Thomas Mitchell, Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin Law School

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Spotlight Spotlight interviews advocates, community leaders and policymakers who have dedicated their careers to improving our communities, our nation and the world.

Professor Mitchell is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School and an expert on property issues which impact African-Americans. Recently, Professor Mitchell drafted a model state statute which several state legislatures are considering to reduce land loss among the many poor and minority property owners who own so-called “heirs’ property.”

What (or who) inspired you to do the work you are doing?

While I was pursuing a graduate law degree at the University of Wisconsin Law School, I did some outreach work for the Land Tenure Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that was working on land issues throughout rural America and the developing world.

Through this outreach work, I had the opportunity to meet a number of rural landowners and farmers of color many of whom were “land rich but cash poor” and a number of amazing individuals who have worked tirelessly for decades to help minority landowners retain their land. I was fortunate to not only meet but to develop friendships with some of these people on trips to the South. This includes Gary Grant from Tillery, North Carolina and Shirley Sherrod from Albany, Georgia.

In seeking to use the law to help less privileged property owners, I draw inspiration from Charles Hamilton Houston, former vice-dean of Howard University School of Law and architect of the legal strategy to end Jim Crow and the “separate but equal” doctrine, who encouraged lawyers to be social engineers who work for social justice.  I received my law degree from Howard University and was deeply inspired by Charles Hamilton Houston.

What is the biggest policy challenge facing the United States and how would you fix it?

Like many others, I think the biggest policy challenge is to address the growing wealth and opportunity gaps between the very wealthy and people of more modest means in this country. This also encompasses the issue of the growing racial wealth gap which is dramatically narrowing the opportunity structure for many people of color.

No silver bullet exists to solve this issue. However, solutions at the local, regional, state, and national level must include efforts to narrow the educational achievement gaps between different racial and ethnic groups by, among other things, ensuring that all Americans have access to high quality public education. This education must place increased emphasis on teaching students from an early age to be financially literate, to invest more resources in struggling communities to help them develop economically and less resources to incarcerating people, and to incentive corporate social responsibility.

What advice do you have for young people who are interested in your field?

If you think you may want to work as a community development lawyer on behalf of low-income or low wealth communities, try to contact law professors who work in the field. These law professors can introduce you to lawyers who practice in the field of community development and to community-based organizations that work with lawyers.

If you go to law school (or are in law school now), take a number of business and transactional courses such as real estate, business organizations, trusts and estates, and tax because community based organizations and community development corporations often need lawyers who know how to use the law to help these communities develop their real estate and other assets.

In addition, seek out experiential learning opportunities whether in a clinic, internship or a course with a service learning component so that you can get the opportunity to learn firsthand about the legal challenges poor and minority communities face and to learn how the law can be used in a constructive way to help these communities develop themselves socially and economically.

How do you find balance in your life?

To be quite candid, finding such a balance for me is a work in progress. My wife and two-year old daughter have helped me find greater balance in my life by inspiring me to take greater care of my health.

In addition to working out on a more regular basis, I also have spent more time in the past couple of years working in my garden during the gardening season in Wisconsin. In addition to its other benefits, I joke that as someone born and raised in San Francisco that I am earning some “farming cred” with the rural landowners and farmers I have worked with over the years.