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Pro Bono Week Preview: American University Poverty Conference

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By Cheryl Polydor

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29,2005, devastating the city and its residents. Almost 800,000 thousand people were displaced or made homeless overnight, and many were killed. The cost to the people of New Orleans and its economy was incalculable.

Ezra Rosser, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, was teaching in New Orleans at the time of Katrina. He was fortunate to escape the worst effects of the storm – but it did have a unique impact on the trajectory of his career. After the storm hit, Rosser was asked to teach a colleague’s classes in Poverty Law – so that his colleague could devote his time to advising and representing the hundreds of people arriving daily to seek assistance from the school’s legal clinic.

Now a professor at Washington College of Law, Rosser continues to teach Poverty Law, and is co-coordinator of the 2013 Poverty Law Conference: Cases, Teaching and Scholarship taking place this Friday and Saturday. He is organizing the conference with Marie Fallinger, a professor at Hamline School of Law. Both Rosser and Fallinger have made substantial contributions to the expanding scholarship on poverty law.

What is poverty law? Rosser explains that it’s a multi-disciplinary field, addressing legal issues faced by poor people in their daily lives. It includes, among others, aspects of housing law, health care law, education law, public benefits law, employment law, and immigration law.

In addition to providing a forum for the cross-pollination of ideas by poverty law scholars, practitioners, and teachers, the Poverty Conference is intended to produce a book, for publication, showcasing the most significant poverty law cases and developments. There currently is a lack such works, and recent economic developments – both in the US throughout the world – have created a growing need for a comprehensive treatise.

A highlight of the Conference is the featured speaker for the lunchtime Plenary Session on Friday: Harvard professor William Julius Wilson, one of the nation’s most renowned scholars exploring the intersection of race and poverty.