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.

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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

 

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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.

Meet Rachel Zemke, Savior of Stability

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At LAF, clients never play the sidekick. Just ask Rachel Zemke, Equal Justice Works Fellow and Attorney in LAF’s Consumer Practice Group. “Being a counselor and a partner is an important part of being a lawyer,” she says.

She interned with LAF during law school and noticed how many of LAF’s clients were women taking care of multiple generations of their family. “I felt like one of the most important things that we were doing was helping someone become stable—not just for them, but also for their children or their parents or their nieces and nephews or grandchildren that also rely on them,” says Rachel. “It’s a way to make an impact beyond just your relationship with that client.”

Now, through her two-year fellowship, she’s focusing on consumer legal issues facing survivors of domestic violence. “Domestic violence is about someone else taking away control. To be a good advocate for survivors, it’s important to view your role as providing information so they can take back control,” she explains. “It’s about empowering them to make their own choices.”

As part of the Consumer Practice Group, she concentrates on protecting income and clearing credit through services like bankruptcy, foreclosure defense on marital homes during divorce, and defending against debt collections—especially “coerced debt,” the common practice in which an abuser pressures someone to take out debt in their name.

“It’s nice to be able to sit at the intersection of consumer and family law, to learn about both and how they affect one another,” Rachel says. She often co-counsels with attorneys from LAF’s Children & Families Practice Group, which she considers to be great experience for a young attorney. “I like that we can work together as a team, and that we can provide such comprehensive services to our clients.”

Your support enables LAF to keep moving forward, so that attorneys like Rachel can empower more people to find stability for themselves and their families. Make your tax-deductible contribution for 2017 at www.lafchicago.org.

September eNewsletter, ICJIA Grant, and Comprehensive Services

GPruz2When LAF secured a new $900,000 grant to fund comprehensive legal services for victims and survivors of abuse, there was a clear choice for who would lead the team: Gloria Pruzan. An attorney at LAF since 1979, she is now a Supervisory Attorney in LAF’s Public Benefits practice group.  Gloria will willingly explain, however, that the work she specializes in could just as easily fall into the Consumer practice group or the Children & Families group. Comprehensive services is what she’s been doing for years (proof: she is pictured here with the original sign from the southside neighborhood office from the ’70’s.).
This new Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) grant will enable LAF to assist victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking, and financial exploitation, many of whom have multiple interconnected legal issues. For example, leaving an abuser means more than getting an order of protection – to truly begin a new life a woman often needs a divorce, child support, and/or immigration help. She may also need food stamps and health insurance and special education services for her children. “We’re sort of a one-stop shop because clients can have more than one type of legal problem, and just a family law attorney can’t get them the public benefits help they need. But this grant allows us to really embrace that comprehensive work,” Gloria explains. This new grant funds 19 different LAF staff members across every Practice Group, to work together to provide those comprehensive services. It also helps LAF connect with 8 other Domestic Violence agencies around the county, which refer victims and survivors to LAF for help with their legal issues.
In addition to the new ICJIA grant-funded programs, Gloria also supervises the City Enrollment Paralegal Project. LAF staffs four paralegal desks in the offices of the City Department of Family Support Services. They help enroll people in Department of Human Services programs, like Medicaid, food stamps, and temporary cash assistance.  The paralegals also help people with their regular redeterminations of eligibility – a complicated paperwork renewal process, which you can read about in James’ story at right.  “That’s what’s so great about the enrollment paralegals,” Gloria explained.  “If you get a form to redetermine your enrollment and you don’t understand it, there’s someone there to help you understand, interpret it, fill it out, and fax it in for you.  Sometimes just that last challenge is the hardest one.” And these paralegals are on the ground, LAF’s eyes and ears into systemic problems – often as simple as correcting listed office hours or clarifying sign-in sheets and forms.
“People living in poverty face challenges in everyday life and don’t have the financial cushion that helps the rest of us with facing those challenges,” Gloria points out.  “If we can help someone with a challenge that’s threatening their food, health, or income, that’s a good thing.  Living in poverty doesn’t enable you to easily handle challenges that arise.”  This new grant, along with Gloria’s expertise, will help more people to handle all their legal challenges.