Teaming up to promote access to water

Students form close partnership in International Human Rights Clinic project

Access Water Team

Credit: Courtesy of Susan Farbstein Rehab Abdelwahab ’21 (top left) and Laura Soundy ’22 (bottom) with IHRC Clinical Professor Susan Farbstein. The two students first met in September while working under the supervision of Farbstein, who was running a project with a community in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

Over the last semester, Laura Soundy ’22 and Rehab Abdelwahab ’21 have learned how critical it is to talk about subjects other than law. As the two team members on their project in the International Human Rights Clinic, they made space to share both their commitment to eradicating injustice as well as the fears and frustrations that come with living life, and attending law school remotely, during a pandemic. And when they learned they were both quarantining in Texas—albeit on opposite sides of the state—the two quickly formed a plan to meet in the middle (after two weeks of isolation and in as safe a manner as possible).

Soundy and Abdelwahab first met this September while working under the supervision of Clinical Professor Susan Farbstein ’04, who was running a project with a community in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Despite the right to water being enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution, the community has long gone without consistent access to potable drinking water. Over the last eight weeks, Soundy and Abdelwahab have become not only trusted colleagues and collaborators, but also close friends. Building a connection in the virtual world is difficult, but the two students were eager and intentional about doing the legwork to make their team a success.

Originally from South Dakota and a transfer student to Harvard Law School, Soundy knew the odds of making it into the International Human Rights Clinic were slim. Students filled the clinic’s spots for the following year just as she was admitted to HLS last spring. At the last minute, however, she won the lottery for the final seat and rearranged her entire schedule to make it work. Soundy, who majored in sociology at Baylor University, was first drawn to law school because of her interest in human rights.

Abdelwahab grew up in Qatar and later attended Yale University. Focused on global health and international affairs, she wanted to be a doctor. Still, after completing all the prerequisites and taking the MCAT, she realized medicine would never give her the opportunity to make a difference on a macro scale the way law might.

After obtaining spots in the International Human Rights Clinic, both were instantly drawn to Farbstein’s project.

“A lot of the ways human rights issues are addressed are reactive and about retribution. This project was framed from a lens of sustainability and cooperation. Instead of solely focusing on who is at fault, we were also interested in building up infrastructure so that it actually served the people,” said Abdelwahab.

Working in close collaboration with the Equality Collective, an innovative new South African NGO that builds capacity and structures for collective participation, with a focus on rural and marginalized communities, the clinical team spent the semester laying a foundation for a major regional campaign around access to water. Because the project was new, outcomes were less defined.

“We really had the opportunity to shape the project,” Abdelwahab said. “It was exciting but also challenging. Laura and I were both really invested in understanding the interaction between the local, municipal, and national laws governing the right to water in South Africa, but we had no background in the issue and we were thrust into the deep end.”

Bulungula

A view from Bulungula on the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

Over the course of the semester, Soundy and Abdelwahab carefully analyzed national, provincial, and local government legislation related to the provision of water in the area. They worked with their partner organization to identify what is currently required, how the system is meant to operate, and where legislation might be modified or improved.

Equality Collective Executive Director Tess Peacock LL.M. ’16, who worked with Farbstein while at HLS, said she saw the clinical team as an “extension of our research department.” Soundy and Abdelwahab’s initial research about a lack of infrastructure and clear legal options for pursuing municipal accountability helped lead them in the direction of solutions focused on community management and monitoring.

For the two law students, jumping into a complex project with lots of moving parts cemented their collaborative approach and, ultimately, their friendship.

“I think we were both so overwhelmed at first. In the first week, we were trying to read through hundreds of pages of South African legislation that we had never seen before, make sense of it and find the gaps,” Soundy said. “One night, we just said, let’s hop on a call and talk about it. After that, we fell into a rhythm.”

It became clear as they continued working together that Soundy and Abdelwahab were building a true partnership, one that had started to seep into the work, and, ultimately, strengthen their team. Farbstein encouraged them to set up their own informal meetings. After a few weeks, she noticed they seemed to be talking constantly, discussing both the legal issues and the day-to-day frustrations of living and studying during COVID-19.

Working on Zoom, students and faculty have to be comfortable with allowing glimpses into whole lives. Farbstein’s children sometimes wandered into the frame, and Abdelwahab was quarantining with her younger sister while she began her first year of college at Texas A&M University.

“We talk about TV and the election and books and RBG’s passing,” Farbstein said. “It’s been really nice for me to teach law students who are interested in having rich discussions, not just narrowly about the project, but about social justice more broadly, about career paths, and about life.”

While students have frequently cited the International Human Rights Clinic as a home at HLS, teachers and students have been critically aware not just of how important that atmosphere and connection is in a remote context, but of the increased challenges they faced this year in establishing such a community.

“One thing that is really important to how our team worked is that we are very open to acknowledging each other’s contributions,” Abdelwahab said. “It helped us build a foundation of trust.”

Peacock, who lives in the Eastern Cape without reliable access to potable water herself, provided a bridge to the affected community. Throughout the project, she made sure the clinical team was steeped in historical, contextual research so they understood the systemic issues the community faced.

Farbstein, who aims to train her students from a community lawyering perspective, helped the team understand their place in the project while also bolstering and emphasizing how an outsider’s perspective can sometimes be helpful.

“I try to teach students that as lawyers, we’re not in charge,” Farbstein said. “We bring certain skills that might be useful and helpful to a community, but our role is to be supportive so that the community can be informed decisionmakers.”

Soundy and Abdelwahab emphasized how critical Farbstein’s mentorship has been.

Abdelwahab said, “Susan taught us not to underestimate ourselves. We have a lot to learn, but we also have a lot to add, whether it be a legal perspective or an understanding of the international landscape.”

Most of all, the team gave the partner organization added capacity and resources during a global crisis.

At the end of the semester, the clinical team will deliver an overview of a variety of options the community could pursue to rectify the situation, with the hope that their research and recommendations will lead directly to better water access for the Amathole community. At this point, it’s unclear what route the community will choose. Soundy, Abdelwahab, and Farbstein have done what they can do within the time frame of a single semester.

Soundy said, “It’s hard to step back when we’re on the edge of actionable change for the community. But that’s our role in this project.”

“But I’m only a 2L. Maybe I’ll get to be in the clinic again,” she added.