Edgar S. Cahn, legal reformer advocating for the poor, dies at 86

“I don’t think we would have seen such a role for lawyers in the war on poverty without him,” said Peter Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who worked on Great Society legislation for the senator. Robert. F. Kennedy, said in a telephone interview.

It was only the first chapter of what was to be a life of legal entrepreneurship. Mr. Cahn left government in 1968 to found the Citizen’s Advocate Center, a research group dedicated to examining social inequality. He was among the first in Washington to highlight endemic hunger in America and draw attention to the plight of Native Americans.

He and Ms. Cahn went on to found the Antioch School of Law in Washington, a branch of Antioch University, where they served as co-deans. It was the first legal education program to emphasize clinical training: students learned by doing, sometimes taking charge of cases during their first few weeks of school. (The school closed in 1986 and elements of it were later absorbed into the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia.)

Still later, in the 1980s, Cahn developed the concept of time dollars, a system in which people could earn credits through hours of volunteer work and then spend those credits to receive services from others. volunteers – a particularly useful solution in economically disadvantaged areas. . Today, communities across America and in 40 other countries use some form of time banking.

“Whenever you had a question about how to reach the poor, how to help the poor, how to empower the poor, how to organize the poor, he was the man to go to,” said Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, in an interview. “There was no one in the country who had a more transcendent strategic and tactical approach to poverty than him.”

Edgar Stuart Cahn was born March 23, 1935 in Manhattan and grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. He inherited his interest in social activism from his parents: his father, Edmond Cahn, taught law at New York University and was considered one of the leading moral philosophers of his generation; his mother, Lenore (Lebach) Cahn, was a social activist serving older residents of Greenwich Village.

He met Jean Camper while a student at Swarthmore College. She came from a well-known family of black civil rights leaders in Baltimore, and both became famous on campus for their activism — as well as their status as a biracial couple at a school that, despite its renowned liberalism, was still disgusted with interracial dating.

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