I was shocked to learn recently that there are 400 rural veterans facing legal barriers to benefits and medical care they need – and that they are over 300 miles from the closest nonprofit legal organization that can help!
To be honest, I was always a little bit vague about what exactly we’re supposed to do on Veterans Day. I know it is a day to honor all the brave women and men who have served our country in the armed services – but it was never more specific than that for me. Until now.
Several weeks ago, the OneJustice Pro Bono Team received a call from Chief Judge Abby Abinanti of the Yurok Tribal Court – with some shocking news and a request for help. She was calling because there are around 400 members of the tribe who are also U.S. veterans who are facing legal barriers to critically important benefits and medical care. And they are over 300 miles – 7 hours by car – from the closest legal nonprofit organization that can help them.
So – clearly that calls for a Justice Bus response! Of course there were some possible obstacles – but we quickly solved them. Yes, it will be the farthest we’ve ever taken the Justice Bus Project- but University of San Francisco Law School readily agreed to have their students travel the distance to help. Never mind that we need a new nonprofit partner – we had already been talking to Swords to Plowshares about working together to do Justice Bus trips to serve veterans in rural and isolated parts of Northern California.
Now the only remaining barrier to getting on the road should also be easy to overcome – the funding to cover the costs of the long bus ride and accommodations for the student volunteers willing to donate their time and energy to deliver free legal clinics in three locations – Eureka, Klamath, and Hoopa – over two days.
The trip will take $10,000. Two generous donors each already donated $2,500 because they were so moved by the story of these veterans. This means we have just $5,000 to go and we will be able to gear up some mobile justice.
So, we need YOUR HELP. If 500 people in the OneJustice network each give just $10 on Veterans Day, we’ll be able to get the bus on the road. We can do this through collective action – we can stretch the legal safety net in our state to include these veterans who have asked for our help.
It’s easy to give online (just click HERE). Just make your donation and designate the Veterans Legal Aid Fund. Or download a donation form HERE and send in a check. Literally every dollar gets us closer to making this trip a reality. If you give in honor of a veteran or service member in your life, we will list their name on our Wall of Honor for one year and read their name aloud as the Justice Bus starts its trip north in early January 2013.
So – this Veterans Day I will be carrying the knowledge of these 400 Yurok veterans in need in my heart. It is an incredible honor to be invited into their lives to provide access to the legal help they need – and with that honor comes the responsibility to respond. They already served for us. Now the time has come when we can serve them.
My grandfather, Charles Ward Henson II, with his children, my father and aunt.
When it comes to barriers to legal help in Southern California – “rural” and “isolated” may not look like what you think! I am finding “legal services deserts” closer to home.
When you hear the term “rural” you might picture farms, long and open roads, and orchards as far as the eye can see. You may not necessarily think about how rural Californians lack access to legal help when they are facing pressing legal problems, but that is all too frequently their experience. As documented in the Access Commission’s report on rural access to justice, rural communities face significant barriers in accessing legal help, including fewer nonprofit legal organizations, lack of transportation, inadequate access to technology and law libraries, language barriers, and fewer law firms providing pro bono services. Over the last year, I have learned that there are also many isolated and remote communities that have tremendous barriers to accessing life-changing legal help but that do not fit the traditional image of “rural.” As someone who has grown up in Los Angeles County, I have been shocked to find these communities – which can be a little as 100 miles away from urban centers – with such limited access to legal help.
VIDEO: Click on the image above to view a short video showing the isolated areas that the Justice Bus Project covers.
OneJustice created the Justice Bus® Project in 2007 to bridge the divide between the need for legal help in rural areas and the substantial pro bono resources available only in urban areas of the state. I am proud to be one of OneJustice’s Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellows working to expand this project – and I am the first Fellow to be working out of OneJustice’s new Los Angeles office to grow the Justice Bus Project to bring legal services to isolated communities in Southern California. As I enter the second year of my Fellowship, my primary responsibility is to build new partnerships with legal aid organizations serving rural or isolated communities and then design legal clinics to provide free legal help on the areas of law most needed in those areas. Then I recruit, train and bring groups of law student and attorney volunteers to staff the clinics. These Justice Bus clinics allow the nonprofit legal organizations to provide essential legal assistance to many more clients in a few hours than their limited number of attorneys and resources usually permit.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, I saw first-hand the struggles my parents, immigrants and low-income individuals, faced in the city. The need to help my community was one of my driving forces in college and law school. While in law school at Southwestern, I had the opportunity to participate in the first Justice Bus trip in Southern California. On that first Justice Bus trip, my eyes were opened to the great need and struggles outside the city and the citizens living too far from all the great free legal organizations.
I started working on the Justice Bus Project in the fall of 2011, and as the project has grown in Southern California, I have noticed that the “rural” landscape is different. The project has begun to serve not just traditionally rural but also isolated communities. These communities may appear as developed urban centers but are actually “legal services deserts” – just as isolated and underserved as rural farmlands.
