CUNY Law Prof’s Project Uplifts Unheard Voices

By David Brand

When stories of abuse, trauma and exploitation are shared for general consumption, they are typically filtered through the voice of “experts” like administrators, attorneys and reporters.

More often, says CUNY School of Law Professor Chaumtoli Huq, those stories are never shared at all.

In order to amplify the perspectives on social change that are not covered in the mainstream media, Huq founded Law@theMargins in 2013.

Through the project’s Community Based News Room, Law@theMargins removes filters and uplifts voices that are often ignored. The site enables people who are affected by immigration enforcement, domestic violence, incarceration and other issues to share their own experiences.

“I wanted to focus on stories of people who aren’t covered, even within mainstream public interest work,” Huq said. “The goal is to uplift the stories of people who aren’t quote-unquote experts. They are people who experience the law and as a result of their experience develop an expertise.”

An example of Law@theMargins’ content appears in Friday’s issue of the Queens Daily Eagle. In the featured piece, Carrington Keys discusses what he learned after spending ten years of a 19-year sentence in solitary confinement after being convicted of attempted armed robbery.

Huq said a reliance on the perspective of “experts” can ignore people’s lived experiences. Thus, she said, each Law@theMargins contributor has experienced the “direct impact of a law or policy on their lives.”

The mother of an incarcerated son has written about her experience, for example. So has a former death row inmate who discussed the death penalty.

“New voices lead to new perspectives on issues. New perspectives on issues lead to changes in society,” Huq said. “That’s the power of narrative. You can tell a story that can impact the ability to obtain rights and justice.”

Huq produced a film on Bangladeshi organizers, many of whom are based in Queens. // Photo courtesy of Chaumtoli Huq

Huq produced a film on Bangladeshi organizers, many of whom are based in Queens. // Photo courtesy of Chaumtoli Huq

Huq recently began her first year teaching labor law and related courses at CUNY Law. She said her legal interests include transnational-local activism, the way local organizing connects with global labor rights, in particular.

Law@theMargins is a law and media 501(c)3, which recently launched its Community Based News Room in collaboration with Eric Ortiz, the former Managing Editor of Truthdig, she said.  

Before joining the CUNY Law faculty, Huq taught courses in legal practice, immigrant rights and employment law at Borough of Manhattan Community College, New York Law School, City College of New York and Rutgers University. She has also worked for Legal Services of NYC and MFY Legal Services. She served as director of the first South Asian Workers’ Rights Project at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, as a Skadden Fellow and as the first staff attorney for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

Huq grew up in the Bronx neighborhood of Parkchester after immigrating to the United States from Bangladesh as a toddler.

Her mother’s membership in the SEIU 1199 union enabled her family to access health insurance and provided her with a small scholarship when she attended Columbia University, she said.

“That peaked my interested in labor and employment rights and got me interested in this field,” she said.  

Huq said the 2013 Savar building collapse in Bangladesh inspired her to develop Law@theMargins.

More than 1,100 textile workers were crushed and killed when an eight-story building collapsed. The facility contained several textile factories that made clothing for major Western brands like Walmart and Joe Fresh.

In 2014, Huq traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh to work as a senior researcher with the American Institute for Bangladesh Studies.

“I had been following the labor movement and economic justice movement in Bangladesh and I had begun to draw connections between workers there and here,” she said. “I had accumulated all this information and experience and I wanted to share that in some vehicle.”

Yet, no such forum existed, she said.

“If you’re a public interest lawyer or just want to learn about public interest issues, where do you go? Where is the information,” she said. “Law@theMArgins emerged as a place where people can share their public interest work.”

Five years later, the platform, which also hosts webinars and legal information, continues to expand as it gains volunteers and grants, she said.

“I’m convinced that this is a really powerful combination of law and journalism with a public focus,” she said.

CUNY Law Professor Chaumtoli Huq delivers the keynote address at Princeton’s Racial Justice Symposium in 2017. // Photo courtesy of Chaumtoli Huq