Capability and Collective Action

By Joseph Roger Landry

The Shepherd Poverty Program is taking on the issue of our time. The Program presents college students with an incredible opportunity to be part of a larger mission—to use their education for social good. It guided my path through college and toward a career in public interest law.

"... those most directly affected by poverty know best what causes it, what alleviates it, and what could potentially solve it," writes Landry (W&L 2013) who was a SHECP intern at the D.C. Public Defender Service.

“… those most directly affected by poverty know best what causes it, what alleviates it, and what could potentially solve it,” writes Landry (W&L 2013) who was a SHECP intern at the D.C. Public Defender Service.


Every student follows a unique path through the program, but the introductory poverty course serves as a common point of departure. My class was fortunate to have students from a wide range of ideological backgrounds. The instructor’s encouragement of these differing viewpoints fostered a learning environment in which peers of all ideological stripes could share their ideas freely. Our viewpoints were only a starting point, however. The course required each student to truly confront how his or her preconceived notions about poverty failed to converge with data, theories, and with accounts from Americans who actually experience poverty. Poverty 101 caused all of us to challenge our perspectives, dig deeper into the issues, and grapple with new ideas about what causes poverty and how to fix it.

The interdisciplinary poverty studies curriculum then allowed me to build from the foundation Poverty 101 offered. My course trajectory included a historical study of the American welfare state, a hands-on business course that explored the use of social entrepreneurship to solve “wicked problems,” and a sociology course that examined the relationship between neighborhood effects and life outcomes. The curriculum allowed me, over the course of four years, to explore the subject of poverty through a diverse set of lenses. Each class was not an isolated learning experience, but an integral step toward a broader and more critical understanding of poverty.

Classes were only one part of my Shepherd journey. Hearing from students who shared their volunteer experiences in class inspired me to get involved with the many opportunities to contribute to anti-poverty work in the community. During the school year, I worked regularly with residents of affordable housing, with a program that delivered food to low-income families at their homes, and with a student-run financial education nonprofit. On a service trip, I worked with coal mining communities in Appalachia. Conversations with those who know the most about poverty—those who face its effects every day—bring a poverty-studies education to life.

The Shepherd Internship built on this direct experience. I interned for the Public Defender Service in D.C., where I helped attorneys represent youths in reentry proceedings and in disciplinary hearings at detention centers. With my partner, I visited the neighborhoods where clients lived; met families they grew up in; and spoke with teachers, mentors, grandmothers, and social workers. We learned both the barriers and the dreams of the people at the center of our work. The aim was to help tell the real story of who our client was and what would best move his or her life in the right direction. It was my first exposure to advocacy, and I learned that this skill depends as much on telling a human story as explaining the law.

In my junior and senior years, the Shepherd Program enabled me to work on longer-term research projects. In one, I studied affordable housing in Rockbridge County. As part of the effort, I interviewed local residents, political figures, nonprofit leaders, and advocates. In a summer research project, I worked closely with my poverty professor to study the effects of tax expenditures on low-income families. These projects allowed me to take on a more self-directed study of poverty by choosing subjects of interest and then digging deeper into the underlying issues through research.

After all this, I came back for the capstone seminar. This was an opportunity to bring it all together—to draw from the internships, courses, volunteer experiences, and, most importantly, from the stories of all those I met along the way who deal with economic hardship in their own lives. It was also a chance to think about where to go next. After all, the capstone inspires a collective feeling that this must be a beginning, not an end.

All that I had experienced in the Shepherd Program gave me a strong belief that those most directly affected by poverty know best what causes it, what alleviates it, and what could potentially solve it. Thus, I wanted to find a career where I could help people lead their own fight for economic justice. Collective action can serve as a tool for building a fairer economic system and building human capability. I came to law school to learn how to represent workers in their efforts to seek justice and fairness at work and in society as a whole. Lawyers are not the answer to every problem, but the work that labor lawyers accomplish goes a long way toward ensuring that workers have their voices heard and their rights respected. Ideally, I would like to find a career that allows me to work collectively with those who are building and improving their own communities.

Nobody graduates from the Shepherd Program at Washington and Lee or any other poverty studies program with a final answer. We do leave with a resolve to do something about the issue of our time. We also leave with humility about our own understanding of the problem. That is, the program gives us not just a lifelong commitment to helping alleviate poverty, but also an essential understanding that to do this most effectively, we must always keep our minds open and our ears ready to listen to those who know this issue best.

Mr. Landry is currently in his third year at Columbia Law School, where he serves as articles editor of the Columbia Law Review. During his time at law school, Mr. Landry has worked as a summer law clerk at the Communications Workers of America, as a summer associate at the public interest law firm of Altshuler Berzon LLP, and as an extern at the Office of the New York Attorney General. Following law school, he will serve as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and then on the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. He ultimately plans to work as a public interest lawyer.  He received his B.A. in History and minor in Poverty and Human Capability Studies from Washington and Lee University in 2013. 

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