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Edgar Cahn: Soldier in the War on Poverty and Injustice


Edgar Cahn says he was born with a sense of equality. "I have a twin sister and I think that has shaped my work in some respects, because I explain to people that I never even had the womb to myself."

Cahn says he grew up believing that the reason he was on the planet was "to try to deal with injustice." Before Cahn was born, his father, who was a lawyer, law professor and legal philosopher, moved from Louisiana to New York because of his opposition to the racial segregation then pervasive in the American South.

Racism Touches Life of Interracial Couple

Cahn studied literature in college where he met his wife, Jean Camper Cahn, an African- American. Threats were made against the interracial couple and racism, he believes, blocked job opportunities in his chosen field. "I was at that point a Fulbright scholar and at the top of my class, and I thought. if this is what humanities is about then maybe I better go across the street to the law school and learn how to fight for the values that literature celebrated."

The couple put each other through Yale law school. In 1963 they co-authored an article in the Yale Law Journal, which became the blueprint for a legal service program for impoverished Americans called "The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective."

Today the National Legal Services program is federally funded and has offices in every state, in all major U.S. cities and in many rural areas. It serves some 18 million people a year with a budget between 300 and 400 million dollars.

Cahn Fights War on Poverty Under Two Presidents

Cahn's work at Yale helped launch his career in the U.S. Justice Department as special counsel and speechwriter for Attorney General Robert Kennedy, brother of President John Kennedy. With a chuckle in his voice he says, "It was an amazing first job!"

Cahn worked on civil rights issues for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He drafted legislation for Johnson's "War on Poverty," whose premise was that social programs must engage the people they serve as partners. "They contribute to building community, building neighborhood, educating children and helping to deal with problems."

Cahn Establishes Public Interest Law School

In the early 1970s, after leaving government service, Cahn founded Antioch Law School, which later became the David A. Clarke law school at the University of the District of Columbia. Its focus was public interest law.

All students were required to live with clients for a short time and also learn the practical business of law in clinics for the poor and through internships with government agencies that served the needy. "We thought that creating an extended family for those law students would give them both an understanding of the perspective of their clients and also the ability to find out the facts and research the facts on a hands-on basis."

That was unheard of in legal education at the time. Cahn and his wife stayed at the helm of the law school for nine years. The clinical education model they pioneered is now common at law schools across the country.

Time Banking After Heart Attack

In 1980, at age 46, Cahn survived a massive heart attack. The event turned his life in a new direction. As a distinguished fellow at the London School of Economics, he designed an economic strategy for social change called Time Banking. In it, everyone's work time is valued equally.

An account is credited for hours worked and debited for hours of services used, no matter what the service, from roof repair to childcare. Computer-based software keeps track of participants and services. Cahn says the system has been adopted by enterprises in more than 300 communities in 23 countries in North America, Europe and Asia. The smallest has fewer than 15, the largest over 8,000.

Cahn says Time Banking also helps strengthen a community's social fabric. For example, a "Time Dollar" Youth Court in Washington brings youthful offenders before a jury of their peers. He says teen jurors earn computers, college tuition and self-esteem in return for their participation. "But they are also doing as much to advance the rule of law as the police, the courts and probation officers. And we think that they need to be the first line of defense."

Offenders are ordered to do community service, sometimes serving as jurors themselves. Cahn says the program has succeeded in keeping teens out of jail.

At age 71, Cahn continues to explore new ways to apply Time Banking to help communities. He says he has no plans to retire from his life-long fight to end injustice.

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