Nani Jansen Reventlow
Ashoka Fellow since 2023   |   Germany

Nani Jansen Reventlow

Digital Freedom Fund
Nani is bringing strategic litigation for human rights to new levels of impact by supporting marginalized communities to use legal systems on their own terms. Fostering collaborative and…
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This description of Nani Jansen Reventlow's work was prepared when Nani Jansen Reventlow was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2023.


Nani is bringing strategic litigation for human rights to new levels of impact by supporting marginalized communities to use legal systems on their own terms. Fostering collaborative and community-driven models, she shifts community needs from the periphery to the center of litigation efforts, reshaping the legal system to be more inclusive and equitable while amplifying the voices that traditional power structures have silenced.

The New Idea

Nani firmly believes in the transformative potential of the law to advance human rights and social justice, leading to systemic and structural change when used strategically, collaboratively, and driven by those with close proximity to the causes they seek to advance. Drawing on her background as an international human rights litigator, Nani has spent the past ten years working to create a more coordinated and interconnected civil society sector where different actors collaborate across human rights sectors towards safeguarding human rights, both online and offline.

Through her previous organization, the Digital Freedom Fund, Nani has successfully built a more interconnected and knowledgeable network of digital human rights groups in Europe, harnessing the power of strategic litigation as an instrument for aligning shared objectives and fostering collective action. However, her experience in the field also highlighted the persistent and severe inequalities in accessing legal remedies, especially for marginalized communities. High fees, complex processes, underrepresentation in the legal profession, and limited legal knowledge hinder their ability to seek justice in both digital and non-digital contexts, resulting in one-sided outcomes that exacerbate inequality and expose the unequal power structures of the current legal system.

Building on her work, Nani is now elevating the landscape of human rights advocacy in Europe through Systemic Justice. She champions a community-driven approach, tailoring advocacy efforts to align with the unique needs and priorities of communities directly impacted by racial, social, and economic injustices. To achieve this, she equips these groups with the tools, knowledge, and resources they need to leverage the legal system on their own terms. Unlike traditional approaches that often rely on legal experts guiding the agenda, Systemic Justice employs a cooperative model, centering around collaborative efforts and close partnerships with the communities most affected by social and environmental challenges.

This approach to community-driven litigation redefines the dynamics by valuing the expertise of lived experiences. It empowers community organizations and movements to take the lead, with legal practitioners serving as facilitators, providing vital information and assistance. By being thus equipped, these groups can effectively advance their causes with greater impact. In doing so, Systemic Justice reshapes the very foundation of how legal cases are developed – by whom, for whom, and for what purpose – by placing the authority to define the legal agenda within the grasp of those most affected, driven by their insights and priorities.

To spread this approach, Nani uses three key strategies: creating a Community of Practice that unites litigators, legal practitioners and human rights organizations working with affected communities; producing a reservoir of equitable working models and practices through collaboration within the community; and systematically integrating these models into prevailing legal systems. In doing so, she seeks to reshape traditional paradigms of legal practice, fostering a more inclusive and responsive approach to justice.

Just as Nani has already demonstrated with the Digital Freedom Fund, this approach fosters an interconnected, inclusive, and coordinated human rights field, working to protect and advance the rights of everyone by broadening access and breaking down silos between those with expertise and means to effect change and those who are most acutely affected by the problems.

The Problem

Access to justice is a critical foundation of any democratic society, upholding the rule of law and safeguarding human rights. The principle dictates that every individual, regardless of their social status or background, should have an equal opportunity to seek justice and have their concerns addressed within a fair legal framework. However, in many countries, the current legal system exhibits significant disparities, particularly impacting marginalized communities. Findings from the OECD show that the inability to access legal and justice services can be both a result and a cause of disadvantage and poverty, creating clusters of legal and justice needs that disproportionately affect low-income and other disadvantaged groups. This lack of access denies marginalized communities the opportunity to have their voices heard, exercise their rights, and seek redress for discriminatory practices, further undermining their ability to enforce their economic and social rights.

