Tell us – who are your access to justice heroes?

Next month – October 2012 – has two big celebrations on the calendar — California Campaign for Justice month and National Celebrate Pro Bono Week (October 21 to 27).

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 Image of the justice league showing 5 super heroes, including superman and wonder womanOneJustice 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?

Definition: Heroine/Hero:  a woman/man admired and emulated for her/his achievements and qualities; one who shows great courage.

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.

Joseph Campbell quote "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."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 Maya Angelou quote "I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people."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.

Happy Constitution & Citizenship Day! Exercise your right to vote in the Chase Community Giving program.

Did you know that today is national U.S. Constitution Day and Citizenship Day?  After doing some research, the OneJustice team learned that this holiday is observed each year on September 17 to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787, and “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens.”  In 2010, over 700,000 petitions were filed with the federal government by individuals seeking to become U.S. citizens.  For many, citizenship is an important step for civic engagement – including the right to vote in elections, hold public office, and also access government jobs or some college scholarships or federal grants.  And, of course, the topic of immigration more broadly – and creating a path to citizenship – is particularly significant these days due to this summer’s announcement by President Obama that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would not deport certain DREAM Act–eligible undocumented youth. Under a special directive, these youth will be given temporary relief called “deferred action.”  (For a great FAQ on Deferred Action created by the National Immigration Law Center, click here).

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 – – 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.

Please vote today!

If you are on facebookyou can vote here.

If you are a Chase customer, you can vote through their online banking system here.

Thank you for your votes – and for supporting more aspiring citizens!

Happy Grandparents Day – and let’s not forget older Californians in need

Justice bus volunteer with senior client

OneJustice volunteers travel hours by bus to meet the legal needs of rural senior citizens.

Today on National Grandparents Day I count myself lucky to be able to celebrate my amazing grandmother, who – at 101 years old – has seen tremendous changes in our society and world.  I also count myself lucky to live close enough to be able to spend time with her – as do my teenaged daughters.

The origins of National Grandparents Day started in 1970 with Marian McQuade, a housewife in West Virginia.  She hoped to persuade grandchildren to tap the wisdom and heritage their grandparents could provide.  She also championed the cause of the lonely elderly living in nursing homes.  After years of advocacy, in 1978 a congressional resolution declaring National Grandparents Day as the first Sunday after Labor Day was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.  Today, while I honor the many ways that my grandmother has influenced my life, I will also be thinking about the many older Californians who have not been as fortunate.

Over 390,000 Californians over the age of 65 live below the federal poverty levelMany of these seniors face a barrage of legal issues relating to access to health care, economic assistance benefits, housing, and food.  They also have legal needs relating to consumer debt issues, advanced planning and wills, residential and nursing home care, and caregivers issues – whether they are raising grandchildren or caring for an aging partner or spouse. In fact, more than 116,000 people over 60 in California have primary responsibility for the care of their minor grandchildren.  So on grandparents day, these older Californians are actually still handling the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting.

Volunteer helping a senior client

Justice Bus Trips bring volunteers to help seniors living in rural areas.

A 2011 study by the Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC) found that county agencies serving seniors reported that the most serious challenges to the safety and well-being of seniors are primarily legal issues, including: elder abuse (including consumer fraud targeting seniors), housing issues (including discrimination, home repair, affordable housing), and bankruptcy/debt.  Elders who are LGBTQ, have limited English proficiency (LEP), or are low-income are particularly vulnerable and in need of legal assistance.  Sadly, the LAAC study also reported that older Californians frequently are not aware that free legal help may be available to them and may wait to consult an attorney until their situation has become a crisis.  OneJustice supports a statewide network of nonprofit legal organizations that provide critically important legal help to more than 35,000 low-income and vulnerable seniors each year.  

