Police blocked off the streets and locked the doors to Miami-Dade County Hall as a group of infuriated protesters gathered outside. It was January 27, the day after Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced he would cooperate with Donald Trump's hard-line immigration policies, and emotions were running high. The idea that residents were being shooed off public property dumbfounded attorney Meena Jagannath and her colleagues at the Community Justice Project, which fired off a letter admonishing the county for First Amendment violations.
"For us, I don't think it was a choice to sit on the sidelines," Jagannath says.
She and her cofounders, Alana Greer and Chuck Elsesser, started the Community Justice Project in 2015. With a core mission to provide legal support to groups fighting for racial equality, fair wages, affordable housing, and other social justice issues, the group has had no shortage of work over the past two years.
"Even before the election, with the Trayvon Martin killing and afterward, Ferguson, and the Black Lives Matter movement, you see national politics really impacting local politics," Jagannath says. "At the end of the day, policing and schools and housing, all of those are very much still local issues."
Jagannath was raised in New Jersey, where her parents commuted to New York City to work in engineering and financial services. With a lifelong passion for social issues, she studied international relations and peace and justice studies at Tufts University, where she got involved with groups such as the Coalition for Social Justice and Nonviolence.
"I think a lot of [my interest] comes from my parents being immigrants from India and kind of seeing how they struggled here to give us a stable life in the U.S.," she says.
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After graduating, Jagannath earned a master's degree in international affairs with a concentration in human rights and then went to law school. Out in the field, she cut her teeth working with indigenous communities in the aftermath of the civil war in Guatemala and with sexual assault victims in Haiti. When an opportunity arose in 2012 to work with Elsesser, a longtime community lawyer at Florida Legal Services, she moved to Miami and quickly immersed herself in the local community. By her second or third day on the job, she was already meeting alongside cab drivers with Commissioner Audrey Edmonson to discuss reforms to the taxi system.
"In a city like New York, I don't know if that would happen as quickly," Jagannath says.
As the Community Justice Project has grown, so has the group's roster of issues to tackle locally. But Jagannath says that fact makes the organization's grassroots philosophy all the more important.
"Our model is based on a deep belief that social change comes about when people who are directly impacted by different types of injustice are the ones leading the initiative," she says. "For the people we work with, we are trying to give a platform for them to be able to advocate for themselves to make their mark on this city and make it a more just and beautiful and equitable place."