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Xperts Speak is led by Melissa Akaka, Academic Director at Project X-ITE, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Daniels College of Business, Co-Director of the Consumer Insights and Business Innovation Center, and Elizabeth and Ali Machado Faculty Fellow.

Patience Crowder speaks about her work and research related to transactional law and increasing access to entrepreneurial resources for underserved communities. Watch the video, or read the transcript below. 

Melissa Akaka: Hi, I’m with Patience Crowder. She’s an associate professor at the Sturm College of Law and the Director of the Community Economic Development Clinic. Patience comes to us with a really interesting background in understanding underdeveloped communities and thinking through what types of entrepreneurship and what types of support they need in order to build out those communities. Patience, can you tell us a little bit about your background, your research interests and how you got into this area?

Patience Crowder: I am a lawyer. I practiced for a couple years before I got into teaching, and I’m super happy that I’ve transitioned into teaching. One of the great things that I love about my job is the type of teaching that that I do. Focusing on my research interests for a second, I’ve always wanted to be what I considered a public interest lawyer, someone who uses their skills to help those who are in need. And it took me some time to figure out how I could best contribute those services, and I realized that by providing services to under resourced entrepreneurs and small businesses doing community-based validation, that would be a way for me to contribute. So, that’s also what I write and research about. I focused on looking at non-litigation avenues for building up communities. The types of services that I provide don’t represent parties in court, but they look at transactional ways — contracts and voluntary agreements. For example, how can we use non litigation alternatives to increase access to those who don’t have access to things like economic justice and entrepreneurship?

So, initially I focused at looking at inner city communities who were impacted by redevelopment projects. Some of the questions and topics we focused on were: What are the development deals that guide those redevelopment projects? How were those communities excluded from participating in those redevelopment deals and whether or not there were ways to argue that community participation should be part of the contract in enhancing community participation and meet development of it.

I’ve since expanded my focus on economic development to include both inner city communities and metropolitan regions, which is why I particularly feel at home here in the Denver metropolitan region. I am focusing on what are coalition building mechanisms for underserved and “poor communities” within particular cities across the municipal boundaries for the benefit of the region.

Melissa: I think this idea of transactional approach versus litigation is something that’s really interesting. Can you unpack that a little bit? What are the benefits of a transactional approach and how do you conceptualize that?

Patience: Sure, let me start with an example. So, if you think about one of the ways that courts have been really helpful to underserved populations is through what’s called impact litigation. That’s where lawyers represent clients who also represent a type of class, and will litigate a case and the hope is that once that case is decided, the benefit is both for that party and also for people who look like that party.

So, one of this country’s most famous impact litigation cases was Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools in this country. Impact litigation plays not just on behalf of the plaintiff, but also on behalf of all non-white students in public schools. The goal was getting students of all races to integrate and via schools. The court outlawed segregated schools, but it didn’t set up any implementation systems for how the school should be desegregated. We live in a world today where we have and a lot of instances where schools are more segregated now than they were when Brown was decided in 1949. The transactional approach looks at how we can build mechanisms for implementing avenues of increasing equity and justice that don’t involve going to court. It’s a different mindset also. Litigation is about party A and party B where there’s a dispute and trying to stop or cure a past harm. Transactional law is very forward looking, it’s not about remaining for damages. I’m not saying it can’t get contentious, but how can parties work together to build value voluntarily and that’s through contracts, leases, and voluntary agreements. My research looks at how we can use this collaborative way to impact situations that might traditionally have been focused on seeking litigation alternatives.

Melissa: I think that’s really interesting and when using this approach and looking at your overarching areas of interest in your research, which is looking at inner city and underserved communities, what do you think is one of the biggest problems being faced right now by that population?

Patience: It an access to economic justice issue. The evolution of this country involved certain exclusions of people having certain types of access to resources. If you think about the history of slavery, Chinese Exclusion Act, history of Native Americans in this country, wealth was being built by certain individuals while others were excluded and that’s tracked on for generations. Which is why, some of our underserved communities look the way they do. We think about what’s considered a poor community or bad community or a scary community, it’s usually a community that doesn’t have a lot of white people. We don’t always think about how that community came to be. It wasn’t organic like the community creating itself. We have a history of redlining. We have a history of racial covenants, where people were only physically allowed to live in certain spaces and build up density in those particular spaces and have absent landlords who weren’t paying attention to the property that was being rented because people couldn’t buy housing.

When I think about the biggest challenges for today, I think of how do we get over what’s been a historic exclusion of access to economic justice and how do we open up doors that have been previously closed or even if they were open formally in terms of having rules or regulations that targeted certain types of population, are those really working and are they working to the benefit of the people who made them most? To give a concrete example, if you think about gentrified neighborhoods, they weren’t necessarily absent business development. So how do we ensure that neighborhoods that are in transition, don’t suffer business gentrification along with trying to preserve residential diversity?

Melissa: This access to economic justice has clearly been a historical problem that did not just emerge recently. Can you talk about this in the face of the pandemic that we’re in right now? Can you see other elements or other dimensions to the problem that might have not been as visible before?

