When naming our clinic (the University at Buffalo’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic), the #UBLawResponds team was focused on hurricanes. The people and ecosystems of Puerto Rico had endured Hurricanes Maria and Irma, and had asked for help. #UBLawResponds raised the money to bring student attorneys to provide legal and policy assistance five months after the hurricane. We were of course not needed in the immediate aftermath… lawyers are generally not first responders. But we were welcomed in January 2018. Experts from the University of Puerto Rico, both at the Law School and from UPR-Mayaguez, were eager to engage with us when they saw UB student attorneys’ clear commitment to the work of helping promote resilience.
One of the most important connections we made that first trip, and have continued to collaborate with over the past two years, is the RISE Network, which seeks “a New Framework for University Interventions in Disasters.” Their mission interwove with ours…deploying service-learning resources only after hearing from and working with those who were impacted directly by the disaster, in a way that would seek to meet genuine local needs. As Dr. Marla Pérez Lugo, Co-Chair of RISE, explained in her testimony before the United States House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee on PREPA in April 2019, true resiliency planning for the future of Puerto Rico cannot occur when it lacks “the real participation of the people who will have no other choice than to live with the consequences…”
We planned, we raised money, we recruited excellent students, and we flew to Puerto Rico from Buffalo, New York. We made all our service-learning and humanitarian plans with local input and assistance. And in January 2018 we helped – both with legal work, and with humanitarian aid. But there was much left to do. So we made promises to come back and help more. Accordingly, one trip became two became five. Our connections became deeper, our commitment became stronger.
#UBLawResponds has just completed our fifth service learning trip, planned last fall. We had longer-term resilience work scheduled. But the sudden earthquakes made this clinic a truly new experience for everyone. We arrived to an actively trembling earth. We saw and felt the immediate need. Our responses were a mélange of more nuanced outreach because we were experienced, but at the same time brand new because the earthquakes meant the “disaster” in our clinic’s name had taken a new form. We were actively dialoging with members of the RISE network through WhatsApp throughout our trip.
In this latest trip, #UBLawResponds met new experts, connected with experts we had known before, observed impacted individuals, talked with those seeking to help, and coordinated with the larger justice movement. Puerto Rico has a special relationship with New York and Buffalo due to the diaspora who have moved here, and the continuing commitment of the State of New York’s law school joined the work of others from the Empire State seeking to be of service right after the earthquakes.
#UBLawResponds will be doing continuing disaster recovery legal and policy work for Puerto Rico from snowy Buffalo over the spring semester (with the help of technology), because our devotion to serving this important cause is deep. Although my interpretation is not exactly what she meant when she said it, as Rosie Perez observed, “You know, you may not be born in Puerto Rico, but Puerto Rican is definitely born in you.” Those who connect with Puerto Rico (in the way that all the #UBLawResponds teams have been able to do) come away with a continuing commitment to help the people of this archipelago as they rise to the continuing challenges that a history of oppression coupled with climate change has wrought.
In closing, from this trip, #UBLawResponds not only deepened existing relationships, we discovered new kindred spirits, alongside whom we hope to work for the foreseeable future. #PRSeLavanta.
To support the continuing work of #UBLawResponds student attorneys, you can find a link here.