for their support and investment in this critical project that has the potential to bring community-based solutions to the civil justice crisis that impacts the daily lives of so many.”
You can view a project summary video here.
About the American Bar Foundation
The American Bar Foundation (ABF) is the world’s leading research institute for the empirical and interdisciplinary study of law. The ABF seeks to expand knowledge and advance justice through innovative, interdisciplinary, and rigorous empirical research on law, legal processes, and legal institutions. To further this mission the ABF will produce timely, cutting-edge research of the highest quality to inform and guide the legal profession, the academy, and society in the United States and internationally. The ABF’s primary funding is provided by the American Bar Endowment and the Fellows of The American Bar Foundation.