A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Col Owens: Teaching is an investment in the future and that’s why I’m teaching poverty law

I returned to teaching a couple of weeks ago. I teach a course in Poverty Law at NKU’s Chase Law College as an adjunct professor.

Many people ask me what poverty law is. I answer that it’s the study of how the law impacts and intersects with poor people – for better or worse. It happens in virtually every area of life – housing, health, employment, public benefits, family, education, criminal justice, etc. The lives of the poor are highly regulated, much more so than those of the middle class.

People ask why I teach this course. I answer that I like to teach and that this area is what I know about. I was a legal aid lawyer for 36 years, and during that time learned a great deal – more than I would like to have learned – about poverty, and how bad it is, for everybody, poor and non-poor.

I tell my students at the outset that I teach to three distinct groups of students. First, those who want to go into a public interest setting, like legal aid or public defender. Second, those who will work for government or some private think tank or similar entity, where policy matters are paramount.

And third, and this is the largest group, those who will enter private practice, where they will not have a lot of contact with poor people. But many of them will become thought leaders in their communities – lawyers often do – and I believe it is good that they have devoted some time in their life and career to thinking about these issues.

It’s an interesting time to be teaching about poverty and social justice. The entire nation is consumed with justice issues – because of the Black Lives Matter Movement in response to police shootings, and because of our tortured politics and the myriads of issues that have so divided us. We need help in working through these things.

I teach to help shape the thought of future leaders. I teach because we, the present exponents of all historical learning, have not devised better ways to solve these age-old problems, like hunger, homelessness and want.

I teach because I believe in the future. In a better future. And because I hope and believe that my students will help lead us into that better future.

Col Owens is a retired attorney. He teaches Poverty Law at NKU’s Chase College of Law. His memoir, Bending the Arc Toward Justice, (Cincinnati Book Publishing, 2020) is coming out in the fall.

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