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The ongoing community-based research project that we describe in this article will contribute, we hope, to an understanding of the fringe economy by offering insights into what remains “unexplained” in the current existing literature, namely the gender and race disparities relating to who uses “alternative financial service” (AFS) products. This article likewise contributes to a growing body of literature within Critical Race Theory and Critical Race Feminism that deals with economic inequalities and how they are inextricably and structurally linked to race and gender subordination. By explicitly incorporating “participatory action research” (PAR) values and methods into our work as critical race/feminist scholars and researchers, we offer in this article a “new” way of doing critical race/feminist work that is designed specifically to enable likeminded legal scholars to “get out of [the ivory tower] . . . and hear from people firsthand.” Our PAR intervention puts the voices and concerns of community stakeholders and research partners at the center of the work itself. Thus, our approach, which we call legal PAR, makes its most significant and original contribution to the existing legal scholarship by not only “looking to the bottom” in a theoretical sense, but also by treating those “at the bottom” as equal research partners who are presumptively best situated to identify, analyze, and solve problems that directly affect them.

The article presents an overview of some recent empirical studies on those most likely to use “alternative financial services,” also known as the “unbanked” and “underbanked.” It also discusses and critiques the relevant legal literature on fringe banking and the unbanked and underbanked, and highlights some organizational efforts that aim not only to protect the unbanked and underbanked from predatory lending practices, but also seek to encourage and facilitate more responsible lending practices and innovations. The article introduces PAR, including its origins and critical developments, specifically highlighting the ways in which feminism, intersectionality, and CRT have and are continuing to impact the field. Finally, the article makes the case that PAR has much to offer legal scholars and scholarship while also setting forth some challenges—and resulting benefits—of doing legal PAR.