Older Californians living in rural areas face unique barriers to accessing the legal help they need.  “Growing old has never been easy.  The difficulties are especially pronounced in rural America because, census data shows, the country’s most rapidly aging places are not the ones that people flock to in retirement, but rather the withering, remote places many of them flee.  The elderly who remain — increasingly isolated and stranded — face an existence that is distinctively harder by virtue, or curse, of geography than life in cities and suburbs.” (The New York Times, For Elderly in Rural Areas, Times are distinctly Harder, December 10, 2009.) Despite the significant need, rural seniors have unique difficulties in finding help due to a lack of access to transportation, computer or internet access, language barriers, and geographic isolation.   In addition, due to limited resources, the few legal services organizations that exist to serve rural parts of the state are responsible for large geographic regions without sufficient staff.

Pinterest logo

Check out our Pinterest page for boards with resources on topics like guardianships, elder abuse, and simple estate planning.

This is why so many of our Justice Bus trips focus on meeting the legal needs of older Californians living in rural and isolated areas.  Our volunteer attorneys and law students travel hours by bus to set up traveling free legal clinics at senior centers, near medical clinics, in libraries and churches, and at senior assisted living facilities.  These volunteers work with local nonprofits in our network to bring life-saving legal help directly to seniors in need.  In isolated areas of counties like Napa, Tulare, and Mariposa, these Justice Bus clinics are often the only way older residents will have any access to legal assistance.  This is also why we created the website and our Pinterest page to post free downloadable resources on legal topics like guardianship, advanced health care directives and simple wills, and elder abuse.

The official flower of Grandparents Day is forget-me-not. On this day when we celebrate the heritage and wisdom of our grandparents, let us also remember the hundreds of thousands of older Californians who are alone today – alone facing pressing legal problems relating to basic life necessities.  By continuing to work together, we can build the resources needed to help them solve their legal problems.

What is YOUR favorite memory of time spent with a grandparent, or the most rewarding experience you have had helping a senior citizen?

To all who labor to provide legal services to the poor – thank you!

Labor Day was created to recognize Americans workers and their many contributions to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.   It is particularly poignant in this economy, as hundreds of thousands of Americans seek work, and the jobless rate continues to climb.  In addition, the majority (63.4%) of low-income Californians are working and still cannot pull their families above the poverty line.  In 38.3% of poor families, a family member is working full-time, and in another 25.1% someone is working part-time. Workforce participation among the poor is higher in California than in the rest of the nation.

New York Labor Day Parade image

Labor Day Parade, New York (1882)

On this day when our country celebrates the American labor movement and a wide variety of workers, here at OneJustice we honor the work of a particular sector – the staff and volunteers at the almost 100 legal nonprofit organizations in California that seek to bring a little more justice into the world.

OneJustice supports a network of just under 100 nonprofit legal organizations which employ around 1,700 workers and under 800 attorneys.  This network takes on the Herculean task of trying to meet the legal needs of the over 8 million low-income Californians facing legal barriers to basic life necessities.  Clean water.  Food.  Health care.  Employment.  Education.  The simple math adds up to 10,000 eligible clients facing pressing legal issues for every staff attorney.  Clearly, the task is too big to be taken on alone.

That is why OneJustice also celebrates the hard work and compassion of the hundreds of volunteer attorneys who – in addition to their busy practices in the private sector – volunteer with these nonprofits to help expand the legal services for the poor.  These dedicated volunteers show up at night and on the weekends – they staff free legal clinics and represent low-income individuals in court – they make grandparents into legal guardians, combat identify theft, make sure seniors get their medicines, and empower survivors of domestic violence to move forward.  Sometimes they even board buses and travel for hours to provide free legal help to those in isolated and rural areas.

OneJustice Volunteers Help Low-Income Californians

Like the poet Marge Piercy, at OneJustice we love “people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart / who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience / who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward / who do what has to be done, again and again.”

So – to everyone who strains to bring justice into the world, who does what has to be done to expand legal help for the poor, who labors to make the world just a little fairer – we thank you!

Now that you know who OneJustice celebrated today – who do YOU honor on Labor Day?

