Alexander, students relish chance to `practice law as ministry'

It's not that Frank Alexander is any more involved than the scores of public servants, private sector professionals and dedicated volunteers who work to provide safe, affordable housing in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. It's just that he has been able to immerse himself in a score of new initiatives, ongoing projects and cooperative ventures that are moving Atlanta and the state forward in meeting a critical public need.

"The best thing is, I've gotten to take my students with me," said Alexander of his varied and non-stop work as both professor at the law school and fellow at The Carter Center. "They work on everything I'm involved in, from drafting legislation to negotiating with owners and tenants in housing projects."

Between eight and 12 students each semester who take Alexander's seminar on federal housing policies and homelessness have the opportunity to receive additional credit by working with him in a clinical program related to his work on affordable housing. The seminar is open to graduate students across the University and to undergraduates by permission, and both students and professors relish the chance to do hands-on projects.

For Chris Copeland, a student in Emory's Law and Religion Program, the seminar was a perfect fit in his dual pursuit of J.D. and M.Div. degrees. "Law school tends to be a place where it's hard to see the big picture," said Copeland. "You're learning skills, but you wonder what you can do with them."

Copeland soon found out, beginning by helping monitor legislation at the 1995 Georgia General Assembly. Alexander, appointed a member of a special Senate committee to look at barriers to affordable housing, was charged with helping draft new legislation on tax foreclosures and other affordable housing initiatives. Copeland made weekly treks to the state capital and got to know state Sen. Ron Slotin and a number of other legislators.

But Copeland soon realized, working with Alexander, that "everything you do has political implications." Among the projects he enjoyed most were those that involved advising people who owed back property taxes on how to negotiate with the tax commissioner, and helping conduct educational forums for low-income homeowners on the state's Homestead Exemption. "Working with Frank Alexander allowed me to see how I can use this legal education to do ministry," said Copeland.

A native of Fayetteville, N.C., Copeland has applied for a hospital chaplaincy job this summer and wants to move into the ministry. He sees himself as a community-based minister organizing outreach and working in the community on social and legal issues.

The chance to do clinical work reinforces third-year law student Angela Couch's determination to pursue public interest law. A sociology major and 1993 Emory College graduate, she came to law school "with a different idea of what I wanted to do with my law degree." She has helped Alexander prepare legislative recommendations for the 1996 Georgia General Assembly, and is helping write a position paper on how the state of Georgia can develop a continuous source of funding for low- and moderate-income housing.

But it was a celebration reception with residents of the East Lake public housing facility that sealed Couch's aspirations. Over the past year, Alexander, Couch and other students participated in the negotiation of a comprehensive redevelopment agreement between the Atlanta Housing Authority and the Residents Association, which was approved in late November. "That's the kind of work that makes it all seem worth it," said Couch. "It's a great thing to see that something like that can happen."

"This kind of community involvement is a critical part of education that is too often lacking in the university setting," said Alexander. A member of the Emory faculty since 1982, he came to the University to help found its Law and Religion Program, an initiative well-suited to his dual degrees in theology and law from Harvard University. "This is work I've been blessed to be able to do. It has been the best combination in my professional career because it fulfills my passions for law and ministry, and law as ministry."

-- Elaine Justice

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