One of the major barriers for marginalized communities in accessing justice is the complexity and high costs of legal processes. The substantial expenses associated with pursuing legal actions are often unaffordable for disadvantaged groups, such as low-income populations, migrants, and racialized groups. Additionally, the intricacies of court proceedings present significant challenges for individuals lacking legal expertise, exacerbating power imbalances in the justice system. This situation is intensified by the lack of diversity among key operators in the judicial system, such as judges and lawyers. These roles are predominantly filled by individuals from privileged backgrounds, leading to a disconnect from the lived experiences and unique challenges faced by marginalized communities. This perpetuates an existing imbalance within the system, as those personally affected by the issues feel alienated from those working to resolve them.

Despite the presence of civil society organizations representing interests for human rights, a fragmented structure and narrow focus have proven ill-equipped to safeguard the rights of all individuals, particularly marginalized groups. Often operating in isolated silos, these organizations tend to focus on specific issues that hinder the development of holistic solutions for interconnected human rights challenges that predominantly impact marginalized populations. For example, current climate litigation often fails to address the needs of marginalized groups, focusing instead on broad environmental goals that overlook the intersectionality of climate-related problems with existing social and economic inequalities. These marginalized communities, already at a disadvantage, may disproportionately suffer from issues like air pollution or extreme weather events, yet the legal strategies employed often neglect their unique needs. As a result, even well-intentioned climate litigation can inadvertently perpetuate inequality by failing to recognize and address the complex interplay between environmental concerns and the specific struggles of marginalized populations.

Grassroots movements representing these communities often find themselves overwhelmed by immediate crises and have limited capacity to deploy sustained advocacy strategies and tools, like strategic litigation, even though seen successful for advancing human rights causes. Moreover, the fragmented structure of the human rights advocacy landscape limits resource and knowledge sharing between different actors. This impedes grassroots movements and community-based groups from accessing the expertise and capacity necessary for sustained efforts. As a result, the most vulnerable populations continue to be disproportionately affected, with their needs and voices often overlooked in legal strategies and human rights advocacy, thereby perpetuating systemic inequalities and obstructing the path toward true justice and equity.

The Strategy

Nani’s vision of a more effective and inclusive human rights field, which protects the rights of all and uplifts all voices, is at the core of her work towards transforming the legal system to support and empower communities fighting for racial, social, and economic justice. This journey began seven years ago with the establishment of the Digital Freedom Fund (DFF) and has now evolved into Systemic Justice. Throughout her journey, the overarching goal for Nani has been to ensure that actors in the human rights field are better equipped and empowered in their efforts to advance human rights and social justice, while rebalancing power dynamics between those setting the human rights agenda and those most affected by violations and discrimination.

Through her own work in human rights litigation, Nani recognized the real bottleneck for systemic impact lies in the lack of effective collaboration and partnership between issues, actors, and fields, both in the digital context and beyond. In response, in 2017 she established the Digital Freedom Fund (DFF), connecting experts, organizations, and activists working on digital human rights with the broader human rights field. DFF aimed to harmonize efforts, build capacities for strategic partnerships, policy advocacy, and litigation, thus enhancing the digital human rights field’s effectiveness and interconnectedness through joint strategic litigation. However, Nani realized that the need for this kind of litigation goes beyond just the digital sphere; hence she decided to create a field that bridges the gap between digital and traditional human rights, incorporating diverse perspectives from all groups and issues in a more holistic approach. This expansion allowed digital rights actors to benefit from the diversity of the field and better align their efforts. Drawing from her personal experience as a Black woman in the predominantly white and male digital tech field, Nani became acutely aware of the urgency to address power imbalances, exclusion, and privilege that have historically shaped human rights protection. Recognizing the need to center marginalized communities in addressing human rights violations and inequalities, she strategically prioritized amplifying these voices in the mainstream conversation around digital human rights through the DFF’s field-building activities. However, realizing the limitations of the DFF’s mandate to directly represent these communities, Nani founded Systemic Justice – her second organization – expanding the scope to address racial, social, and economic justice issues alongside digital rights.

