Whether it’s living on food stamps while paying off law school debt, or expanding LAF’s Woodlawn Legal Clinic on Chicago’s south side, Regina Hernandez doesn’t shy away from a challenge.
When she first joined LAF through AmeriCorps VISTA–the domestic service program that connects idealists and change makers from all walks of life to nonprofits working to fight poverty–Woodlawn saw an average of 12-15 clients per clinic. Now one year later, the two-hour monthly clinic sees an average of almost 40 clients, largely thanks to Regina’s ingenuity.
“At first, I was a little nervous to change things. I was more concerned with making sure I was following everything the previous VISTA had set in place,” Regina says. But as she settled into her new role, she learned how to make it her own. “I stopped asking and started doing—and then asking, what do you think? How could it be improved? It just felt better to be proactive.”
And her enthusiasm paid off. For instance, one of LAF’s biggest struggles is its congested phone system, partly due to funding shortages that have cut the number of intake specialists by almost half. Help desks and clinics like Woodlawn help free up the phone lines, but the phone menu used vague language to describe them (something like, “If you’d like to hear about our community clinics, press 9”). Realizing many clients aren’t familiar with ‘clinics’ outside of a medical context, she worked to change the language to something more widely understood.
That small change led to an explosion of calls—from 10-15 a week to more than 200 in a month. “Always be respectful, always work within the parameters you’re given, but at the same time, if you think something could be improved and you’re willing to take that on, go for it,” she says.
She also changed a question about domestic violence on the clinic’s intake form. “We’d get a lot of clients at Woodlawn who’d come in for help with some other issue like help with their utilities. They may not be ready or able to address the domestic violence, but might want to address it in the future,” Regina explains. She added the definition of domestic violence in italics next to the question, along with a domestic violence hotline they could call in case they wanted to address the issue at another time or in a different setting.
Along with managing the Woodlawn clinic, she oversaw the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk, which has also seen considerable growth in recent months thanks to expanded hours, increased staffing, as well as Regina’s outreach efforts.
As her year of service came to a close last month, she accepted a permanent position as Staff Attorney in LAF’s Volunteer Services Unit. Thanks to Regina for her dedicated service as VISTA Attorney, and congratulations on her new position!
Last month at our Annual Luncheon, LAF presented the Jerold S. Solovy Equal Justice Award to Dennericka Brooks, a dedicated Supervisory Attorney in our Housing Practice Group. This award is given annually to one attorney on LAF’s staff whose work embodies the work of Jerold Solovy, an attorney whose life’s work was given meaning by helping to change the legal system and improve the lives of people living in poverty. Dennericka lives up to that mission as well as anyone at LAF, and her speech at the Luncheon reminded all of us about the lifelong impact our work can have. We’ve highlighted a selection of it here.
“Every once in a while, I wonder what you see when you look at me. Do you see someone that DCFS threatened to remove from her family after an accident because we were poor? Do you see the little girl that in second grade was told by an adult that she couldn’t be a doctor and she should try something else? What about the middle school girl who went downtown with her teacher to a science fair and had someone ask her white male teacher if he was okay? Do you see someone who because of the poverty sometimes didn’t have heat or hot water? Who, because of gang infestation, looked down the barrel of a gun and was caught in gang crossfire more than once? Do you see someone that was exposed to domestic violence?
If you don’t look at me and see those things, I want you to start. I want you to see them because despite those things, I am here now. I want you to see the child of former LAF clients that was provided a safety net and given a little more stability because of legal aid. Our clients face obstacles like mine every day. It is also the humanity and kindness of others, including the attorneys at LAF, that children see when they step in and help. It’s important to know and believe that through our work, we also lift families out of poverty. Our children are watching. I was watching. It is the humanity of others that made me always want to help others. So I’d ask that everyone in this room be a Jerold Solovy: considerate, generous, humble. Accept the privilege that we have, acknowledge the responsibility given us because of our positions, and hold each other accountable as stewards of justice with the ability to remove barriers and break the cycle of poverty for impoverished families.
We affect the lives of not only the adults that we help, but also of the children. Our children see us, they see our intervention and our work propels our children to seek better, to do better, to help others. When you look out at our clients, see me. See what is possible if we keep working together to provide equal access to justice.”
Ask Diana White about her career and leadership at LAF, and she’ll regale you with stories of strategic plans, office moves, the world’s slowest PhD, labor strikes, broken bones, inspiring clients, book recommendations, and at least as many questions about your life as you can ask about hers.
