Marginalized communities everywhere are not able to use the law and justice system to access their entitlements, protect themselves from exploitation and exercise their rights. The reasons for this are: the lack of legal literacy, effective community leadership and self-organization. As communities get further distanced from systems of law and justice, they become victims of it. Our legal aid system is completely broken – passive and inaccessible. Law schools everywhere have legal clinics and aid cells that could play an instrumental role in developing legal changemaking capacities in communities. But their present model of offering legal services, one case to another, serves neither the communities nor the students in the long term. The actual disempowerment of both the communities and future lawyers feeds into a culture of helplessness.
Founded by Abhay Jain and Swapnil Shukla, Zenith has understood the problem of passivity and helplessness and conceived of a solution that is scalable to every community in the country. By framing the laws and legal mechanisms as tools for empowerment, developing legal changemaking capacities within communities to use those tools, and, finally, leveraging legal aid clinics in law schools everywhere to be vehicles to develop the aforementioned capacities, Zenith sees a way to help every community change its relationship with the justice system and within society as a whole.
Building on these three pillars of legal empowerment, community organization and justice leadership, and law student leadership, Zenith developed a unique six-step model to transform communities into advocates for their rights and entitlements.
The process engages the law students from legal aid cells as volunteers who can run the different steps and, in the process, develop lasting changemaking capacities themselves. The perspective and leadership developed within the community transcends a specific issue and becomes a playbook they can use time and again to ensure their own betterment.
Finally, Zenith is also highly strategic in not approaching their work as a zero-sum game by alienating other stakeholders, particularly the government. They do not position their campaigns or initiatives as anti the incumbents. In fact, in many cases they’ve collaborated with the government representatives whilst maintaining an arms-length and a line of resistance that comes across as a matter of integrity and humanity rather than aggression or no-holds barred activism. This clever and highly-nuanced approach enables them to enter and hold delicate spaces where emotions could spiral out of control.