Systemic Justice's mission is to establish community-driven litigation as the standard practice, marking a fundamental departure from traditional methods, including conventional strategic or community-centered litigation approaches.

This distinctive approach seeks to place the leadership of litigation work directly into the hands of those affected by the injustices being challenged, with a central focus on having communities lead in the decision-making process. Instead of lawyers initiating legal strategies and then engaging the community, Systemic Justice prioritizes the community's integral role.

The organization's method for achieving true empowerment begins with centering priorities and identifying needs by involving communities in determining the issues it addresses. To ensure that their strategies and legal actions align with the genuine needs and priorities of marginalized communities, Systemic Justice conducted a comprehensive Europe-wide consultation in 2022. This consultation engaged activists from over 30 countries, facilitating more than 100 consultations with diverse groups, including LGBTQI+ communities, Black, Muslim, and Roma communities, disability campaigners, climate justice campaigners, migrants, refugees, sex workers, and housing justice initiatives. Conceived as an ongoing initiative, the mapping exercise serves the dual purpose of keeping the organization's mission aligned with the voices and aspirations of the communities it serves while also directing its efforts where they can have the most significant impact. Drawing from her understanding of the field's needs, Nani has structured her organization with three complementary tracks.

First, Systemic Justice addresses the demand for improving litigation knowledge and capacity within community-based organizations and grassroots activists. They achieve this by conducting workshops and training sessions. In addition, regular drop-in calls facilitate direct engagement between activists and legal experts, enabling them to seek advice and guidance tailored to their specific needs and campaigns. Furthermore, Systemic Justice develops practical resources such as legal lexicons, explainers, and guides, translating complex legal jargon into clear and understandable language, and offers them as open-source materials for broader accessibility and inclusivity.

Systemic Justice takes on the role of a law firm for movements, with its core being its community-driven litigation model. This is a meticulously designed process where communities take the lead in establishing objectives, proposing remedies, and shaping the narrative, while litigators play a supportive role by providing essential legal expertise and assistance. Vital to this model is the establishment of long-term partnerships with communities and grassroots organizations, built on the principles of trust, transparency, and mutual accountability. When forming these partnerships, Systemic Justice embarks on a collaborative journey to translate community goals into actionable court strategies, beginning by addressing fundamental questions: What transformative changes do these communities aspire to achieve? Can strategic litigation make a positive contribution to their pursuit of change? If so, what would an effective litigation strategy entail? These inquiries serve as the cornerstone upon which litigation strategies are co-designed to fully align with the community's objectives and vision for change. This means that rather than imposing strategies from above, the legal team supports and empowers grassroots organizations and ensures that they retain decision-making power throughout the legal process. This approach inherently values the impact of litigation on communities over Systemic Justice's own intentions, ensuring that legal cases are driven by the genuine objectives of the community itself, and successes are celebrated collectively by the community rather than being attributed to individual lawyers or organizations.

Importantly, Systemic Justice takes on the role of facilitators rather than experts, acknowledging that expertise stems from lived experiences. For instance, the priorities for developing litigation projects were determined based on the identified needs during the Europe-wide community consultations, where the most pressing issues, as identified by the community, centered around climate justice and social protection. In the field of climate justice, Systemic Justice has initiated collaborations with approximately 25 organizations, focusing on building climate litigation projects. These projects target environmental racism, pollution's harmful effects on marginalized communities, and advocate for community inclusion in climate policymaking. In social protection, the organization has engaged with a similar number of groups, developing litigation projects addressing exclusionary practices impacting fundamental rights like health, housing, education, and social security. These projects involve cases related to gentrification, harmful beauty product marketing, and advocating against discriminatory school exclusions.