It was early 1997 when Diana, then a partner at Jenner & Block, had been thinking about a career change and talking to people in various nonprofits, when she came across an ad in the National Law Journal seeking a new Deputy Director at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago. She sent her application to Sheldon Roodman, LAF’s Executive Director at the time. “He called me the day it hit his desk,” she quips.
When Diana started that March, she understood the urgency. Federal funding for legal aid had been cut by more than 25% the previous year, and a number of experienced poverty lawyers had left LAF. Only three weeks into the job, negotiations between LAF union and LAF management broke down. Diana’s job was to make sure that all LAF’s cases got covered during what became LAF’s biggest and longest strike to date. “I knew nothing about poverty law,” she admits. “I could just about keep Medicare and Medicaid straight, if I was reminded.”
But with help from her seasoned colleagues, she was a quick study. Charged with overseeing LAF’s special projects — which at the time included Housing, Immigration, Children, Adult SSI, Public Benefits, and Migrant Workers — Diana had to learn about a wide range of poverty-law issues. But she did know about writing briefs, organizing trial teams, and conducting discovery. And she quickly developed a deeper understanding of poverty and the systemic injustices that foster it.
“I think most people have no real conception of what poverty does to people, or how completely constraining it is when you can’t see any way to improve your situation and there’s no one you can rely on to help you,” Diana says. She recalls a case she worked on with Rich Cozzola, now Director of the Children and Families Practice Group, during her first few years at LAF. Their client, who we’ll call ‘James,’ had a daughter with a woman who turned out to be a prostitute. The mother disappeared one day, having sold the baby to a crooked lawyer — now disbarred — who arranged her adoption by an affluent family in Florida. James was unemployed and living on the south side of Chicago, and the adoption had been done quickly and without his knowledge. At trial, the judge concluded that James was a fine father, but that his child would have a much better life if she stayed with the family in Florida. LAF and James knew they had to appeal, but that process could take years — and James’ daughter might not even know him by the time the appeal was over.
“I remember thinking, how do we get him down there, so he can at least have visits? I didn’t know what to do,” Diana recounts. But James was determined to be with his daughter, and managed to save up enough money for a bus ticket to Florida where he stayed with his uncle and got a job working the night shift at a factory. They won the appeal, and James was able to be part of his daughter’s early childhood and eventually bring her home, thanks to his hard work and tenacity and Diana’s inexhaustible dedication to his case.
“Those are the sorts of things people don’t realize — the impossible choices people in poverty are faced with. They’ll say, how could someone have made that decision which, in hindsight, looks like a mistake? How could you have spent your rent money on textbooks for your oldest child, the first in the family to go to college? Well… how can you not?”
After ten years of working with remarkable clients like James, Diana began her decade-long tenure as LAF’s Executive Director in 2007. “There were so many things I wanted to do — not glamorous, but practical things. And this was my chance to do them,” she explains.
One of her first acts in her new role was to enlist a consultant to develop a strategic plan for LAF. At the time, LAF had a central office, but most staff worked in offices located in various neighborhoods throughout the city. After surveying staff from each of the neighborhood offices, it became clear that LAF needed to centralize its intake. “Because the neighborhood offices were so small, if someone wasn’t there, they just didn’t function. And staff from different offices weren’t communicating much with each other,” Diana explains. “So I thought, here’s a piece I can fix.” At the end of 2011 LAF moved to a central office and restructured into the five practice groups we have today. “Once people got down here, they enjoyed the chance to brainstorm and collaborate. The quality of the practice improved a lot.” Under Diana’s leadership, LAF also formed the Community Engagement Unit, which helps LAF maintain its presence within various communities after the neighborhood offices closed.
Another challenge Diana faced head on was the changing nature of legal aid funding. Because of recurrent cuts in government funding for legal aid — at the local, state and federal levels —LAF needed financial support from individuals, law firms, and corporations in order to keep its doors open. Thanks to Diana’s leadership, LAF has built a strong donor base, particularly in the Chicago legal community. “Chicago has this amazing civic pride,” she says. “I’ve lived in a lot of cities, but it’s really something here.” She sees LAF’s next big challenge as reaching people outside the legal community — helping them understand civil legal aid and its importance in fighting poverty and building stronger communities everywhere.
After 20 years of dedicated service at LAF, Diana looks forward to retirement with enthusiasm and welcomes incoming Executive Director John Gallo. Up next for Diana? Gardening, reading, volunteering at LAF’s Woodlawn Legal Clinic, traveling, and maybe even taking up the piano again. We are deeply grateful for Diana’s leadership and wish her a stress-free, well-deserved retirement.