Member Highlight: Jay Cumberland Jr

Sue Bennett's picture

Tell us a little about yourself and the educational or career path you took to get to where you are now?

I grew up in small-town, rural Mississippi, but attended an elite prep school where I graduated as salutatorian. My privileged formal education was only one source of learning for me, though. My practical education came from an anti-intellectual, fundamentalist Baptist church where I developed as a leader and formed my identity. With this formal and practical education, I left Mississippi for college at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. I studied philosophy and religion and was generally exposed to a broader range of ideas than existed in my hometown. Within a year, I began to realize the error of my church’s misogyny, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism. I went home, naively approached the pastor to discuss these issues, and, after a tense exchange, was banned from teaching in the church and effectively expelled. I think that event crystallized the tension in my upbringing between intellectualism and populism. It established in me an abiding interest in creating democratic organizations that can change, weather critique, and be better for it. Now I’m a Berkeley Law student focusing on democratic governance, community power-building, and the commons, all of which build on my interest in populism, critical thought, and institutional dynamics.

What specifically drew you to working with social enterprises and democratically-led organizations, such as cooperatives?

I came to law school after working at Impact America, a nonprofit focused on poverty and policy in Alabama. I wanted to continue working on poverty and policy but did not know how I wanted to do so. My first semester, a fellow student told me about Cooperation Jackson. As I studied Cooperation Jackson, the lights turned on for me. All of a sudden, I was oriented to the work I wanted to do as a lawyer. I wanted to help organizations like Cooperation Jackson create structures that allow them to build power, self-sufficiency, and autonomy.

What do you find to be the most challenging about being a law student?

For me, the most challenging thing about being a law student is working against the way law schools divide social justice law and business law / government law. Angela P. Harris best explains this division. They say “social justice students [take] courses on critical race theory, constitutional equal protection, and civil rights, while business-minded students focused on courses related to economics, like securities regulation, international trade law, business associations, tax, and banking.” Social justice students learn moral language by which to denounce the market and rights-based approaches by which to mitigate its effects, but they do not learn the intricacies of structural inequality or the workings of the market. I find that disheartening, and I find it exhausting to straddle the divide between business and social justice in class. 

What do love most about being a law student?

I love being connected through legal internships to the community of activists and radicals working for change in their communities. Legal work gives you a privileged and priceless inside view of these peoples’ thought. I also enjoy the challenge working with such clients brings. It demands practical skill but also an orientation toward and an understanding of legal history and the field of activism. Without this orientation, an attorney lacks the proper dexterity to use legal tools for a cause. The struggle to maintain that orientation, to balance theory and practice, attracts me.

What are some of the needs you see in your community that you are hoping to address through your work?

I hope to build a practice addressing the growing disenchantment with representative democracy. Solutions to this disenchantment tend to take the form of building solidarity economies that function as counter-power to corporatized government and privatizing market forces. These efforts are essential, and I want to support them as a lawyer. However, these efforts abandon the field of democracy. So, additionally, I want to help organizations move beyond counter-power solutions to solutions that build radical, local, democratic alternatives to representative democracy—that address state power.

What, if anything, would you change about the legal profession or legal community if you were in charge?

I would try to change the divide, mentioned in my answer to Question 3, between social justice and business law in law school.

Who is your ideal client or what is your ideal project?

Recently the Whanganui River in New Zealand was granted legal personhood, and a small group of indigenous community members were designated as its representatives. Similarly, Article 71 of Ecuador’s Constitution grants everyone the right to sue on behalf of nature. Forty years ago granting rights to nature was just a fringe environmental priority; today it is becoming real. In a similar vein, my ideal client would be a district-based People’s Assembly that wants to run a protest campaign for city council to highlight deficiencies in our representative government process. To break through legal barriers, the campaign would have to change California state law about who can run for office. There’s no momentum here now, but I want to help a client build toward it.

What do you like to do when you are not practicing law [studying, or working]?

I enjoy hiking in the Berkeley hills and the East Bay Watershed. And, when I get the chance, I like to build things like coffee tables, picture frames, or compost bins.

What are your “go to” resources and current sources of inspiration you can share with the Next Legal community?

My source of inspiration is the great group of legal professionals I’ve had the privilege to work with since moving to the Bay Area for law school.