Aisha Sleiman grew up with a keen awareness of inequality. As a high school student in the Bay area, she volunteered at a neighboring school in Oakland. The disparity between the resources her wealthy high school had compared to the Oakland school were apparent.
“There was this injustice,” she said. “I had way more opportunities than these kids.”
When she left for college at UCLA, she knew she wanted to devote her career to lessening inequality. Attending law school was a natural extension to her goal of creating systemic change and pursuing public interest work.
“The intersection of poverty with everything else was always something I was thinking about,” she said.
After law school, Sleiman applied and was selected for a Justice for All fellowship, which brought her back to Toledo, a city she lived in for several years as a child. Her fellowship with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality marries many of the issues Sleiman cares passionately about: creating equity of opportunity and tackling systemic problems through client-focused work.
Her fellowship takes a community lawyering approach to economic development.
“I wanted to focus on going into the most disinvested neighborhoods and finding ways to leverage economic development tools to create equity in those neighborhoods,” she said.
Many residents of disinvested neighborhoods are unaware of the opportunities available to them. Sleiman researches economic development opportunities — such as co-ops, land use and zoning — and then works with local community organizations to present the findings. Groups that are interested in moving forward get additional support from Sleiman and legal aid, to pursue resources for their neighborhoods.
One community took action after learning about the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). The CRA creates an obligation for financial institutions to meet the credit needs of the entire community, including low-income and people of color. Sleiman researched the law and looked at the data, to determine how it could be used to benefit disinvested neighborhoods.
Although the process will take some time, several communities are now working with Sleiman and legal aid.
“We built relationships with financial institutions so that they can get people ready and the neighborhood ready to get conventional financing,” she said. “Hopefully it will lead to more development in the community.”