By Matt Nickell, J.D. ’14
I started going to Project No One Leaves’ Saturday morning canvasses in my first year of law school. Project No One Leave (PNOL) stood out to me when I got to HLS because it was one of the only organizations on campus that got law students out of Cambridge and into Boston communities to do housing justice work. Project No One Leaves was started by HLS students at the start of the economic crash in 2008 to connect people facing foreclosure with legal resources and community groups that could help them defend against foreclosure and eviction. Canvassing with PNOL was a great way to see and enrich my understanding of Boston’s geography, history, and culture. More important, it gave me the opportunity to work side-by-side with community organizers, homeowners, and tenants as part of a broader movement resisting the forces that perpetuate poverty, inequality, and segregation.
My time with PNOL these past three years has been tremendously eventful. A pivotal experience was attending my first meeting at City Life / Vida Urbana, a community organization (and PNOL ally) that brings together tenants and homeowners facing foreclosure and eviction to fight back against banks and predatory investor-landlords. The level of energy, activity, and engagement in the room was a testament to the transformative power of communities to transform lives and neighborhoods through direct action. Another major highlight was helping organize PNOL’s fourth annual foreclosure conference earlier this year. We drew 250 lawyers, community organizers, professors, and others from over eleven states to talk about the current state of the foreclosure crisis, including the new dilemmas we are seeing on the ground and the solutions needed to address them.
The most important thing about PNOL for me has been the people. Canvassing with PNOL allowed me to work with amazing students whose commitment to social justice has been incredibly inspirational – people like my Co-President Tyler Anderson, whose thoughtfulness and diligence kept the organization’s gears moving these past two years; our Conference Director David Curtis, who helped organize and run our conference this spring; and our Canvassing Director Donna Harati, who mapped out and planned many of our canvasses this past year.
The people I met during PNOL’s weekly canvasses have been equally inspirational. Almost every homeowner and tenant who answered my knock at the door was extremely kind and courteous, but many had sad stories to tell that could move anyone to tears. Homeowners had been preyed on by banks that exploited their vulnerability, tenants did not know whom to contact about needed property repairs and health code violations, and many had recently lost jobs, health insurance, or family members. Fortunately, many of the people I met became active advocates for change themselves, attending City Life meetings and speaking out against the predatory practices that devastated their communities. As a member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau’s Foreclosure Task Force, I had the privilege to work with a number of the homeowners and tenants I canvassed, defending them against eviction in Boston Housing Court. But the real strength of the people I met came from their families and their communities, not from within the courtroom.
My time with PNOL constantly reminded me why I came to law school and redoubled my commitment to working in the public interest. To be part of an organization that allowed me to work with non-lawyers and non-students to push forward a grassroots model for systemic change has been a tremendous privilege. Though of course I wish that foreclosure and displacement would stop plaguing the communities I care about, I hope that organizations like PNOL continue to bring people from various backgrounds together to make those communities healthier, happier, and stronger.