This young dad was able to advocate to get his benefits for his family with the help of the two law students from Southwestern Law School during a 2012 Justice Bus Trip to Lancaster.
Lancaster, located 70 miles from downtown in the northern part of Los Angeles County, is one such community. The city has a population of 156,633 and over 20% of its population lives in poverty. While at first glance it looks like a traditional suburban center with brand new apartments, track homes, and big box stores, the reality is that Lancaster is a desert suburbia in the middle of seemingly nowhere. While there are over 15 legal aid organizations serving Los Angeles County, none are physically located in Lancaster. Many of the legal aid organizations in Los Angeles struggle to make their services available to Lancaster residents and are eager to partner with OneJustice to use the Justice Bus model to expand their reach.
Another region with tremendous need is the Coachella Valley in Riverside County. For some, Coachella may invoke images of a wealthy desert community of retirees and casinos — but many residents face the same barriers to legal services as traditional rural communities. The Coachella Valley has a population of about 76,036 with 19.7% of its population living below the poverty line and a 15% unemployment rate. While the Coachella Valley is fortunate to have legal aid organizations like Inland Counties Legal Services and California Rural Legal Assistance, these agencies have limited resources and do not have local law schools or large law firms from which to recruit volunteers.The Justice Bus has traveled to Indio – which is over 75 miles from Riverside and over 125 miles from Los Angeles. With a population of just over 76,000, the median income for a family living in Indio is roughly $35,000. About 16.8% of families and 21.5% of the population live below the federal poverty line, including 28.2% of those under age 18 and 12.0% of those age 65 or over.
As I have been expanding the Justice Bus Project to address the needs in communities like Lancaster and the Coachella Valley, I have been struck by the intense need for legal help in these areas. As a mother at a clinic on special education in Lancaster said to us,
“I have been struggling to find way to help my daughter for the last 3 years, with no results. I have been so frustrated, I don’t have the resources to hire private help. I got more useful information here today than in the last 3 years. The attorney is going to help me help my daughter. I finally feel like she has some hope, all I could imagine was a suicidal teenager in her future. Now, someone who cares is going to help…light at the end of the tunnel. We shall fight on!”
And another client told us at a Justice Bus trip to the local public benefits agency in Lancaster, “Today I came into the county building and was late to my appointment, because my grandfather is sick in the hospital and my family is by his side. So I had no one to take me. I walked here from Rosamond, California about twelve miles away just to make it here. I thought my case was going to be canceled when the law students did everything they could to help me. They were very great and a big help and I wouldn’t have been able to get everything done without them.”
During a Justice Bus trip to the Coachella Valley, law students provided advice to this Indio resident on consumer debt issues under the supervision of an attorney from Inland County Legal Services.
I knew in the abstract that these isolated Californians were facing terrible barriers to justice – but hearing it from them first-hand has made me even more committed to continuing to expand the Justice Bus Project in Southern California.
Recently we learned of a new unmet need for help from the Justice Bus: low-income seniors in Lancaster. As I began working with the senior center in Lancaster to set up the logistics for a new clinic, to be done in partnership with Bet Tzedek Legal Services, I was shocked to learn that there were 90 senior citizens on a waiting list for legal help – and some of them had been waiting for as long as a year. Just last week, we traveled to the senior center with attorneys from Bet Tzedek and law student volunteers from Southwestern Law School. I am proud that in one clinic with just 6 law student volunteers and 2 supervising attorneys from Bet Tzedek, we were able to serve 22 seniors – and yet, I know that there is much work left to be done. I will be working to meet these needs during the second year of my Fellowship, and we can use your help! If you might be interested in traveling on a Justice Bus trip to provide free legal help to low-income seniors, families with children with special needs, veterans, and residents of these isolated areas and others, I would welcome the opportunity to partner with you to remove the barriers to justice they face. Thank you!
Cynthia Luna is one of OneJustice’s Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellows.
Cynthia Luna is one of OneJustice’s Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows, and she is responsible for coordinating Justice Bus Project in Southern California. Born, raised, and educated in Los Angeles, she is a first generation Salvadorean-American who saw the struggles of migrants and working class people in Los Angeles. While at Southwestern Law School, Cynthia spent much of her time externing and volunteering at several legal non profits in Los Angeles. Her goal has always been to pursue a career in public interest. Cynthia notes that she loves leading on the Justice Bus Project in Southern California, as it has allowed her to learn about and address the needs of low-income individuals in underserved rural and isolated areas.
If you are interested in having your law school, firm, or in-house legal department participate in a Southern California Justice Bus Trip, please email Cynthia at email@example.com.
