How a Lawyer Turned Sociology Student Is Seeking to Help Marginalized Communities

February 16, 2022

With a doctorate, Daniela Adriana Tagtachian plans to fight for members of marginalized communities who face unfair laws and the threat of being displaced from their neighborhoods.

Daniela Adriana Tagtachian
Daniela Adriana Tagtachian

Daniela Adriana Tagtachian, a second-year student in Sociology, enrolled in the Ph.D. program after working for two and a half years as a community lawyer for the University of Miami School of Law Environmental Justice Clinic, where she sought to address inequity and fought to keep low-income residents from being displaced from their neighborhoods. She is affiliated with the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality at the Graduate Center and is a Reducing Inequality Network Scholar and is also a fellow for the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research. She was born in Argentina, raised in Miami, and recently spoke to the Graduate Center from India, where she was visiting family:

The Graduate Center: Why did you decide to enroll in the Ph.D. program after working as a lawyer?

Tagtachian: I worked in anti-displacement strategies, and I, along with community partners, kept going to [Miami’s] City Hall to try to get different strategies heard and passed. With those partners, I helped design a displacement vulnerability and mitigation tool, and we ran it by several people in the city government. Basically we were told, “Well, where’s the data? There’s no data to suggest that people are being displaced.” I talked to anybody that would listen at the law school about this, and a few colleagues said, “Well, either get a Ph.D. to get the data, or let this go and figure out a different way.” So that was one motivator.

I had gone to law school not really knowing what segment of society I was going to work with. I had a strong sense that I wanted to work with human trafficking victims, which is why I went to the University of Michigan. I worked at their human trafficking clinic for a year and interned at the state attorney’s office’s human trafficking unit.

For various reasons, I ended up working during my second summer at a big law firm and returning after graduation. One of the most rewarding things I did while I was there was serve as the attorney ad litem for a little girl in foster care. After that, I decided to leave the private sector and go back to the public sector.

And then I started looking at the options. There are so many different segments of society that you could work for and so many ways to help. It felt problematic, this idea of how you choose where you belong. So I started thinking about the uniting theme across all of the people I have worked for, and realized it was basically two things: poverty and marginalization.

GC: In addition to getting data to support anti-displacement strategies, what research interests are you focusing on?

Tagtachian: My other major area of interest is the role of law in the perpetuation of inequality, as it relates to poverty, legal estrangement, and social exclusion. Legal estrangement is the theory that the law operates to exclude minorities from society, as opposed to including them — they become alienated from the government, from law’s enforcers. I want to expand that to civic participation, which it hasn’t been applied to before.

Consider civilian oversight review boards for cases involving excessive use of force by the police. Instead of the government, through its traditional processes, holding officers accountable, all of a sudden it’s the community, specifically the community that has been disproportionately harmed, that has the burden of performing a government duty.

Similarly, requiring community participation, especially when the community is asked to physically show up and to speak with “one voice,” can serve as a cover for inaction or bad faith action. Municipal officials can also shift the burden of services from the government to the community. Something designed to increase community involvement may sound good in theory but it can create a two-tier system in which some residents don’t need to engage in the system and some people do. Civic participation is supposed to be a right, not an obligation. You should be able to choose to civically participate for whatever reason. You should be allowed to engage in the democratic decision-making processes if you choose to. You shouldn’t be forced to because, if you do not, your needs aren’t met. Instead of being a right, it ends up being an obligation for a certain section of society, which happens to be the marginalized, low-income communities of color that are continuously being harmed by the system.

GC: Did you see this process in action while you were a community lawyer?

Tagtachian: An example of the way this occurred in Miami-Dade County is through the charettes [planning meetings] that were used when the county transitioned to form-based code in several areas of unincorporated Miami-Dade County, with the creation of Urban Center Districts. Notably, many of the Urban Center Districts are located in low-income Black neighborhoods. Community members said that in these “stakeholder” meetings, the presenters would engage with the community by asking, “Would you like to see a park here? And a new building here? What would you like to see in this space?” And the community was led to believe that the vision includes them. But that’s not how things play out.

If no protections are put in place to protect the local community, you’re going to end up with displacement. If you make an area much nicer to live in, and you decrease the crime rate and increase the quality of the schools, it becomes more desirable. The problem is not the improvement to the quality of life in the geographic space, the problem comes about when the residents are not able to benefit from the positive changes. You want a better neighborhood that residents can still live in. The people who are already living there also want to benefit from these improvements.

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