Additionally, in response to the field's requirement for enhanced collaboration, Systemic Justice serves as a connector and facilitator, fostering alliances among marginalized communities to collaboratively address shared issues. Through this role, Systemic Justice plays a crucial part in breaking down silos and fostering a sense of solidarity among diverse groups. For example, Systemic Justice facilitates community events and roundtable discussions across Europe, bringing together different social justice movements and grassroots organizations, each dedicated to diverse causes like gender equality, LGBTQI+ rights, labor rights, disability rights, climate justice, and racial justice. Through Systemic Justice, Nani provides a safe space for these groups to discover common ground for political action and develop more effective strategies and legal campaigns through collaboration. By emphasizing systemic perspectives and addressing intersecting issues rather than identity-based distinctions, Nani creates a non-judgmental atmosphere conducive to constructive dialogue and the overcoming of mutual barriers as a prerequisite for collaboration. This has led to the formation of powerful coalitions, including the launch of a coalition of Black, indigenous, and people of color-led (BIPOC) organizations and youth initiatives dedicated to advancing genuine climate justice. This initiative encompasses three key components: organizing a BIPOC Climate Justice Summit to bring leaders in Europe's climate justice sphere together, fostering a positive vision for climate work that addresses the intersecting and disproportionate harms faced by BIPOC communities due to the climate crisis. The project also includes building a BIPOC Climate Justice Coalition, aimed at establishing a network of BIPOC-led climate justice organizations, movements, collectives, and youth initiatives. Finally, Systemic Justice will produce a podcast and speaker series to uplift and promote the work of BIPOC-led organisations and youth initiatives in the climate justice space.

Nani’s ultimate goal is to create a cultural shift within the legal field, making community-driven principles the norm and integrating them into campaigning strategies from the outset. To achieve this, the third pillar of her model is focusing on spreading her approach to the broader ecosystem of lawyers, traditional human rights organizations, and litigating organizations through the Community of Practice.

The originality and strength of these field-building activities are evident in several key factors. Firstly, Nani leverages the potential for collaboration and alignment between stakeholders, recognizing that there is actually significant and growing interest within litigating organizations for community-based approaches but a lack of knowledge, networks, and best practices. As such, she is partnering with those who want to be first-movers. During workshops, retreats, training, and both strategic and thematic meetings, Nani fosters dialogue among lawyers, litigators, and community-based groups. These interactions facilitate reflection on the existing power imbalances between lawyers/litigating organizations and the communities or groups they seek to represent, while also promoting the exchange of knowledge, resources, strategies, and tools to strengthen community-centered approaches to litigation for racial, social, economic, and environmental justice.

At the heart of these efforts is the establishment of a 'Community of Practice,' comprising early adopters eager to champion community-led approaches in litigation work in Europe, with Systemic Justice facilitating this collaborative space through co-creation and consultation with the field. By bringing together stakeholders who share a common commitment to community-led justice initiatives, the Community of Practice functions as a unifying platform, fostering a sense of collective purpose. Through regular meetings and active involvement in each other's work, stakeholders harmonize their strategies, leading to the establishment of new standards and best practices. These interactions go beyond mere networking; they delve into opportunities for collaboration on community-led cases, igniting innovative ideas and methodologies in legal work. Moreover, they facilitate the identification of potential allies who can contribute to the dissemination and implementation of these innovative approaches. Systemic Justice has already conducted two in-person community retreats, bringing together key stakeholders from diverse jurisdictions to collaborate and strategize, resulting in the formulation of an action plan and solidifying the commitment of the Community of Practice.

In the future, Systemic Justice’s five-year pilot period (2022-2026) will serve as a basis for evaluating the community-driven approach to strategic litigation, which is core to the work. By 2026, the goal is to initiate 12-16 litigation projects across up to 6 thematic areas as proof of concept. Beyond this period, the ambition is to expand the work in Europe and explore options for testing the viability of Systemic Justice’s community-driven litigation model in other global regions, and through other modalities, such as locally based chapters.