These youth are known as DREAMERS, after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act (pending in Congress). These kids entered the United States as children under the age of 16, have lived here for at least five years, and are either in school, have graduated from high school, earned a GED, or served in the military. For many of them, the United States is the only country they have ever known as their home.
This past June, the Obama administration issued an order that allows these youth to apply for what is known as “deferred action for childhood arrivals” (a formal reprieve from deportation), and when they are approved, they able to get work permits and help support their families.
California has by far the largest number of youth eligible for this new program – almost 300,000 kids. As you can probably imagine, the phones of California’s nonprofit legal organizations started ringing off the hook as soon as the new program was announced – and the nonprofits in the OneJustice network are swamped with requests for help.
Fenwick attorney volunteers travel to Napa County today
Today, during National Pro Bono Week, Fenwick & West attorneys are boarding the Justice Bus and committing their time and energy to helping to meet the need in Napa County, in partnership with the Legal Aid of Napa Valley. The volunteer attorneys will be providing essential legal assistance and advice to the youth and completing the legal forms required to apply for the program.
This wonderful group of law students from McGeorge School of Law traveled to Napa County on the Justice Bus to help the youth prepare for Fenwick’s clinic today.
The Fenwick attorneys are the second phase in this particular Justice Bus series. Just two weeks ago, a group of students from the McGeorge School of Law did their own Justice Bus trip to Napa to screen youth for the program and help the kids begin to gather all the necessary documentation for the clinic staffed by Fenwick attorneys today.
Bringing greater fairness to the world takes a network. . . the OneJustice network.
OneJustice supports a network of 100+ nonprofit legal organizations, law firms, law schools and businesses. Each year this network provides life-saving legal help to over 275,000 Californians facing legal barriers to basic life necessities and core civil rights. You – like everyone in our network – are an essential part of the solution to the fact that millions of our neighbors suffer needlessly from solvable legal problems.
In honor of the work that our network does, each month we’ll feature an interview with a different participant in the network.
This month we interviewed Martin Tannenbaum, Program Director and Faculty of our Executive Fellows program and a generous investor in OneJustice’s work.
Martin, you’ve had a long history in the private sector. How does that experience impact your work with OneJustice?
Martin Tannenbaum, Executive Fellows Program Director, is a proud member of the OneJustice network.
For many years, I earned a living developing new businesses and services in healthcare and financial services. I built a reputation as the person who could innovate and create change in some of the largest corporations in the U.S. But it’s one thing to create change when you have the resources of a Merrill Lynch, quite another when you’re operating in the social services sector. The opportunity seemed too great to resist for someone committed to change and innovation.
About 12 years ago, I was drafted by the Entrepreneurship and Strategy Department at Boston University’s School of Management to teach innovation and corporate entrepreneurship. One of my colleagues, Andrew Wolk, a social entrepreneur, introduced me to the idea of cross-fertilizing the best of business theory and practice with the passion of the social services sector. I helped him create curriculum for the Inner City Entrepreneur program – which introduced cutting edge business research and case studies to mostly minority business owners within Boston neighborhoods. We engaged a wide range of faculty, developed peer-support networks and recruited mentors to assist these entrepreneurs in making critical changes in their business models and operations – and building their commitment to give back to their communities. It worked to transform their businesses; a more refined model worked for middle managers at Jewish Family and Children’s Services; and now with the OneJustice Executive Fellowship Program, it has begun to change the approach and success of leaders within the legal services sector.
What gets you excited about working with OneJustice?
OneJustice is committed to changing the sector – which means operating more effectively in order to serve increasing numbers of clients in a less certain revenue environment. By providing a range of training and support to legal services organizations, OneJustice is uniquely positioned to increase the effectiveness and reach of the many worthy and under-resourced organizations across the state of California. Also, by advocating in Washington, OneJustice is a clear voice for the needs of the underserved.
You’ve worked in lot of industries and sectors. What do you think sets the legal services sector apart from other industries?
The force of law has the ability to change people’s lives in fundamental ways. At its best, our courts can and should affirm the dignity and importance of each person in our society – and each person’s right to live fully and equally. And a win for one person, can be leveraged to enhance the position of many. I have seen the courts change the face of what it means to be female, African American, GLBT, and differently-abled. The legal services sector drives this important work.
Executives of nonprofit legal organizations are to for-profit executives as Ginger Rogers was to Fred Astaire. They do all the same work – but backwards….and in heels!
How would you compare and contrast the challenges for legal services leaders versus business leaders?
I’ve said this many times, and I’m not sure who deserves the attribution, but I think leading in this sector is a lot like being Ginger Rogers – you have to do everything that Fred Astaire does – but backwards and in heels. And then Fred gets most of the accolades. I greatly admire our legal services leaders.
