January eNewsletter

Our team at LAF began 2018 doing what it does best:  fighting for the poor and vulnerable in Chicago, Cook County, and the State of Illinois.
In particular, our Immigrants and Workers’ Rights group has traveled the state ensuring that migrant workers are treated fairly.  Our Consumer group has been advocating on behalf of clients on the wrong end of unconscionable land-sales contracts.  Our Housing team on a daily basis has been saving clients from wrongful evictions.  Our Public Benefits team has been advocating for disabled clients deprived of Social Security benefits.  And one of our Children and Family lawyers was selected by the Illinois State Board of Education to serve on an inquiry team to examine whether Chicago Public Schools is wrongfully depriving special needs students of the services they need.  Read more about them, and much more, in this month’s eNewsletter here.
Thank you for your continuing support.  We could not do it without you.
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Meet Gracie Gramelspacher, Eagle-Eyes

If Gracie Gramelspacher had a superpower, she says she’d want to fly.  But it’s not so she could get away from things – it’s to be able to see everything.  “It’s about the view.”

IMAG1121.jpgGracie is a paralegal in LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, where she has a unique view of LAF’s work with immigrants, victims of domestic violence, and non-English-speaking clients.  Her work allows her to look at clients’ cases from a bird’s eye view and help survivors of violence and abuse find immigration solutions, including U-Visas and protections under the Violence Against Women Act.  She does client intake, gathers records, and presents cases to attorneys.  She also works directly with clients to help them gather documents and fill out very complicated U.S. Citizenship and Immigration forms – which are all in English, even though most of her clients are primarily Spanish speakers.

On those clients, she says: “I so admire the strength it takes, to survive and then report the domestic violence and assaults my clients see.  I’m learning about the cycle of domestic violence and what it means for the individuals living in that reality.  I want people to share that admiration, to see our clients as strong and resilient.  I often think of what I do as clients sharing their stories with me.  There’s a mutual respect and gratitude in what I do, and it means a lot.”

With a view like that, no wonder Gracie is a superhero everyone wants on their side!

Your support enables LAF to continue connecting survivors of abuse with heroes like Gracie. Make your tax-deductible contribution for 2017 at www.lafchicago.org.

A Fresh Look at Food Justice

Food insecurity—the condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food—is a patent symptom of poverty, so it’s no surprise that communities with the highest rates of food insecurity in Chicago largely overlap with the communities where LAF clients live and work. But with food insecurity linked to problems we see so many of our clients struggling with—like obesity, diabetes, and poor performance in school—it’s imperative we look at what justice and equity look like in the broader context of our food system.

“Our food syproducestem—all of the practices, processes, policies, and people involved in getting our food from the farm to the table and beyond—is shaped by the same structures of power and oppression that beset the rest of society,” says attorney Daniel Edelstein. He joined LAF in September on a one-year fellowship funded by his alma mater, Boston College Law School. In November, Daniel gave a presentation to LAF attorneys and staff that introduced major issues in the food system, and discussed how LAF’s work is involved while suggesting a “systems-oriented” perspective.

Much like other social systems (e.g., the criminal justice system, the public school system), the food system’s history, size, and complexity present a number of barriers to meaningful change. With 15 federal agencies involved in regulating the food system, Daniel explains, it’s hard to shake the silo mentality that keeps the many different stakeholders from addressing the system as a broader network of issues that connect and influence each other.

“Our industrial agriculture system was built on the back of slavery. Today, farmworkers still don’t have the same employment protections as everyone else, so we continue to live in a system where labor that brings our food to the table is forced and exploited,” Daniel says. “All of this has disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color, which traces back to the same inequalities and structures of oppression that we see in all of our work and throughout society on a daily basis.”

Over the last decade we’ve seen renewed discussion about where our food comes from, but most of what we know about our food is based on what’s been marketed to us. Many popular claims like “natural” or “boosts immunity” aren’t strictly regulated, causing confusion in grocery store aisles. “With all these claims and fancy packaging while we’re moving quickly through a grocery store, it makes it hard to say we have a real, thoughtful choice about what we’re buying,” Daniel says.

Despite the challenges facing those who seek justice in the food system, Daniel looks forward to thinking creatively about strategies and solutions. Chicago and Illinois are active and vibrant spaces for food justice: urban farms, wasted food reduction, food banks, worker centers, progressive institutional purchasing policies, are just some of the areas in which resources and communities are organizing. But there is more to do to ensure that these strategies are inclusive, solutions are comprehensive, and importantly for us at LAF to mobilize legal services. In November, Daniel and Miguel launched an alliance of community groups, advocates, and individuals that make up food system. “As attorneys, we have a lot we can bring to the table. My hope is that over this next year, we’re able to think together and with our communities to advance the food justice movement.”

For more information or to get involved with the fight for food justice, contact Daniel at DEdelstein @ lafchicago . org.

Meet Naeem Nulwala, Resource Ranger

IMAG1114Naeem Nulwala explains his job in very matter-of-fact terms, defining the boundaries of his work. “My job is to take in facts, come up with realistic outcomes, and do what I need to do to reach them.” But the cases Naeem handles as an attorney in LAF’s Children and Families Practice Group are rarely as simple as his summary makes them sound.