Patience: If you think about the CARES Act and the businesses that were able to take advantage of those resources, people were outraged, and I think justifiably so. That Ruth Chris, the famous delicious steak, was able to benefit from that. And there are other certain types of benefits, and this is actually researched. I’m looking into some businesses, particularly chains, businesses with infrastructure. We’re ready to jump into this application process where small businesses that were just hustling to meet the day-to-day, all of a sudden had to pivot with respect to how they were providing their goods or services, but then also have to find some capacity to be able to participate in this loan process. That is not just to apply, that’s to understand what you’re applying for and the consequences of it.

To answer your question in terms of what the pandemic has done, it’s really showing us the have’s and have not’s, in terms of those of us who have the luxury of working from home and those of us who have the hardship of having to check out our groceries. But also with respect to business development and entrepreneurship in terms of who has certain infrastructures in place that could have made them more readily able to pivot and adjust to the new circumstances and also to take advantage of the funds available and the CARES act and then who was just struggling and just couldn’t do it anymore because the world was asking too much of them.

Melissa: I think that’s a great example of how the pandemic really exacerbates problems that are already existent. I’m really curious to hear more about the Community Economic Development Clinic that you run. How does it address this problem of access to economic justice and how might businesses benefit from it in the current state?

Patience: There are two clinics that I’m currently teaching. One is the Community Economic Development Clinic and the other is the Community Innovation and Equity Projects that was funded by a grant from Colt Half, the Colorado Legal Aid Trust Account Fund. The reason why I want to mention both of them is because they’re both transactional clinics focused on working in underserved communities. The CIEP – Community Innovation Equity Project – works on three particular areas, social justice-oriented technology, rural economic development or rural entrepreneurship, and providing know-your-rights trainings to small business owners who either are themselves or are working with undocumented workers so that they understand what their rights are in the event of an ICE workplace raid because we actually see that as a very urgent small business need. The Community Economic Development Clinic provides a wide variety of transactional services. So if you want to start a business, and you’re trying to decide if we should form an LLC or an S-CORP, you can come to my clinic and get advice about what your options are for choice of entity. Students will draft your governance document and help you file your articles organization, draft an operating agreement. If you need a commercial space, we’ll help you with your commercial lease. If you’ve got some intellectual property concerns, we can talk to you about what’s the distinction between copyright and trademark and helping consider all of the more immediate startup needs. If you’re an existing business, we help there, too. So we do vendor agreements. We do form contracts. It’s really about thinking about what the business needs are either as a startup or an existing need and then how we might be able to help further those goals.

Melissa: So if you’re a small business owner starting up, or an established business, is there an application process to be able to participate in this program?

Patience: We have a request for legal services form that we asked for potential clients to fill out. That helps us understand who’s operating the business, who the owners are, and if there are any owner percentages that we have to inform us about, and also what your goals are. The expectation is not that you know them all. Generally, people are like, I need form contracts and then we start talking. For example, you might need an NDA or different type of agreement to help facilitate the business that you were unaware of. So, we use that as a way of starting the conversation. I would like to let people know that we provide our services for free. So, students are working under faculty supervision, all of us are licensed attorneys to provide these services, but the goal really is to help provide free transactional legal services to folks who wouldn’t have market rate legal services for attorneys.

Melissa: In that way, your clinics are helping to alleviate this burden of access to economic justice by providing them with the tools that they need in order to run their businesses accordingly. If you’re a student or faculty at the University of Denver or one of our community members, how can we either get involved in your program specifically, or how can we contribute to the broader problem in terms of being part of the solution.

Patience: If you have an idea that you’ve vetted and you’ve got a business plan or viable plan of operation and want to know what some of your options are, we might be able to assist you with any entity formation or just helping you prep to get to the next step. We’ve done that where we’ve got some folks with ideas and had wanted to figure out how to pitch their idea, and so we’ll do an NDA and also provide general business planning advice about what that might look like. So, we definitely work with folks at different stages. But what we’re not really able to do is talk to you about whether or not your idea is a good idea.

In terms of the broader problems. I think my answer is similar to what I heard Virginia Pitts say in the earlier interview. When you’re out in the world, be aware. If you’re buying food at this particular time from a grocery store and if it’s a chain, just be aware that there are people there who are providing you services who don’t have the luxury of not coming into work and what that might look like. But also try and focus on supporting our small businesses by ordering food and picking it up directly as opposed to some of the other options that are out there and think creatively. Do I need to get this plant from King Soopers, or should I go to a local nursery, which was actually a decision point that I made yesterday.

Melissa: So, in terms of addressing this issue of access to economic justice or just economic justice in general, what I’m hearing you say is that, as consumers, we can make proactive decisions to really think through what the system is like and how we can increase the justice for the smaller business owners that might not necessarily be able to take it on themselves. 

Thank you for your time. I learned so much about your programs. I think this is a really awesome resource to have on our campus and for our students and our faculty and for our community as a whole. Thank you for all the work that you’re doing to take on this really big challenge.

Patience: Thank you, Melissa. It’s been a pleasure.

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