Influenced by “rebellious lawyering”, UM Law Professor Alicia Alvarez considers what justice means at all levels of the food system. Her clinic works with diverse client groups such as an urban farm, a farmer’s market, and a group that represents restaurant workers.  

Alicia Alvarez | Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Community and Economic Development Clinic, UM Law School

Faculty Spotlight – September, 2016

Where did you grow up? I moved from Cuba to the US when I was ten. My family lived in Miami for a year before settling in Chicago.

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What is your strongest food memory? When I was traveling in Turkey last summer, I ate eggplant every day. Eggplant was everywhere. Residents would hang eggplant out of their windows to dry, and it seemed like every dish had eggplant in it.

What are you currently reading? “Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution” by Majorie Kelly and “Tales of a Female Nomad, Living at Large in the World” by Rita Golden Gelman.

Have any particular authors, articles or documentaries had a significant impact on you? Which one(s)? Gerald Lopez’s “Rebellious Lawyering: One Chicano’s Vision of Progressive Law Practice” has challenged me in my work.  

What brought you to UM? I was working at DePaul University College of Law when a friend at the UM Law School told me about an opening at the clinic. I saw the position as an opportunity for a new challenge and decided to apply.

Tell me about your law clinic. The Community and Economic Development clinic is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It started at UM as the Program on Legal Assistance to Urban Communities clinic. The clinic is a functioning law office where students provide legal services to community organizations in Detroit and the metro region. I am involved in all the decisions, but I mostly work in the background meeting with students each week to review their work.

The clinic puts students in the actual lawyer role. Students deal with the interpersonal aspects of lawyering in addition to the substantive and intellectual ones—how to balance multiple clients, how to communicate with diverse stakeholders, how to deal with uncertainty and how to adjust. I think no other class prepares you as well for the actual practice of law.

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In what ways does your work relate to sustainable food systems? We work with organizations involved in the sustainable food movement. My clients have brought sustainable food systems work to me, and I have discovered the field through their eyes.

We work with an urban farm. We have worked with a farmer’s market and a group that represents restaurant workers. Having diverse clients helps us consider: What does justice mean at all levels of the food system? Some of the issues we’ve worked on include access to land, protecting names, and risk management. We worked with the Detroit People’s Food Cooperative in creating their entity. They are also exploring a physical space for a cooperatively owned grocery store in Detroit.

Do you have any advice for (law) students interested in food systems careers? Traditionally, working in the food system has meant working in the conventional agricultural industry or for large food companies. Today, the options are much greater.

Legal topics in food systems work are very diverse. Students need to be generalists, but they also need to understand the food sector and their client. When a lawyer understands their client, they can better understand the legal needs in the situation and how a lawyer would be of assistance.

How do you like to spend your time when you’re not researching/teaching/working? When I spent my senior year of college in Rome, I fell in love with traveling. Last summer I traveled to Turkey, and two years ago I traveled to Columbia. I also enjoy photography and learning new languages. I wish I had more free time to devote to those things.