Much of his time is spent working with survivors of domestic violence, but “it isn’t just family law issues,” Naeem explains. Many clients have extensive legal problems beyond physical violence which stem from their abuse, including getting protection from abusers, finding housing, getting access to food, ensuring support for children, dealing with aggressive creditors, and more. Especially for survivors of abuse who live in poverty, the obstacles to reclaiming a sense of normalcy can seem endless – the key to handling domestic violence cases is having a good network of resources for all the client’s needs. “Referring clients to good resources lets me focus on how I can best help them – as an attorney.”

LAF is an integral part of survivors’ support networks because “there are minimal other resources out there for people who can’t afford an attorney. And many of the people we represent are already at a disadvantage.” Naeem and others at LAF help survivors obtain protection from their abusers and unravel all the related legal issues. “Legal aid can’t erase the realities of what happened,” Naeem says, “but it helps things start to get a little better.”

Your support enables LAF to continue making things better for survivors. Make your tax-deductible contribution for 2017 at http://www.lafchicago.org.

Meet Matt Linas, Housing Jedi

 

JediMatt

Much like Jedi use the Force to protect those in need, Matt Linas uses advocacy.

Before he came to LAF, Matt was involved in community organizing around evictions and foreclosures. Now as LAF’s Housing Advocate, he serves low-income clients living with HIV/AIDS. “I came to LAF because I saw how powerful it is to have legal support and representation in court,” he says.

Matt works specifically with clients living with HIV/AIDS, though they face all the same issues as the other populations LAF serves. As a tenant living in poverty, regardless of your status, accessible housing is limited and the threat of eviction looms large. But people living with HIV have a compounded obstacle on top of the stresses of poverty, Matt explains. “In order to keep the virus in check, it’s important that people living with HIV get their immediate needs met, which is where we can intervene to preserve their housing voucher, or help them find a new unit as soon as possible if they’ve already been evicted.”

If you don’t have housing, Matt says, your priorities shift. “You have to think about where you’re going to sleep tonight or get your next meal. When you live with that amount of stress and instability, you may not be able to plan around taking your medication every day or seeing your doctor when they’re running low and need to get them refilled.”

In Chicago, LAF is typically the last line of defense for people in poverty faced with an eviction—meaning the work Matt and his Housing colleagues do is often all that’s standing between someone having a home and being homeless. To deal with the pressure his position inevitably breeds, he uses martial arts. “It provides a physical and mental outlet, and it also changes the way I approach problem solving,” he says. “Rather than putting all my eggs in one basket, martial arts has trained me to use multiple tactics when faced with a challenge.”

That approach doesn’t stop with martial arts. In addition to casework, which is immediate and reactionary by nature, Matt co-chairs a task force that works on long-term strategies to get more housing subsidies for people living with HIV. “Even though we’re more so firefighters than we are policymakers, a cool part of my job is being able to work with community members and organizations towards long-term, sustainable solutions.”

Your support enables LAF to continue being a Force for good. Make your tax-deductible contribution for 2017 at www.lafchicago.org.

Elephant in the Room: #MeToo

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism.

We are in the midst of a watershed moment in how we respond to sexual harassment at work. The #MeToo movement has created a demand for predators to be held accountable for their actions. Survivors are no longer overly-scrutinized and held to an unattainable standard, nor are the abuser’s actions ignored simply because they are good at their job. As we watch the dominoes fall in politics, media, and the entertainment industry, we will continue to see more and more outcry of sexual harassment in other industries, because as all women know—this happens everywhere. And while the focus has been on high-powered industries where the survivors are rich and glamourous women, we must not forget to listen to and defend low-wage workers. Because the truth is that the harassment that occurs on the casting couch is the same reprehensible harassment that happens in the back of the kitchen at your local restaurant.

Women make up the majority of the low-wage workforce in the U.S. and women of color are disproportionately represented in these jobs. These workers face rampant levels of harassment by coworkers, supervisors, and customers. Restaurant workers alone file the highest number of claims for sex harassment and retaliation with the EEOC than in any other field.

These workers face barriers in reporting their harassers at every turn:

  • An African-American housekeeper, hired through a temp-agency, may fear being attacked by a hotel guest, but is warned by others to not raise this issue to her manager as he may label her as “difficult,” which will result in the temp agency banning her.
  • A server receives lewd and graphic text messages by her coworker. When she approaches the manager he quickly dismisses her complaint because he is friends with the accused.
  • The farmworker, who picks the pumpkins for our thanksgiving pies, may decide not to report a sexual assault because she knows it will result in the loss of her work visa along with future prospects for jobs the following summer.

The common theme in the reluctance to report is not only the likelihood of being called a liar, but of how dependent the workers are on their jobs. Women working low-wage jobs aren’t able to simply find new employment the next day. Often the heads of households, they are charged with child-care, which requires flexible hours–something most jobs don’t offer. They may work paycheck to paycheck–a very real circumstance when women are rarely paid an equitable wage compared to their male counterparts; and face an even wider gap if they are women of color. And for immigrant workers, the language-barrier or lack of status, makes it seem impossible to find a job that is free of violence.

At LAF, we represent these clients; workers who have suffered workplace sexual violence and are attempting to enforce their rights. We fight to help them achieve justice. We are also proactive by training other worker rights’ advocates at our annual Modern Day American Worker conference. Most importantly, we believe women when they come to us for help.

It should then be no surprise that we celebrate Time’s person of the year selection and see glimmers of our clients’ faces–the dishwasher, the factory worker, the custodian–on the cover. We hope you see them as well and that you take a stand to believe and defend them.