There are a number of key differences. While the Fellowship is focused on the legal services sector – cases and discussions are about real challenges and solutions within legal services organizations – the faculty are from outside the sector. We need fresh ideas and the ability to borrow from private and social sector organizations that are thinking differently to meet growing needs. Our faculty has extensive experience with both for-profit and non-profit organizations. The program also challenges participants to make explicit links between what they learn and do. Too much adult learning is about stimulating people for a day or two and then they go back to work and lack the know how or time to apply what they learned. We make it clear that it’s not about piling on new ideas – but taking things off their plate to make room for real change. Finally, the cost is a real differentiator. Because our program is generously underwritten by the Marcled Foundation and people who believe in the need for change in our sector, participants pay less than 20% of what a program of this caliber costs elsewhere.
In addition to being a lead faculty for the Executive Fellowship program, you also personally support OneJustice. Why do you make your own personal investment in OneJustice’s work?
I give where my support can have the greatest impact. I know that because OneJustice creates stronger legal services organizations, each dollar I give can affect many more clients; can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of many organizations; can help speak with a strong voice to legislators and others who control the purse strings. I am also impressed with the way OneJustice “does business” – they have honed their revenue model, built a strong management team, and of course, I have the utmost respect for Julia Wilson, the Executive Director. She brings unique vision and energy not just to OneJustice, but to the entire sector.
What’s your vision for the future of legal services?
The future of legal services is being written today. Leaders are creating sustainable business models, rethinking delivery, meeting unmet needs, communicating effectively with those than can and should underwrite their important work. And I want to continue to be a part of this future.
OneJustice does just what its name says – it seeks to create justice for everyone. I was taught that restoring a shattered world (“tikkun olam”) should be my main occupation. I feel extremely lucky that I’ve found an organization that shares my vision.
That’s what the Chavez family was doing – and it is why I am so thankful I had the privilege of being their pro bono lawyer.
Happy National Pro Bono Week! Created by the American Bar Association, Pro Bono Week focuses the nation’s attention on the increased need for pro bono services during these challenging economic times and celebrates the outstanding work of lawyers who volunteer their services throughout the year. Here in California we celebrate the work of the law students and attorneys who donate thousands of hours to bring more free, life-saving legal help to Californians in need. At OneJustice, we believe these volunteers are heroes – and we are proud to bring the following guest blog post from our very own hero, Advisory Board member Marley Degner.
Guest Blog: Preventing Homelessness for the Chavez Family – My First Pro Bono Case.
Marley Degner, Associate at Pillsbury and OneJustice Advisory Board Member, prevented the Chavez family from becoming homeless and fought for 7 months for their housing rights.
I met Mauricio and Sugey Chavez as a new attorney at the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. It took seven long months – from November 2007 to May 2008 – to help them stabilize their housing, but doing so was one of the most rewarding experiences in my career.
Mauricio and Sugey were a young couple with three young children and a fourth on the way. The Chavez family was seeking help in fighting their landlords’ attempt to evict them from their apartment. Mauricio had grown up in the apartment, lived there for 18 years, and even married Sugey in the living room. They went first to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights for help and were referred to my law firm – Pillsbury – for pro bono assistance. Their case was the first pro bono matter, and indeed one of the first cases, that I took on as a new attorney.
Most eviction cases are resolved quickly, but not this one. First, the landlords attempted to evict the family on the basis of trivialities (such as saying that the family set out the garbage in the wrong place) and trumped up allegations – like the family had a dog and set up a satellite dish, even though the landlord had previously agreed to both.
Here is what was really going on. The apartment had a wide array of serious problems – and the Chavez family had finally gotten up the courage to complain. In fact, Sugey called the Department of Building Inspection, and when the Inspector came out he found numerous building code violations, including that the apartment lacked any source of heat, that the walls were damaged and poorly repaired, that one of the doors had a hole that admitted rain, that the ceilings and many of the windows needed to be repaired, and that the flooring was damaged and filthy. And what did the landlords do after being cited for these violations? They filed the paperwork to evict the Chavez family and their children – and they even had the audacity to tell the family they were being evicted for costing them so much money.
National Pro Bono Week, October 22-27, celebrates the outstanding work of lawyers who volunteer their services throughout the year.
And that is why it was so important that the Chavez family had access to representation by an attorney. By demonstrating the eviction was retaliatory and without good cause, I got the case dismissed. I also negotiated a Settlement Agreement that forced the landlords to make all the repairs identified in the inspection, make additional renovations to improve the apartment, and even lower the monthly rent. This was a major win for Mauricio and Sugey – the promise of finally having appropriate living conditions for their children.
Before the repairs could be completed, however, the apartment became infested with mold after the ceiling leaked during a rainstorm. Mauricio and Sugey’s youngest daughter suffered a severe allergy attack. The landlords informed the family that they had to temporarily relocate (so the landlords could make more extensive renovations), but assured me that the family could reoccupy the apartment once the work was completed. But then the landlords tried to back out on the deal – they served the family with a Notice to Vacate that did notallow them to return to their home. Once again, I was able to step in and protect Mauricio and Sugey’s rights, and the landlords rescinded the notice.
