From the Community to the Classroom

Georgia State Assistant Professor Courtney Anderson has fostered strong relationships with community leaders to help identify and address the issues facing communities in metro Atlanta, including access to affordable housing and education.

Anderson’s research focuses on the interrelated effects of housing, education and health. She also explores those areas in her Property and Law and Health Equity courses, where she incorporates experiential learning to help her students enhance their lawyering skills and engage in the community that surrounds them.

“Students are always looking for ways to put their lawyering skills to use and give back,” Anderson said. “Most Georgia State Law students are from Atlanta or have close connections to the city. Through the experiential learning aspect of my courses, they get to be active and learn more than what we can teach in the classroom.”

Anderson’s students assist with her research, but not in the traditional way. “During class discussion, students ask great questions around the issues I’m researching. I learn a lot from their ideas around various issues and examples we explore together,” Anderson said.

One issue that students will help Anderson explore next semester is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Anderson is researching the state take-over of the area. “What is happening in Flint is unique,” she said. “Usually, citizens can hold local officials accountable in a public health crisis like this by voting them out of office or taking legal action. Since the state has replaced these officials, residents don’t have this option.”

When students visit English Avenue/Vine City on the bus tour, Anderson will share what residents encounter during heavy rains and correlate that to the Flint crisis—which likely will spur new ideas for policy change in this area.
“Courtney is an engaged and engaging professor. I’ve observed her skillfully guiding her students through a problem they were having and helping them brainstorm, while setting firm expectations for them,” Wolf said.

Anderson’s approach to her teaching and research stems from her experience as a clinical fellow at Georgetown University Law Center representing low-income tenants. In doing so, Anderson realized her services extended far beyond their legal rights and developed her passion for eradicating the disparities in low-income communities.

“We were our clients’ only advocates. They told us how hard it was for them to access social services and education because of where they lived,” Anderson said. “We realized how many ancillary issues stemmed from the disparities in their communities, and we were the only ones who could help.”

Anderson shares these insights with her students in a variety of ways. Her Law and Health Equity students take a bus tour from downtown Atlanta to the affluent community of Buckhead. Students observe and contrast the size of houses, the green spaces, schools and neighborhood amenities in Buckhead with the concentration of vacant homes, low flood plain areas and lack of sidewalks in low-income neighborhoods.
During the course, students work with Atlanta Neighborhood Planning Units, citizen advisory councils that make zoning, land use and other planning recommendations to the mayor and city council, to address health disparities and inequalities.

Anderson took a personal interest in the impact of closed school buildings (known as shuttered schools) in poor communities. Her article “The Disparate Impact of Shuttered Schools” was published in the American University Journal of Gender Social Policy and Law.

She addressed how schools selected for closure are often located in the poorest communities with distressed real estate markets. Once the schools close, there is a ripple effect. The vacant buildings attract illegal activity and arson; lower property values overall; and reduce the likelihood of investment in the area.

In the article, she explained that because the buildings are government owned, there is a lack of appropriate sets of laws for guidance on how to approach or solve the problem of shuttered schools. Always looking for solutions, Anderson proposed a legal framework for evaluating the disparate impact of the vacant building and creating solutions for repurposing these schools in a way that benefits communities.

“We can’t force the government to do anything with these buildings, but if more legal officials and policy makers understand the gravity of the problem and encourage development to help with redistricting, we may be able to expand the dialogue and work toward a resolution,” Anderson said.

“Courtney wants to understand the underlying conditions that contribute to inequities and injustice,” said Leslie Wolf, professor and the director for the Center for Law, Health & Society. “By grounding her scholarship and teaching in the real-world problems, she points the way to making a difference in people’s lives and inspires her students to consider the impact they can have in their communities within their career.”

Anderson’s Property students have worked with Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit committed to breaking the cycle of poverty through high-performing schools, to help Thomasville Heights Elementary School, which is facing state takeover after receiving an “F” rating three years in a row. Purpose Built Schools hopes to make Thomasville a charter school instead.

“Thomasville had a 40 percent turnover rate, and Purpose Built Schools needed help understanding why,” Anderson said.

Her students pulled eviction records and housing conditions, and cross-referenced demographics to provide a picture of issues that could impact Thomasville students’ ability to attend school. Purpose Built Schools is planning to incorporate their recommendations based on the findings in the upcoming school year.

Through a collaboration with Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, Anderson and her Law and Healthy Equity students have helped with the Atlanta Youth Count and Needs Assessment, a comprehensive survey of youth homelessness in Atlanta.

They helped develop the survey questions not only to capture the number of homeless youth, but also what led to their homelessness and their future plans. The resulting report provides practical information on the size, nature and needs of the homeless and runaway youth in Atlanta that can inform development and refinement of policies, programs and interventions to help these kids.

The connection Anderson makes between communities and her students is as lasting as her relationships with residents and leaders. She often hears from former students who continue to follow the issues she introduced and hope to continue to work toward solutions. She’s also been selected multiple times as a December graduate’s favorite professor. It’s clear that Anderson’s approach to teaching, in combination with her research and involvement with community leaders, is benefitting her students and making a difference.