Nani’s successful track record with the Digital Freedom Fund, in weaving community empowerment, targeted litigation, and inclusive models, has provided a strong foundation for her work with Systemic Justice. Her approach has continuously diversified voices in human rights, breaking down silos and fostering collaboration, as evidenced by landmark rulings in over 60 human rights cases pursued by Nani and DFF over 5 years. For example, one precedent case includes the challenge against the Dutch government’s use of an automated surveillance system called “System Risk Indication” (SyRI), which was used to detect possible benefits and tax fraud based on information from government databases. Through DFF's facilitation, impactful collaboration was fostered among privacy and welfare rights NGOs, the largest Dutch trade union, two journalists, and a team of lawyers in challenging the undemocratic and rights-violating use of SyRI in the Netherlands, leading to the first-ever halt of digital technologies and abundant digital information use by welfare authorities on human rights grounds and effectively addressing potential discrimination against marginalized communities. Another successful example of their work includes DFF grantees, comprising an immigration law charity and a tech-justice nonprofit, filing a court claim that led to the decision by the UK Home Office to shelve an algorithm used to stream visa applications, arguing that it discriminated against people from certain nations.

Having achieved her vision in the digital sphere and aware of the need in the broader human rights space, she decided to leave Digital Freedom Fund in the hands of a great team that is pursuing the work and funded Systemic Justice to replicate and further develop her model across a broader spectrum of contexts where legal advocacy intersects with social, racial, and economic justice issues.

The Person

Growing up as the daughter of a white Dutch mother and a Black Malian father in the Netherlands helped shape Nani’s perspective on society’s power dynamics from early on. Her experiences of being othered have contributed to her early awareness of – and drive to address – the persistent inequalities and injustices that permeate societies. Actively seeking ways to support others experiencing similar injustices has led Nani to study public law. Throughout her studies, she seized every opportunity to incorporate a human rights perspective, e.g., through a special major focus or an internship at the United Nations. For her, it has always been clear that she was not looking for a traditional law career path. Recognizing that, although we have an internationally legally binding human rights system, it is not working sufficiently to protect all human rights, sparked her interest in strategic litigation. Following her formal training as a lawyer with a law firm in the Netherlands, she landed her first human rights job at the Media Defense (an NGO providing legal assistance to journalists) where she obtained the first freedom of expression judgment from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and from the East African Court of Justice.

During this work, Nani learned that effective coordination with and collaboration between lawyers, activists and other stakeholder groups is a prerequisite for successful strategic litigation and key to achieving broader social impact. From then on, Nani made it her mission to find ways to enable collaboration around litigation to strengthen rights-related outcomes. As a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center, Nani developed the Catalysts for Collaboration, which offers a set of best practices and case studies encouraging activists to collaborate across disciplinary silos and use strategic litigation in digital rights campaign. The interest in putting more emphasis onto strategic litigation led to establishing the Digital Freedom Fund to support this work. Understanding that in order to succeed, the field of digital rights actors involved in strategic litigation also needs to be more sustainable and stronger, for Nani it was always clear that financial support alone is not sufficient to achieve this goal. Consulting with key digital rights organizations in Europe highlighted the lack of diversity within the groups and the limited scope of issues being addressed.

Inspired to create a more inclusive and interconnected field, she invested her passion and energy into building a collaborative network of human rights actors focused on providing comprehensive human rights protection online and offline. This led her to initiate a decolonizing process within the Digital Freedom Fund, where she opened up conversations to organizations and individuals who traditionally were not part of the digital rights discourse. By expanding the dialogue to include racial justice, social justice, economic justice, and climate justice organizations, she successfully shifted the dynamics in the field. Throughout this process, Nani became increasingly aware of the deep-rooted power imbalances that prevented these organizations from accessing the same resources and opportunities as more established human rights organizations. As she continued to build a stable and impactful organization within DFF, she saw increasingly how communities resisting racial, social, and economic injustice weren’t able to use the courts for their campaigns for change on their own terms, and decided that she would build an alternative.

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