But then the landlords announced that they were going to ask the San Francisco Rent Board for a substantial rent increase, despite the Settlement Agreement where they agreed to a reduced rent amount. At this point, Mauricio and Sugey were so tired of dealing with the landlords’ behavior that they were open to negotiating a new agreement to move out of the apartment all together. Consistent with the family’s wishes, I negotiated a buy-out of their tenancy for approximately $25,000. The family used the settlement payment to secure a home loan—and Sugey Chavez gave birth to the family’s fourth child, Giselle.
Preventing Homelessness: Each year the network of legal services nonprofits that OneJustice supports provides free legal help on housing matters to over 58,000 low-income families.
What I will always remember about the case was how grateful the Chavez family was for Pillsbury’s assistance. Sugey told me that she had never had anybody in her life to fight for her the way that I fought for her family, and she was deeply touched. It made a huge difference that they had attorneys fighting for them – and I am very thankful that I was able to be one of those attorneys. I had always known that I would be involved with pro bono work as an attorney, and working with Mauricio and Sugey Chavez reaffirmed that commitment. I have been active in pro bono cases ever since and it is a vitally important part of my professional life.
I am involved with OneJustice because OneJustice exists to make sure that people like the Chavez family have access to legal representation. I do not know what would have happened to them if they had not been able to secure pro bono help – and quickly – after receiving the first eviction notice. Their landlords were furious at them for calling the Building Inspector and were determined to use the legal system to evict the family or to raise their rent when the health and safety of the family was threatened by their living conditions. People like the Chavez family depend on organizations like OneJustice to survive, and that’s why I’m so proud to serve on the OneJustice Advisory Board.
They all believe passionately in removing barriers to justice – and so they just joined the staff team at OneJustice!
Meet Lauren Roberts, Stephen Downey, and Renae Getlin – the newest members of the OneJustice team – and they also happen to be a foodie, former gymnast, and board game addict! Which one is which? Continue reading to find out! (And you can always see our entire staff team on our website!).
Meet Lauren Roberts, new Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellow, working on the Justice Bus Project in Northern California!
Lauren will be leading Justice Bus trips all over Northern California, bringing free legal services to rural areas!
Q: Lauren, what drew you to the work of OneJustice?
A: I was aware of OneJustice’s great work throughout law school – in fact I got my summer 2L job through OneJustice’s annual Public Interest/Public Sector Career Day! OneJustice is uniquely positioned to assess legal needs in rural and isolated areas of California and to connect law students and pro bono advocates to legal services organizations in order to meet that need. I was thrilled to become a part of the OneJustice team after graduating from law school, since my position at OneJustice perfectly combines my passion for public interest legal work and organizing.
Q:What will you be responsible for at OneJustice – and what do you hope to achieve?
A: I will be responsible for running the Justice Bus Project in Northern California. Through this position, I will continue to connect pro bono legal advocates with legal services in Northern California to help meet legal needs in rural and isolated areas of the state. This year, I plan to bring the Justice Bus project to new areas of Northern California and continue to expand OneJustice’s law school and pro bono partnerships.
Q:What did you do before coming to OneJustice? A: I graduated from UC Davis School of Law in May 2012. During law school, I was heavily involved in the public interest community and spent my two summers working at the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in Cairo, Egypt, and the California Appellate Project in San Francisco, respectively.
Q: Tell us something else about yourself!
A: I was a gymnast for fifteen years and later became a dance major at UCLA.
Stephen will be working on LawHelpCA.org, our legal resource and referral website
Q: Stephen, what made you interested in working at OneJustice? A: Far too many people fall through the cracks when it comes to access to legal help. OneJustice does an amazing job filling these gaps, whether it’s by physically bringing attorneys to people in need, or providing basic legal information to everyday people like me!
Q: Tell us more about your project!
A: I’ll be responsible for the LawHelpCA website. By building upon its self-help legal resources, I hope Californians in all walks of life will feel empowered, even if they do not have access to an attorney.
Q: What did you do before coming to OneJustice?
A: After graduating from UC Berkeley, I got involved with several nonprofits in the Bay Area. Most recently, I was working at Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center coordinating free trainings for HIV service providers and fighting HIV-related stigma in the A&PI community.
Q: And tell us something quirky about you! A: On the weekends, I like to bust out board games to tend my farm, cure diseases, and settle catans.
Meet Renae Getlin, new Executive and Administrative Assistant!
Renae provides a backbone of programmatic and administrative support!
Q: Renae, what is your personal connection to OneJustice’s work?
