John WhitlowAlumnus class of '03
Growing up in Baltimore in the 1980s, John Whitlow spent a lot of his childhood at the home of a friend whose father fled fascist Spain because of his political activities. “There was a different way of thinking and talking about politics,” Whitlow recalled. “Being exposed to that from an early age made me want to understand how power operates to marginalize and exclude people, and I wanted to do what I could to change that.”
After earning a degree in comparative international economic development, he enrolled in an anthropology graduate program in New York. However, that was short lived and quickly turned to organizing when he learned that the security guards at the school didn’t get paid a living wage nor benefits. “When one of them became really ill, the other guards had to literally pass around a hat,” Whitlow said.
The students and workers began an organizing campaign and, eventually, Whitlow and his classmates found themselves sitting across the table from the university’s corporate counsel, negotiating the terms of a settlement. “That’s what made me think about law school,” said Whitlow. “I realized that I needed the specific knowledge and tools that only a legal education could provide.”
Whitlow chose CUNY Law to combine the law with his organizing work.
After graduating in 2003, he worked as a staff attorney at Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Legal Services in Brooklyn, New York, representing low-income tenants in housing court. He soon began to notice the same clients returning. He realized that while the organization was helping people get out jams “we were not doing much to alter any structural relationships.” Looking to do more affirmative work, Whitlow joined the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project, where he represented tenants associations’ in-group litigation and provided transactional legal assistance to community-based organizations. “I think legal work is best used and most dynamic when it’s connected to a social movement or some kind of community-based organizing,” he said.
He built on his work of combining community organizing and the law as a supervising attorney at Make the Road New York, a membership organization composed of low-income immigrant New Yorkers. He led the organization’s housing and public benefits legal services, and helped draft legislation to make it easier to track down corporate landlords.
“We had noticed a staggering number of slumlords who were virtually impossible to locate because the only information on file was the name of a shell LLC and a P.O. box. The new law was a step toward making it easier for tenants to know who their landlords actually were and to get much-needed repairs in their apartments,” he said.
With this law now in place, these landlords are required to register their physical address and the names of their corporate principals with New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
The strength of successfully pairing legal and organizing tools was something Whitlow wanted to share. He began teaching in a clinic, co-led by Make the Road and the New York University School of Law, that focused on law, organizing, and social change. Watching students develop and apply their legal tools to real-life problems inspired him to look for more teaching opportunities. Whitlow returned to CUNY Law in 2012 as a clinical law professor in the Community & Economic Development (CED) Clinic. Whitlow said he was eager to return to CUNY and to teach in the clinic because it’s a “great place to do impactful legal work.”
In 2015, Whitlow joined the faculty at the University of New Mexico School of Law where he works with students in the Community Lawyering Clinic, focusing on combining legal services and community-led organizing efforts.