Celebrating a Legacy by Taking Action

A Day of Celebration and a Day of Action – by Candace Chen, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at OneJustice

UC Davis law students providing free legal help to seniors, supervised by attorneys from Legal Aid of Napa Valley

César Chávez left a legacy as an educator and civil rights leader. Each year, Californians commemorate and celebrate his legacy on César Chávez Day by promoting a day of service in honor of his life and work. Rather than enjoy a rare day off from law school, a group of law students from the University of California, Davis School of Law volunteered with OneJustice’s Justice Bus Project at two estate planning clinics for seniors on March 30, 2012. These incredibly dedicated law students traveled an hour and a half and weathered the rain in order to help Legal Aid of Napa Valley provide free legal services to low-income seniors living in mobile home parks in Calistoga.

That’s right, I said mobile home parks in Calistoga. Having grown up in the Bay Area, I have visited Calistoga countless times and never once did I imagine, let alone see, there were mobile home parks in Calistoga. When I hear the name Calistoga, I immediately think of wine county, quaint Victorian bed and breakfast inns, and romantic spa getaway. When I travel down Lincoln Street, the main road in and out of Calistoga, I never saw even a shadow of the mobile home parks.

Like so many marginalized communities, the residents of these mobile home parks are kept hidden from most people visiting Calistoga.

Kristi Lesnewich, Senior Staff Attorney at Legal Aid of Napa Valley, talked to the students about the history of the two mobile home parks and the impact the law students would make in helping to provide access to legal services in these marginalized communities. The students met with 14 seniors and helped them prepare a number of estate planning related documents, including Advance Health Care Directives, Power of Attorney of Finance (“POA”), and simple wills.

Students from UC Davis School of Law celebrate Cesar Chavez’s legacy by moving into action and providing free legal help to low-income seniors.

Many of the seniors commented on how nice it was to know that young people cared about them and their issues. One client wrote, “I believe that this [clinic] has prepared me for making proper decision regarding end of life events. This will save hardship on relatives left behind and now I can face the future securely. Thank you for having students who are kind and knowledgeable in the law that affects seniors. I almost died three years ago in a car accident and had no idea how to pursue health directive, POA, or will. Now I feel educated….Thank you!”

Despite the wet weather, the law students and seniors left the clinic smiling. The Justice Bus brings legal solutions by eliminating geographic barriers to justice – creating help where there were only problems – just as the normally dry golden hills of California transform into lush green fields after a few days of rain.

Justice Bus Project wins Award for Nonprofit Excellence

Law Students on the Justice Bus

We are so proud that the California Association of Nonprofits (CAN) Insurance Services recently announced that they have selected OneJustice and our Justice Bus Project for their 2012 Award of Nonprofit Excellence!  The fact that this award is not limited to nonprofit legal organizations – but instead draws from the entire statewide nonprofit sector – makes us particularly proud, because it is also recognition of the important role that legal help plays in the emergency safety net system for Californians in need.

The Justice Bus Project is the only “on the ground” project in California that brings together nonprofit legal organizations, law schools, and the private legal sector (law firms and the legal departments at corporations) to transport legal professionals from the urban areas where they work and live to rural areas of the state, where thousands of Californians face pressing legal needs with no access to legal advice or help.  The clients served by the Justice Bus Project often live in isolated areas, far away from the closest legal nonprofit organization that could help them.  Those nonprofits do their best to have lawyers “ride a circuit” (meaning they literally pack up their cars and drive through their service area, trying to reach those isolated pockets of poverty) – but this happens infrequently at best.

California’s law schools and law firms are located in the urban coastal areas of our state – the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles.  The highest poverty densities are in the Central Valley, the area on the border with Nevada, and the middle of the state in the far north.  This significant mismatch in resources and need is our reality – but that does not (and should not) be the end of the narrative.  While a report released two years ago by the California Commission on Access to Justice clearly documents the inequity that exists in rural legal resources – few have moved from thinking about the problem to actually doing something about it.  Rather that accepting this inequity, California’s legal community should work together to use transportation – and technology – to get the resources (lawyers and law students) out into the areas where their help is so needed.  The Justice Bus is just one way of making that happen, and we’re thrilled that the rest of the nonprofit sector is recognizing its importance.  Thank you to CAN Insurance Services for this award!