A: During college, I became passionate about the intersection of food and public health – particularly the disparity between our country’s ability to produce a huge surplus of food and its surprisingly high rate of hunger and starvation. I love that OneJustice recognizes this inequality and plays an essential role in helping disenfranchised community members access fresh food and other fundamental resources.
Q: What will you be responsible for at OneJustice and what are your goals for that work?
A: I will be responsible for providing administrative assistance to our Executive Director and the OneJustice team. By providing a backbone of support, I hope to help OneJustice better serve its network of nonprofits and our community members in need.
Q: What did you do before coming to OneJustice?
A: I worked as a receptionist and records clerk at an East Bay law firm. While that experience gave me the administrative background to fill my new role at OneJustice, working with my community service group, Lambda Omicron Xi, opened my eyes to many social inequalities and gave me the passion and drive to seek out my position.
Q: What is something else that we should know about you?
A: I am food-obsessed. When I buy a new cookbook, I immediately sit down and read it cover to cover – ideally with Food Network running in the background. I grocery shop for fun, and my kitchen is definitely the most loved room in my apartment.
Please join us in welcoming Lauren, Stephen, and Renae!
Ana de Alba receiving the Opening Doors to Justice Award
And today’s guest blog from this award-winning champion for justice will break yours, too.
Introduction by Julia Wilson, Executive Director: Just about one year ago, the OneJustice network gathered at our annual Opening Doors to Justice event to celebrate the accomplishments of our community. A young woman took to the stage – and broke the hearts of the audience in just about 3 minutes flat.
That woman was Ana de Alba, and later this week she will receive the prestigious Jack Berman Award of Achievement for Distinguished Service to the Profession and the Public from the California Young Lawyer’s Association. And boy, does she deserve it. We are so proud that she is part of the OneJustice network, and I will be in the audience next Friday night, cheering with all my heart and soul as she again takes the stage. Ana graciously agreed to provide a guest blog this week, revisiting her remarks from our stage one year ago. I know they will inspire you as they have inspired us!
Guest Blog: Ana de Alba, Lang Richert & Patch, Fresno
Ana de Alba resolved she would return to the Central Valley as an attorney and to make the legal system accessible to all.
I am honored to stand before you tonightas a recipient of an “Opening Doors to Justice” award. What this award means to me can be best explained by sharing a story about a field worker from the Central Valley who was in desperate need of legal services.
This particular individual lived in one of the small communities that dot highway 99. She and a crew of about 5 other women spent an entire summer working on a cucumber farm without getting paid. Although this woman, who was a bit braver and more outgoing than the others, demanded payment on their behalf, she was always told that they would get paid “next week.” “Next week” never came.
They were upset, and rightfully so, each of them had young children to support and not only had they provided free labor for an entire summer, they had also paid for childcare, paid for a ride to and from the farm which was located 45 miles from their home, and in the end, they came home with nothing. They were ashamed and felt that they had let their families down.
Ana, shown here at 3 years old, grew up in a small town in the Central Valley.
Encouraged by her children to “fight this,” this woman called an attorney she randomly selected from the yellow pages who was kind enough to tell her that to seek redress she need only go to the Labor Commissioner. When she discovered, however, that the Labor Commissioner was located in Fresno, she was absolutely devastated. Fresno was over 60 miles from her home and filled with freeways and highways that she felt unable to drive on. Worse still, there was no way to get there using public transportation. In the end, none of these women sought out justice because it was simply too inaccessible to them.
This woman was my motherand events like these were all too common in my life. On the day I left Dos Palos to attend UC Berkeley I promised that little girl who heard her mother crying inconsolably in the bathroom that I would return to the Valley as an attorney. I would find a way to make the legal system more accessible so that justice would really be “a right for all.”
Thank you OneJustice for recognizing my efforts and for the great work you do throughout the state, thank you to my firm Lang, Richert & Patch for supporting me and allowing me to use their goodwill in our local legal community to promote pro bono, thank you Central California Legal Services and California Rural Legal Assistance for being at the front lines of these struggles, and thank you to my husband, daughter, parents, and siblings for giving me strength and always reminding me that the law really is a powerful tool for social change.
An apple a day? What really helps keep low-income children healthy is access to medical care – and that often takes access to an attorney!
In theory, our state’s low-income children should all have access to health care through a complex array of state and private health programs. To be able to take their children to the doctor, parents frequently have to navigate the complicated map of Medi-Cal, AIM, Healthy Families, CHDP (Children’s Health & Disability Prevention) and privately available coverage. But, as a recent article in the New York Times Parenting blog so aptly states, enrolling in these programs can be like clearing a jungle of red tape with a weed wacker! (“When Parents Can’t Enroll in Medicaid, Children Stay Uninsured,” by Bryce Covert, 9/26/12).
