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Leslie Ridgeway • November 6, 2023
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Professor Bernadette Atuahene brings experience with property law, community organizing to USC Gould

Professor Bernadette Atuahene calls coming to USC Gould School of Law “a full-circle L.A. moment.”

Born, raised and educated in Los Angeles County, Atuahene majored in political science and African-American studies at UCLA, becoming a community organizer in her senior year. After graduation, she took a year off before Yale Law School to continue organizing work at Community Coalition, which was then led by executive director Karen Bass, now the city’s mayor.

“Karen Bass and the Community Coalition are the reason why I now work at the intersection of law and community organizing. I owe them all so much,” says Atuahene, a property law scholar whose research focuses on land stolen from people in the African diaspora. She comes to USC Gould from the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Atuahene’s research has taken her across the globe to South Africa, where she studied the issue of reparations for land stolen from Black residents by whites during colonialism and apartheid. She compiled the results of her work in a book, “We Want What’s Ours” (2014, Oxford University Press) featuring interviews with 150 dispossessed individuals and families, and an award-winning short documentary focusing on the struggles of one of the family’s fight to regain their land. Her approach for her next project, which won funding from the National Science Foundation, sprang in part from uneasiness over the research’s view of its Black subjects.

“The work made me uncomfortable in many ways because it looked at Black people as victims,” she says. Atuahene followed up with an ethnography on squatting.

She chose Detroit, Mich., where squatters’ rights were a major issue. From her conversations with squatters as well as data analysis, she identified a more pernicious issue – that between 2009 and 2015, property tax assessments in Detroit had been made at more than 50 percent of market value, violating the Michigan State Constitution. Consequently, since 2009, one in three properties in Detroit had been foreclosed on, she found. She changed her focus to property tax foreclosure and, with local community groups, formed the Coalition for Property Tax Justice in Detroit to fight for justice.

“I’m studying Black victimization again, but I can’t see all this injustice and walk away,” she says. “Through the Coalition, we’re working with the ‘Holy Trinity’ – law, research, and community organizing – to slay this dragon [of property tax injustice].”

At USC Gould, Atuahene is teaching the Public Interest Housing Practicum, in which students collaborate with the Coalition on projects that work towards ending racialized property tax inequity in Detroit and throughout the nation.

“My students have just finished the first part of the practicum and will be working with the Coalition for the second part,” Atuahene says. “My USC students are smart and dedicated. They are just awesome.”

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