Meena Jagannath and the Community Justice Project

MEENA JAGANNATH joined the Community Justice Project (CJP) in 2012.  She is a human rights lawyer and lover of all things creative. Before coming to Miami she worked on women’s rights in Port-au-Prince, Haiti with a Haitian human rights law office there.

She brings her human rights experience and passion for supporting community organizing efforts to the poor and immigrant communities in south Florida. Meena is a member of the Florida and the New York Bars, and received her J.D from University of Washington Law School in 2010 where she was a William H. Gates Public Service Law Scholar.  She also holds degrees from Columbia University and Tufts University.

Our City Thoughts: Why did you create in Miami? 

Meen Jagannath: To be honest, it was mostly happenstance. I think the more important question is why you stayed.  And I guess the answer to that is that there is so much work to be done, and fewer resources to do it down here.  As opposed to New York (where I’m from), here we’re a tighter-knit community, there’s a lot of fertile ground for innovative ideas and there’s a definite sense of excitement about what we can create to make Miami a better place.

OCT: What does your org do?  How was it founded?

MJ: The Community Justice Project (CJP) is a project that was created within Florida Legal Services, Inc. in 2008 to provide legal support to grassroots community organizations in Miami’s low-income communities. It was founded on the belief that lawyers can help advance social change most effectively when they support community organizations accountable to the folks most affected by social injustice.

OCT: Whats been a challenge you had to overcome to make it happen in Miami?

MJ: For me, personally, it’s been a challenge getting used to Miami after having gotten accustomed to bigger metropolises like New York.  I knew no one, haven’t driven a car in ages, and am used to being stimulated by 1,000 things.  Here, things are much smaller and you have to go in search of your stimulation – but I’ve learned that that is also a good thing about Miami! You are pleasantly surprised about things you happen upon, they’re like found treasures. So I guess I’ve overcome my challenge through curiosity and openness.

OCT: If you have a co-founder how did you two end up collaborating?

MJ: I came to CJP a bit later in the game—in 2012—but the environment is so dynamic that we feel we are constantly breaking new ground in our work.  The deep foundations were initially laid by two native Miamians (Purvi Shah and Jose Javier Rodriguez) and a long-time Miami resident (Charles – or Chuck – Elsesser), and we continue to lay bricks as we look for different and engaging ways of amplifying the voices of some of the most marginalized in Miami.  Our present team includes founding director Chuck and has recently added native Miamian Alana Greer.

OCT: What does your team mean to you?

MJ: I love working with my colleagues—strategizing, debating, making observations about where we are at this moment in time.  It’s extremely important to trust your team’s insights and have solid colleagues/friends to parse out difficult questions and riff off one another’s unique points of view.  I feel extremely privileged to work with my CJP colleagues—old and new—they are some of the most incredible people I know.

OCT: How has Miami impacted who you are today?

MJ: I am relatively new to Miami, but my two years here have really made a strong impression on me.  Having worked primarily in the international arena, I never closely embedded myself in issues of human rights in the US.  Now, working with different low-income communities around Miami, it’s so apparent that the problems are almost exactly the same as in a place as seemingly different as Haiti.  It makes me want to learn more about the history of this place and think about how we can work better to build bridges (both cognitively and interpersonally).

OCT: What do you love the most about how miami is being redefined?

MJ: There is an excited energy coursing through the city, and a common feeling that there is immense potential to make Miami more than just a tourist destination.  I see change happening rapidly, and I am most interested in bringing this change and energy to longstanding communities that built this city and are real assets to preserving Miami’s rich cultural fabric.

OCT: Describe an innovation advancement you are working on?

MJ: On August 1 and 2, we launched the Miami JusticeHack – a creative workshop to build a Miami where all people can thrive.  It is meant to bring together Miamians of all different disciplines (art, design, tech, law, activism) to work on some of the most pressing justice issues facing our city with a focus on 4 main sets of people – renters (low-income), youth of color, taxi drivers and farmworkers.

We won’t solve the issues, but it’s a way of connecting our silo-ized groups to one another and understanding the lived experiences of Miamians we may not meet every day. It also presents the opportunity to consider issues from multiple perspectives—as a design thinker’s lens is often quite different from that of a lawyer.  We are excited to see what comes out of it!

OCT: What’s the most gratifying aspect of what you do? And the most grating?

      1. I love love love working with the community groups that are our clients.  They’re made up of just the most amazing, hard-working people committed to building a world where everyone has dignity and respect.  I am so grateful for all that I’ve learned from them, and the opportunity to work so closely with them.
      2. The most grating is that sometimes the issues seem so big, and the obstacles so great that you get discouraged.  People who are most impacted by injustice are often left out of decision-making spaces.  You wonder whether things will ever change.  But that’s why we’re motivated to create spaces like JusticeHack.

OCT: What wisdom would you share with your younger self (maybe when you were 18)?

MJ: Believe in yourself.  It sounds cliché but we are our own worst critics and then we keep ourselves from doing things that deep down we know we’re capable of doing.

OCT: What community issue keeps you up at night?

MJ: Oh man, so many things!  Transit. Housing. Taxi drivers. Youth. But luckily I have Netflix to lull me to sleep until the next day. 😉

OCT: Describe your ideal Miami. Why are those qualities important to you?

MJ: Miami would recycle more, have great public spaces (parks! trees!), a good transit system (+ more bikeable/walkable), and the neighborhoods wouldn’t be so disjointed.  There wouldn’t be so many walls up between communities—diversity would be a thing we [truly] celebrate without so many stereotypes of one another.  A day would include a visit to a bookstore in Liberty City, food shopping in Little Haiti and a performance in Opa Locka.

A daily farmers market from growers in Homestead.  Or even urban gardens!

Smaller businesses/local commerce would be encouraged to build a vibrant local economy where the money stays in Miami and is reinvested into the community. These things are important to me because they connect people more, create more inclusive spaces, and uplift the quality of living of all.