For many families, just figuring out which program to apply for – or how it interacts with privately available health insurance – is more complicated than filling out annual IRS tax return forms (and we all know how much fun those forms are!). In some families, older and younger children are actually eligible for different health programs – with different types of access to medical care. And if the parents’ income changes, children may have to transition from one health program to another. Applying for these programs thrusts parents into a sometimes bizarre world of legal eligibility, federal and state regulations, confusing formulas for counting families’ income, and stacks and stacks of paperwork to fill out. This maze of bureaucracy sadly leads to some children being incorrectly denied access to health insurance programs for which they are actually eligible – preventing them from accessing doctor appointments, medical treatment, and more.
Nonprofit legal organizations and their attorneys can be the weed wackers that cut through red tape and increase children’s access to health care.
And even if parents are able to thread the application needles and obtain health coverage for their children, sometimes it is difficult to get the medical care prescribed by the doctor. Both private and state health coverage programs have complicated review structures and just because a doctor writes a prescription for medicine, a piece of durable medical equipment, or speech or physical therapy is no guarantee that the health coverage program will actually approve – and provide – it.
This is where the lawyers come in. Because these kids – and their families – face a sometimes overwhelming set of legal rules and regulations, lawyers are the ones who can serve as the weed wackers needed to cut through all the red tape. When kids apply for a program and are denied, they have a right to appeal that decision – and that often takes a lawyer. When a doctor prescribes a piece of medical equipment or a course of speech therapy that is denied by the health insurance plan, the family can appeal – and that often takes a lawyer. Lawyers can be the ones who slice through the legal issues – allowing families and doctors to focus on what is most important – actually getting a child the treatment she needs. In fact, there is a statewide network of nonprofit legal organizations that have formed the Health Consumer Alliance to focus on exactly that work – and their website, www.healthconsumer.org, has a wealth of resources for families.
The Medical-Legal Partnership for Children Team in Seattle combines medical and legal professionals.
Increasingly, doctors are also bringing lawyers into the medical system as team members in preventing children’s health problems. These Medical-Legal Partnerships bring nonprofit legal organizations and their attorneys into the hospitals and medical clinics to work side by side with the doctors, providing legal assistance to children and families that complements the medical treatment they need. For example, when a little boy with life-threatening asthma comes to a clinic, the doctor can prescribe the various inhalers he needs. But when that boy returns to his mold-infested apartment – his asthma is triggered once again. In these Medical-Legal Partnerships, the doctor can make a same-day referral to the attorney (sitting in the next office over) who then gets to work on negotiating with the family’s landlord to correct the illegal mold problem. The little boy ends up with a safe housing environment and the prescriptions – a preventative legal measure coupled with medical treatment. California is home to many of these cutting-edge collaborations. Some of these programs have lawyers doing rounds with the medical teams, and some even train law and medical students on how to work together. Can we actually imagine a day when doctors and lawyers think of themselves first as allies in improving children’s health, rather than as antagonists over medical malpractice and other legal issues?
So what do we advocate for Children’s Health Day? We say bring on the lawyers who will fight to get children on the health insurance programs they need, make sure the doctor’s plans for treatment are approved and become more than just a piece of paper, and who team up with medical professionals for a holistic approach to the complicated medical and legal causes for health problems.
And did you know we are Pinning? Pinterest (a content sharing service that allows members to “pin” images, videos and other objects to an online scrapbook) is growing increasingly popular as the next social media site. While most people use the visual bookmarking site to plan weddings, sketch out gardens, or share clothes, jewelry and other designs, nonprofits are starting to use the site to communicate their mission and share helpful links and resources – and so are we! So in honor of Children’s Health Day, we created a board dedicated to helping families find the health coverage programs – and legal advocates – that their kids might need. Happy Pinning!
Tell us what you think – can you imagine a day when there is a lawyer assigned to every medical team to ensure a holistic approach to the legal barriers that cause health problems?
There will be all kinds of special trainings and events around the state for both celebrations – and as we gear up at OneJustice for these national and statewide initiatives, we’re asking the OneJustice network to tell us – WHO IS YOUR ACCESS TO JUSTICE HERO? Who would you recognize for her dedication to helping low-income communities resolve their pressing legal problems? Whom should we be honoring for his work to remove barriers to justice? Who are the heroes in the California legal services and pro bono delivery system – both the heralded and the unsung – who have inspired YOU to get or stay involved? Who should OneJustice include in our version of the justice league?
So tell us – OneJustice network – send us in your access to justice hero stories by commenting on this blog, posting it on our facebook wall, emailing us – whatever works for you. Please share with us your stories about the women and men who are admired for their achievements, qualities and great courage – and we’ll repost them here throughout the October celebrations.
Over the weekend, I was reflecting on this question while skimming through the news online – and I stumbled across a powerful opinion piece “I Was a Welfare Mother” by Larkin Warren in the NY Times Sunday Review. As a single mom, with an ex-husband doing little to help, she decided to go to college and carve out a better life for her son. Her parents, ex-Marines, didn’t have the resources to pay for college – and so she had to rely on grants, Section 8 housing, and ultimately welfare – to barely make ends meet. She graduated from college – and 2 weeks later had a job and was off welfare. Reading her powerful testimonial, I realized the people who are my access to justice heroes – the people who keep me focused on the goal of expanding our legal safety net – who are the reason why I have dedicated my legal career to the work of nonprofit legal organizations – they are my clients.
I started my career with the incredible privilege of being a lawyer for families on welfare. As an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the exciting challenge of implementing my very own project, I graduated from law school at the time that welfare reform was being implemented. I thought that welfare-to-work programs offered some promise for families like the one described by the author – families who had hit hard times, single moms striving to get an education and move into the workforce, or parents out of work and facing barriers as they searched for the next job. But I was very worried about the families where the parent had a disability, or had responsibility for caring for a member of a family with a disability – and I wanted to make sure that welfare-to-work programs also could be made to work for a single-mom also caring for her aging mom with dementia. For the young dad with an undiagnosed learning disability. For the homeless family trying to care for their preschooler with autism while living in their car.
So I spent three years working with these families – serving as their lawyer – to make sure that their welfare-to-work plan truly met their needs, got them an education, and accommodated their disability. They included people like Mr. Nguyen, who was a brilliant computer science student at a community college while caring for his five children and his wife who had serious mobility and intellectual impairments after her stroke. We had to appeal the welfare department’s denial of his request to stay in school as his work plan – and won because of the written statements provided by all of his professors about his ability to transfer to a four-year college and add significantly to the work of Silicon Valley. And people like Mrs. Ramirez, who suffered an illegal eviction and ended up homeless – while working the night shift at a grocery store to care for her 5-year-old son with visual disabilities. Together, she and I fought for and won a grant of emergency housing so that the doctors could perform the surgery her son needed.
I learned so much from these families. I saw determination and hard work in action. I experienced humility and hope. And I learned a lot about focus, sacrifice, parenting, and courage. I am a better person for having the honor of working with them – and I will remember them for the rest of my life. They are the reason I go to work each day driven to bring more justice into the world, to engage more lawyers and law students in volunteer work, and to advocate for more funding for nonprofit legal organizations. I hold them all in my heart still today, and they are my heroes.
Because as Larkin Warren writes so powerfully – “Among those welfare moms were future teachers, nurses, scientists, business owners, health and safety advocates. We never believed we were “victims” or felt “entitled”; if anything, we felt determined. Wouldn’t any decent person throw a rope to a drowning person? Wouldn’t any drowning person take it?”
We should all be shocked that so many in our society must live – drowning – for years. And we should all be just a little more decent.
The network of 100+ legal nonprofit organizations provides critically important legal assistance to residents of California seeking to become U.S. citizens, through a process called “naturalization.” OneJustice’s website for the public – www.LawHelpCalifornia.org – has a great list of free resources giving more information about the path to citizenship and immigration topics more broadly. However, the demand for legal advice about citizenship and help submitting the appropriate forms far outstrips the services that are available. For example, free legal services providers in Northern California currently have the capacity to serve less than 8% of the estimated 99,000 low-income, citizenship-eligible residents. Immigration services are particularly scarce in rural areas of the state, as many of the legal nonprofit organizations that provide legal help with naturalization are located in urban areas.
OneJustice has been partnering with the rural nonprofits in its network to bring free legal help on naturalization to low-income, rural Californians. Last October, OneJustice recruited, trained, and coordinated law students from University of San Francisco and Golden Gate University to set up a free naturalization clinic in Fresno. Partnering with nonprofits in our network – including Asian Pacific Alliance Law Center, Central California Legal Services, and California Rural Legal Assistance, OneJustice’s volunteers helped 25 legal permanent residents complete and file applications for citizenship. Then again, just this past April, OneJustice loaded up the Justice Bus with law student volunteers from Golden Gate University to travel to Gilroy, California. By partnering with the local office of Catholic Charities, these law student volunteers were able to help 31 clients complete and file their application to become U.S. citizens.
For these Californians, filing the correct legal paperwork to take the first step toward citizenship was a powerful, meaningful moment. Everyone in OneJustice’s network was involved in making this possible – our partner law schools, the on-the-ground nonprofits, the volunteers, and all of our donors who give so generously.
But more help is needed – other aspiring citizens have no access to the legal advice and help needed to take this first step – but you can help!
OneJustice is in the running for a $10,000 grant through the Chase Community Giving program. But time is running out! VOTING CLOSES THIS WEDNESDAY – and if you vote for us, we will use 100% of the grant to expand the Justice Bus trips providing immigration assistance in 2013.